My throat is sore from touting New York’s tech prowess, which I realize has been for naught. Almost as quickly as the balloons from the Mayor’s celebration lost their air did Amazon announce it was leaving the Big Apple. The blow to our local venture community is like a sucker punch to the gut. While the biggest direct losers will be the people of Long Island City, long-term the proponents against innovation have branded the five boroughs as the capital of the luddites.
Amazon has moved on as quickly as its same-day deliveries by announcing, almost concurrent with its breakup call to Governor Andrew Cuomo, more than a billion dollars of new funding for electric vehicles and self-driving cars. On February 14th, The New York Times heralded Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez‘s proclamation, “Anything is possible: today was the day a group of dedicated, everyday New Yorkers & their neighbors defeated Amazon’s corporate greed, its worker exploitation, and the power of the richest man in the world.” The next day the paper’s tone was painstakingly different with an article highlighting the e-tailer’s expanding portfolio of transportation investments with the recent deployment of $700 million in Tesla competitor, Rivian, and $500 million in Aurora, an autonomous driving startup. Commenting on the news, Matt DeLorenzo, an editor with Kelley Blue Book, explained “For Amazon, this small investment is a good way to enlarge their bet on the E.V. automotive market without having to tool up a plant to find out if it will fly. Over time, the Rivian investment could give Amazon a starting point to own and operate an in-house package delivery business.”
Rivian was founded by MIT engineer RJ Scaringe almost a decade ago and is one of the most exciting new developments to hit the auto industry’s fastest growing category – trucks. In the past twenty years, light trucks have skyrocketed to 68% of all vehicles sold in 2018, up from 49% eight years earlier and 32% in 1990. In addition to running 400 miles on a single charge, Scaringe’s electric truck is priced under one hundred thousand dollars with an array of built-in sensors offering Level 3 autonomy. The founder imagines his invention being used in new creative ways, beyond just hauling loads. “Let’s say you are in a national park. We can give you a guided tour of that park, you know, narrated and explaining what you’re seeing, but it’s like the vehicles are on ‘digital rails,’ sort of Jurassic Park style, as it drives around the park. These are some of the features we’re gonna be showing over the course of next year,” declared Scaringe in January.
Most industry insiders echo DeLorenzo sentiment that Amazon’s investment is about cost savings for its shipping empire. Adam Jonas, analyst with Morgan Stanley, stated in his missive on the day the funding was announced that “AMZN has a vested interest in managing the marginal cost of its transport and logistics expenses. Dense networks, predictable routes, and start-stop duty cycles are ideal for all-electric vehicle architectures. It’s Amazon. Do we really need to elaborate here?” Jonas did elaborate last month when he described how the e-commerce powerhouse is building a “global, end-to-end [logistics] network covering all transportation modalities.” In 2018, Bezos’ company spent $27 billion on worldwide shipping, in addition to extending its own fleet of planes, oceanic vessels, trucks and unmanned rovers. During the past six months, Amazon has been moving at a more feverish pace with new industry partnerships, vehicle purchases and piloting robotic deliveries around their Seattle offices.
The mushrooming portfolio of Amazon’s holdings reached new heights this month with the company leading the Series B round for Aurora. The Silicon Valley startup was founded by a triumvirate of visionary technologists: Waymo’s former Chief Technology Officer, Chris Urmson; Tesla’s former Chief Product Officer, Sterling Anderson; and the founder of Uber’s Advanced Technology Center, Drew Bagnell. Explaining the move, the $800 billion publicly traded company released a statement to CNBC, remarking “We are always looking to invest in innovative, customer-obsessed companies, and Aurora is just that. Autonomous technology has the potential to help make the jobs of our employees and partners safer and more productive, whether it’s in a fulfillment center or on the road, and we’re excited about the possibilities.”
Amazon watchers are curious if the company is starting to put together the pieces to launch its own self-driving vehicle division. In 2017, The Wall Street Journal revealed that internal teams within the retail giant have been charged with the responsibility of exploring the adoption of unmanned systems across the supplychain, from drones to forklifts to rovers to commercial vehicles. Already, social media was abuzz last month with autonomously driven Amazon Prime 18-wheelers barreling down Interstate 10. The technology company behind the wheel, Embark, is also backed by Sequoia – the same venture capital firm that co-invested with Bezos in Aurora. Embark brags of a 100+ convoy of rigs moving goods from Phoenix to Los Angeles for such iconic brands as Electrolux and Ryder. When asked about Amazon, its 23-year founder Alex Rodrigues curtly responded, “Embark moves freight for a number of major companies on the I-10, however we cannot discuss any company specifically as our relationships are confidential.” In parallel with these endeavors, Amazon joined Toyota’s “e-Palette Alliance,” a driverless platform for multi-use mobility applications, including delivery. At CES, Akio Toyoda, Toyota’s President expressed, “This announcement marks a major step forward in our evolution towards sustainable mobility, demonstrating our continued expansion beyond traditional cars and trucks to the creation of new values including services for customers.” The two companies are working closely to roll out the first fleet at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Unbeknownst to most observers is the fact that Amazon did unveil a robocar three months ago in Las Vegas. AWS DeepRacer is a fully autonomous vehicle, worthy of a Level 5 rating, at 1/18th the scale of a real automobile. The purpose of the toy is to lure machine learning scientists to its Cloud Server, enabling engineers to easily simulate unstructured environments within a real moving vehicle. At the annual Cloud computing gathering, Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services (AWS), proclaimed “This is the world’s first global autonomous racing league open to everyone.” Similar to DeepRacer, AWS had its origins as an internal initiative to support third-party vendors. A decade and a half later, it has become its own profitable business unit. As no one knows where all this is headed, I am reminded of Jassy’s reflection on the founding of AWS, “I don’t think any of us had the audacity to predict it would grow as big or as fast as it has.”