Connect with us

Uncategorized

The return of neighborhood retail and other surprising real estate trends

Published

on

The pandemic made remote work and on-demand delivery normal far faster than anyone expected. Today, as the world beings to emerge from the pandemic, location doesn’t matter like it did a year ago.

As shocking as it sounds, we could be entering a much better era for small, local businesses.

Modern society produced superstar cities filled with skyscraper office and residential buildings. Now, the populations that once thrived in these urban centers are deciding how to repurpose them for a post-pandemic world.

I caught up with ten top investors who focus on real estate property technology to get a sense of how they’re betting on the future.

They are optimistic overall, because the typically glacial real estate industry now sees proptech as essential to its future. However, they are the most unsure about the office sector, at least as we knew the concept before the pandemic.

They expect remote work to be part of the future in a significant way and foresee ongoing high housing demand in the suburbs and smaller cities. They are especially positive about fintech and SaaS products focused on areas like single-family home sales and rentals. Many are continuing to invest in big cities, but around alternative housing (co-living, accessory dwelling units) and climate-related concepts.

Most surprisingly, some investors are actually excited about physical retail. I examined the latest evidence and found myself agreeing. As shocking as it sounds, we could be entering a much better era for small, local businesses. Details farther down.

(And before we dig in below, please note that Extra Crunch subscribers can separately read the following people responding fully in their own words, with lots of great information I wasn’t able to explore below.)

When the office is more of a luxury

The pandemic combined with existing trends has made office renters “more akin to a consumer of a luxury product,” explains Clelia Warburg Peters, a venture partner at Bain Capital Ventures and long-time proptech investor and real estate operator.

Landlords who have “largely been in a position of power since the 1950s” now have to put the customer first, she says. The “best landlords will recognize that they are going to be under pressure to shift from simply providing a physical space, to helping provide tenants with a multichannel work experience.”

This includes tangible additional services like software and hardware for managing employees as they travel between various office locations. But the market today also dictates a new attitude. “These assets will need to be provided in the context of a much more human relationship, focusing on serving the needs of tenants,” she says. “As lease terms inevitably shorten, tenants will need to be courted and supported in a much more active way than they have been in the past.”

The changes in office space may be more favorable to the supply side in suburban areas.

“Companies are going to have to offer employees space in an urban headquarters,” Zach Aarons of Metaprop tells me. But many will also want to offer ”some sort of office alternative in the suburbs so the worker can leave home sometimes but not have to take a one-hour train ride to get to the office when needed.”

“If we were still purchasing hard real estate assets like many of us on the MetaProp team used to do in previous careers,” he added, “we would be looking aggressively to purchase suburban office inventory.”

Most people thought that remote work was here for good and would impact the nature of office space in the future.

Adam Demuyakor, co-founder and managing director of Wilshire Lane Partners, is generally bullish on big cities, but he notes that startups themselves are already untethering from specific places. This is a key leading indicator, in TechCrunch’s opinion.

“Something that has been interesting to watch over the past year is how startups themselves have begun to evolve due to newfound geographic flexibility from the pandemic,” he observes. “Previously, startups (especially real-estate-related startups) felt pressure to be ‘headquartered’ near where their customers, prospective capital sources and pools of talent were located. However, we’ve seen this change over the past few months.”

In fact, a recent report by my former colleague Kim-Mai Cutler, now a partner at Initialized Capital, highlights these trends in a regular survey of its portfolio companies. When the pandemic began, the Bay Area was still the number one place that founders said they’d start a company. Today, remote-first is in first place. Meanwhile, the portfolio companies are either going toward remote-first or a hub-and-spoke model of a smaller headquarters and more far-flung offices. Those who maintain some sort of office say they will require significantly less than five days a week. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they would also not adjust salaries based on location!

That’s a small sample but as Demuyakor says, “Startups (a) are frequently the most adept at utilizing the types of technology necessary for effective remote work and (b) simultaneously have to compete ferociously for talent. As such, I think we may be able to infer what the ‘future of work’ may look like as we observe what startups choose to do as the pandemic passes.”

Some landlords (with big loans) and large cities (with big budgets) are making a push to repopulate their offices quickly, and some large companies are loading up on office space or reaffirming their commitments to current locations.

Maybe efforts like these, plus the natural desire to network live, will bring back the industry clusters and pull everyone back to the old geographies? Maybe something close to 100% of what we saw before? What does that look like?

In such a scenario, some pandemic-era changes will persist, says Christopher Yip, a partner and managing director at RET Ventures. “A populace that has become sensitized to public health considerations may well gravitate toward solo forms of transportation (cars and bicycles) instead of mass transit, and parking-related and bike-sharing tech tools may likely thrive. From a real estate management perspective, technology that makes high-density living more comfortable and healthier will also increase, as consumers will become increasingly attracted to touchless technology and tools that facilitate self-leasing.”

Here’s the other scenario that he lays out “if a large number of jobs remain fully remote.”

“In theory, retail and office properties could structurally continue to suffer, and there has been some talk from government officials in certain regions about converting office properties into affordable housing,” he details. “If market-rate vacancies in cities remain high, there will be increasing demand for short-term rental platforms like Airbnb and Kasa, which enable landlords to gain revenue from hotel-type stays even in a market where residential demand is not strong.”

Vik Chawla, a partner at Fifth Wall, sketches out a middle-of-the-road scenario. “We believe that major cities will continue to attract knowledge workers and top talent post-pandemic,” he says, “though we expect remote work to become an increasingly critical component to the work economy, meaning that there will be increased flexibility in terms of time spent in the office versus elsewhere.”

This would still mean some sort of long-term price decline. “At a city level, this means that rents should taper relative to pre-pandemic levels due to lesser demand,” he believes. “That said, the real estate ecosystems in cities that have experienced growth throughout the pandemic will enter a period of innovation, and with it, see an increase in housing density, ADUs and modular building techniques.”

Andrew Ackerman, managing director of UrbanTech for DreamIt Ventures, also sees a gentle deflation of commercial office prices over time, followed by some complex space-management questions.

“[T]he return to work will likely result in more flexible work arrangements rather than the demise of the office which, as leases renew over the next 5-10 years, will lead to a gradual meaningful-but-not-catastrophic reduction in the demand for office space. The question is, what then happens to the excess office space?”

“Office to residential conversion is tricky,” he elaborates. “Layout is a major constraint. Many modern offices have deep, windowless interior space that is hard to repurpose. But even with narrow layouts, the structural elements are often in the wrong place. Drilling thousands of holes in structural concrete so you can move plumbing and gas to the right places is a heavy lift.”

This might just lead to new types of still-valuable uses? “One of the areas that I’m still investigating is whether co-living or microunits might be a more attractive conversion option. Turning an office break room and interior bullpens into a shared kitchen, dining area, and recreation or work flexspace may be a better way to repurpose deep interior space without a very costly retrofit. And if you don’t have to reroute too much plumbing, it may even be possible to convert (and convert back!) individual floors as market demand for office and residential space fluctuates over time.”

All respondents saw proptech being a core part of the next era of big cities (of course), however bullish or bearish they may be about the office itself.

A new equilibrium for residential

Housing availability has become even more limited in most places during the pandemic, with many more people looking to buy and fewer people wanting to sell. This is even though the previously hottest cities have seen major rental price drops.

Demuyakor of Wilshire Lane is staying focused on the housing problem, and solutions to it like co-living. “Despite the pandemic, it is still difficult for millennials and Gen Z to afford to live in the most expensive cities (New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc.) at current wage levels,” he says. “As such, we believe that we will continue to see demand for products and solutions that can continue to help alleviate costs and burdens of living in major cities. For example, we think that at its core, co-living is an economic decision. Solutions that continue to help people live where they want to live more easily (ADUs are another example of this) will continue to thrive.”

Casey Berman, managing director and general partner of Camber Creek, thinks that “cities will continue to attract people to live, work and play because they offer density and opportunities for experiences that people crave even more now. To the extent all of this is true, there will be renewed demand for urban spaces and properties to take advantage of that demand.”

He says that the firm has been investing in products to make dense living safer and more convenient and “we expect those solutions will become increasingly popular. Flex allows tenants to pay rent online in easier-to-manage installments and in the process makes it more likely that landlords will receive payment on time. Latch’s access control devices are in one out of 10 new multifamily buildings. A lot of people purchased a pet over the past year. PetScreening makes it easy to manage pet records and confirm when a pet is a service or support animal.”

Robin Godenrath and Julian Roeoes, partners at Picus Capital, generally share this viewpoint and describe how new living arrangements in cities could allow for more radical changes to how people live.

“Flexible living solutions will allow remote workers to spend time across different cities with a fully managed, affordable and safe rental option for short-to-long-term urban living,” he says, “while commercial conversion to residential will play a key role in driving down per square foot prices enabling long-term returning residents to afford less densified space. Although co-living densifies multifamily buildings, we believe it will remain an interesting sector as the continued shift to remote work will make living communities increasingly important considering the reduced social interaction on the job.”

But modern proptech is also making the suburbs and beyond more appealing in the long run, according to many. Great new technologies for living can exist anywhere you are.

Proptech has also helped fuel the new suburban boom. “There is an ongoing trend of reverse urban migration causing an uptick in the demand for suburban-style living,” he says. “Proptech companies have played a significant role in enabling this shift, specifically via digitizing the home buying, selling and renting transaction processes (e.g., iBuyers, alternative financing models and tech-enabled brokerages). Additionally, proptech companies have played a key role in reducing physical interactions through remote appraisals, 3D/VR viewings and digital communications thus enabling homebuyers and sellers to efficiently and safely transact throughout the pandemic.”

Ultimately, the same technologies that could make cities more affordable will also help out in the suburbs. “We strongly believe that the acceleration of the digitalization of the home transaction process coupled with the significant increase in demand for suburban-style housing and evolving buyer profiles (e.g., tech-savvy millennials) opens up a multitude of opportunities for proptech to significantly impact suburban living across construction, access and lifestyle. This includes companies focusing on built-to-rent developments, modular homebuilding, affordable housing, community building and digital amenities.

Many investors who we talked to highlighted the single-family rental market trend. Here’s Christopher Yip again from RET.

“One of the unheralded trends of the past decade has been the rise of the single-family rental (SFR) market,” he says “with a significant number of major investors moving into this asset class. The SFR space is poised to benefit from the migration from cities, and the tech that supports SFR will likely have positive ripple effects across the industry.”

“SFR portfolios are particularly challenging to operate efficiently and at scale; compared with a multifamily property, they have more distinct unit layouts and are more spread out geographically,” he explains. “Technology has the ability to streamline operations and maintenance for SFR operators, with smart home tools like SmartRent facilitating self-touring and management of these distributed portfolios. We’re bullish on this space and are keeping a close eye on proptech tools that serve this market.”

Andrew Ackerman of DreamIt agrees. “Single-family has been neglected, slowly growing more interesting both from an asset and proptech perspective for some time. For example, we invested in startups like NestEgg and Abode who service this ecosystem … prior to the pandemic. COVID has been good to these startups and brought more attention to the opportunities in single-family in general.”

Stonly Baptiste and Shaun Abrahamson, co-founders of Urban.us, already see a world of options unfolding across geographies, with choices like co-living and short-term rentals letting people find new lifestyles. “Portfolio companies like Starcity are really thriving as co-living doesn’t just solve for cost, but also for a key overlooked issue — access to community. We also see room for more nomadic lifestyles. A lot of the discussion about Miami is about people moving there, but it seems like a more interesting question for a lot of places is maybe whether or not people will spend a few months of the year there. So for remote workers this might mean places near specific activities like mountain biking, surfing, snowboarding etc. Starcity makes it easy to move between city locations and Kibbo takes this far beyond the city by building communities around van life.”

Here’s how all these changes are adding up for the suburban market, as mapped out by Clelia Warburg Peters of BCV.

“The residential transaction disruption is now settling in three core categories: iBuyers (who buy homes directly from sellers and ultimately hope to own the sell-side marketplace), neobrokers (who generally employ their agents and use secondary services such as title mortgage and insurance to increase their revenue) and elite agent tools (platforms or tools focused on the top agents).”

This combination of innovations are changing residential real estate as we know it. “[C]onsumers are increasingly open to alternative financing tools, including home-equity-based financing models (where you sell a stake in your home, or you buy into full ownership in a home over time). The growth and proliferation of these new models are consolidating the whole residential market so that brokerage sales commissions and commission from the sale of mortgage, title and home insurance are now functionally one large and intertwined disruptable market.”

The surprising revival of neighborhood retail

Humans seem to love the concept of a traditional Main Street full of bustling, walkable local businesses. But the hits have kept coming to the people trying to successfully operate independent retail storefronts.

E-commerce began cutting into traditionally thin margins with the rise of Amazon and the 90s wave of “e-tailers.” More recently, art galleries, high-end restaurants and boutiques became a harbinger of gentrification in many cities. Many commercial retail landlords in these locations aggressively priced rents as more residents moved in who could afford higher prices, ultimately contributing to gluts of empty storefronts in prime locations.

The pandemic seemed to be the final blow, with even the most loyal shoppers turning to order online while local businesses stayed closed.

And yet, a range of investors are strangely optimistic. Even though the pandemic upended social and economic activity for more than a year, most agreed that IRL retail experiences are an essential aspect of modern life.

“Humans are fundamentally social animals and I think we will all be hungry for in-person experiences once it is safe to return to them. Additionally, I think the shift away from working five days a week in the office is going to create a greater desire for ‘third spaces’ — not home, not a formal office environment,” said Peters.

“I do think we will continue to see more ‘Apple store’-type retail experiences, where the focus is less on selling inventory and more on creating an environment for customers to physically interact with goods and experience the brand ethos beyond a website. Because I anticipate that retail rents are going to be meaningfully lower at the end of the pandemic, I actually think we will see even more experimentation than we did pre-COVID. It will be a very interesting period for retail.”

Many others held views in this direction, whether they are investing specifically in retail-related tech or more generally in third-space ideas.

“It’s true that retail has been in flux for more than a decade; the list of common e-commerce purchases has expanded from books and clothing to prepared meals and groceries. It’s also true that the pandemic has accelerated e-commerce’s growth, to the detriment of brick-and-mortar retail,” says RET’s Yip. “But people are still human and crave in-person experiences. Even if cities never bounce back fully, major metropolises will still have enough foot traffic to support a fair amount of retail, and innovative models like pop-up shops can be brought in to help address vacancies. It should also be noted that the public markets still have some confidence in the retail space. While the major REITs struggled in early to mid-2020, many have recovered substantially, and several have actually surpassed their pre-pandemic figures. It has been a bad decade for retail — and a very bad year — but it is just too soon to close the book on the sector.”

Godenrath and Roeoes of Picus say movie theaters are just one example of a retail sector poised for success when public life resumes at scale post-pandemic.

“Cinemas, many of which are key shopping center anchor tenants, were already reinventing the traditional theater experience by offering a more holistic experiential solution (e.g., reserved seating, 4DX visuals, in-theater restaurants, cafes and bars) and the pandemic has led to an expansion of these offerings (i.e., private theater rentals and events). We have the opinion that this trend will continue to expand across the entire retail real estate industry from restaurants (immersive culinary experiences) to traditional retail (integrated online and offline shopping experiences) and believe that proptech will play a defining role in helping retail real estate owners identify potential tenants and market properties as well as in helping retailers drive in-store customer engagement and gain key insights into the customer journey.”

The internet is also a friend these days, surprisingly! “We also see a lot of potential for hybrid models combining online and offline experiences without friction,” they say. “Taking the fitness sectors as an example we can imagine a new normal where in-studio courses are broadcasted to allow a broader participant group and apps tracking fitness and health progress throughout in-studio visits and at-home workouts.”

I have a few additional reasons to believe in the future of retail that I didn’t hear from any of the investors I interviewed.

You can also see how retail intersects with many other solutions investors are betting on, particularly to improve the appeal of cities and solve for macro problems like climate change.

“Cities have some massively underutilized assets, perhaps the biggest being public spaces that are allocated to cars,” Baptiste and Abrahamson say. “So one change we think will become permanent is reallocating parking spaces away from private vehicles to micromobility (bike/scooter/board lanes, parking, etc.). We’re seeing a lot of demand for portfolio companies like Coord (manages curb space starting with commercial vehicles and smart zones), Qucit (manages bike and scooter share operations in many large cities) and Oonee (secure bike/scooter/board parking).”

That’s just the start of the virtuous cycle they foresee.

“As [car removal] happens, the use cases like logistics can shift to electric micro-EVs. Similarly, parklets or seating areas increase social spaces. The EU is setting the pace for banning cars, but overall reduced access to streets for cars is going to be a big change. And likely will make cities attractive — yes, you give up private living space, but you’re going to get a lot more common/social space. This is also likely to drive more co-living so you can decrease the cost basis for being in a city, but get a lot more from shared spaces, which have no real comparison in lower density communities.”

Demuyakor of Wilshire Lane is betting in the same direction.

“One of the key tenets of our overall strategy has always been a focus on space utilization and identifying the best ways technology can monetize underutilized spaces. This can be seen clearly with many of our newest investments: Stuf and Neighbor (monetization of basements, parking garages and other vacant spaces), MealCo (monetization of vacant kitchens), WorkChew (monetization of restaurant seating areas, hotel lobbies and conference rooms), and Saltbox (monetization of empty warehouses). We believe that landlords can certainly use these types of strategies to help mitigate increased levels of vacancies that we’re seeing across the real estate industry today in the medium term.”

If this thesis pans out, retail may become more about shared spaces. “With WorkChew in particular, which just announced funding this week, we’re seeing a ton of demand for their product both on the demand side and the supply side. Hotels and restaurants are excited to partner with them to monetize their less-utilized spaces and infrastructure,” said Demuyakor. “And of course, employers and companies love [it] as an easy amenity that can be offered to their hybrid workforces that increasingly want to spend more time out of the HQ office.”

I have a few additional reasons to believe in the future of retail that I didn’t hear explicitly from the investors I interviewed.

  • First, millions of new businesses have been created during the pandemic, to the surprise of even economists and policymakers. A large portion appear to have a very local angle, whether food delivery (cupcakes) or services (on-site haircuts) or internet-first products with strong local followings (much of Etsy). These entrepreneurs went internet-first and now, as commercial rents plummet, they have sufficient revenue to support a physical presence.
  • Second, most local business that have sustained themselves during the COVID-19 era figured out how to succeed on the internet. To see which ones in your vicinity are weathering the storm, just open one of your preferred on-demand delivery and services apps and place an order.
  • Third, as noted by respondents and available data, landlords are already starting to drop prices, creating a renter’s market for the first time in decades.
  • Fourth, there are whole new types of financing opening up to more traditional businesses that could enable any company with a successful online side hustle, hobby (or perhaps larger project) to get funding for expansion. (This reason is perhaps the most speculative, but we are trying to figure out the future here at TechCrunch.) For example, Shopify has just invested in Pipe.com, a new “platform for trading recurring revenue.” Although the companies are not saying much now about the relationship, it’s possible to imagine a bunch of successful small(ish) businesses on Shopify suddenly getting a new kind of capital infusion right as the math is suddenly much better for a storefront location.

If you roll all of this up with other broader shifts in how we think about cities, like making them more climate-friendly through allowing density and bike lanes, you can start to see a world emerging that sounds a lot more like the fantasies of a New Urbanist than the world before the pandemic.

At the same time, these concepts are being deployed across smaller cities, suburbs and towns: All will compete to offer the highest quality of living — unless the old network effects of industry clusters return miraculously.

And let’s say the industry clusters don’t cluster like they used to. It’s possible that many landlords, lenders and city budgets will have to retrench soon, creating a drag on the economies of otherwise-attractive cities.

Even in this case, you can imagine a rebirth for places like New York and San Francisco focused around housing, retail and amenities. Maybe one day, we’ll look back at recent decades as the bad old days before we collectively bottomed out during the pandemic and had to decide on the right answers for the long-term.

And with that, I invite readers to go check out the full sets of responses from the investors I interviewed. Each person offered a lot more than I was able to fit into this already-too-long article and is worth reading in detail. Extra Crunch subscription required, so you can support our ongoing coverage of these changes.

I’ll be covering the future of proptech and cities more soon. Have other thoughts about all of this? Email me at eldon@techcrunch.com.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

Continue Reading
Comments

Uncategorized

Pakistan temporarily blocks social media

Published

on

Pakistan has temporarily blocked several social media services in the South Asian nation, according to users and a government-issued notice reviewed by TechCrunch.

In an order titled “Complete Blocking of Social Media Platforms,” the Pakistani government ordered Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to block social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Telegram from 11am to 3pm local time (06.00am to 10.00am GMT) Friday.

The move comes as Pakistan looks to crackdown against a violent terrorist group and prevent troublemakers from disrupting Friday prayers congregations following days of violent protests.

Earlier this week Pakistan banned the Islamist group Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan after arresting its leader, which prompted protests, according to local media reports.

An entrepreneur based in Pakistan told TechCrunch that even though the order is supposed to expire at 3pm local time, similar past moves by the government suggests that the disruption will likely last for longer.

Though Pakistan, like its neighbor India, has temporarily cut phone calls access in the nation in the past, this is the first time Islamabad has issued a blanket ban on social media in the country.

Pakistan has explored ways to assume more control over content on digital services operating in the country in recent years. Some activists said the country was taking extreme measures without much explanations.

Continue Reading

Uncategorized

Oxbotica raises $13.8M from Ocado to build autonomous vehicle tech for the online grocer’s logistics network

Published

on

Ocado, the UK online grocer that has been making strides reselling its technology to other grocery companies to help them build and run their own online ordering-and-delivery operations, is making an investment today into what it believes will be the next chapter of how that business will grow: it is taking a £10 million ($13.8 million) stake in Oxbotica, a UK startup that develops autonomous driving systems.

Ocado is treating this as a strategic investment to develop AI-powered, self-driving systems that will work across its operations, from vehicles within and around its packing warehouses through to the last-mile vehicles that deliver grocery orders to people’s homes. It says it expects the first products to come out of this deal — most likely in closed environments like warehouses rather than open streets — to be online in two years.

“We are excited about the opportunity to work with Oxbotica to develop a wide range of autonomous solutions that truly have the potential to transform both our and our partners’ CFC [customer fulfillment centers] and service delivery operations, while also giving all end customers the widest range of options and flexibility,” said Alex Harvey, chief of advanced technology at Ocado, in a statement.

The investment is coming as an extension to Oxbotica’s Series B that it announced in January, bringing the total size of the round — which was led by bp ventures, the investing arm of oil and gas giant bp, and also included BGF, safety equipment maker Halma, pension fund HostPlus, IP Group, Tencent, Venture Science and funds advised by Doxa Partners — to over $60 million.

The timing of the news is very interesting. It comes just one day (less than 24 hours in fact) after Walmart in the US took a stake in Cruise, another autonomous tech company, as part of recent $2.75B monster round.

Walmart owns one of Ocado’s big competitors in the UK, ASDA; and Ocado has made its first forays into the US, by way of its deal to power Kroger’s online grocery business, which went live this week, too. So it seems that competition between these two is heating up on the food front.

More generally, there has been a huge surge in the world of online grocery order and delivery services in the last year. Earlier movers like online-only Ocado, Tesco in the UK (which owns both physical stores and online networks), and Instacart in the US have seen record demand, but they have also been joined by a lot of competition from well-capitalized newer entrants also keen to seize that opportunity, and bringing different approaches (next-hour delivery, smaller baskets, specific products) to do so.

In Ocado’s home patch of Europe, other big names looking to extend outside of their home turfs include Oda (formerly Kolonial); Rohlik out of the Czech Republic (which in March bagged $230 million in funding); Everli out of Italy (formerly called Supermercato24, it raised $100 million); Picnic out of the Netherlands (which has yet to announce any recent funding but it feels like it’s only a matter of time given it too has publicly laid out international ambitions). Even Ocado has raised huge amounts of money to pursue its own international ambitions. And that’s before you consider the nearly dozens of next-hour, smaller bag grocery delivery plays.

A lot of these companies will have had a big year last year, not least because of the pandemic and how it drove many people to stay at home, and stay away from places where they might catch and spread the Covid-19 virus.

But now, the big question will be how that market will look in the future as peoples go back to “normal” life.

As we pointed out earlier this week, Ocado has already laid out how demand is lower, although still higher than pre-pandemic times. And indeed, the new-new normal (if we can call it that) may well see the competitive landscape tighten some more.

That  could also be one reason why companies like Ocado are putting more money into working on what might be the next generation of services: one more efficient and run purely (or at least mostly) on technology.

The rationale of forking out big for autonomous tech, which is still largely untested and very, very expensive technology, to save money is a long-term play. Logistics today accounts for some 10% of the total cost of a grocery delivery operation. But that figure goes up when there is peak demand or anything that disrupts regularly scheduled services.

My guess is also that with all of the subsidized services that are flying about right now, where you see free deliveries or discounts on groceries to encourage new business — a result of the market getting so competitive — those logistics have bled into being an even bigger cost.

So it’s no surprise to see the biggest players in this space looking at ways that it might leverage advances in technology to cut those costs and speed up how those operations work, even if it’s just a promise of discounts in years, not weeks. Of course investors might see it otherwise if that doesn’t go to plan.

In addition to this collaboration with Oxbotica, Ocado continues to seek further investments and/or partnerships as it grows and develops its autonomous vehicle capabilities.

Notably, Oxbotica and Ocado are not strangers. They started to work together on a delivery pilot back in 2017. You can see a video of how that delivery service looks here:

 

“This is an excellent opportunity for Oxbotica and Ocado to strengthen our partnership, sharing our vision for the future of autonomy,” said Paul Newman, co-founder and CTO of Oxbotica, in a statement. “By combining both companies’ cutting-edge knowledge and resources, we hope to bring our Universal Autonomy vision to life and continue to solve some of the world’s most complex autonomy challenges.”

But as with all self-driving technology — incredibly complex and full of regulatory and safety hurdles — we are still fairly far from full commercial systems that actually remove people from the equation completely.

“For both regulatory and complexity reasons, Ocado expects that the development of vehicles that operate in low-speed urban areas or in restricted access areas, such as inside its CFC buildings or within its CFC yards, may become a reality sooner than fully-autonomous deliveries to consumers’ homes,” Ocado notes in its statement on the deal. “However, all aspects of autonomous vehicle development will be within the scope of this collaboration. Ocado expects to see the first prototypes of some early use cases for autonomous vehicles within two years.”

We’re speaking to Ocado and Oxbotica shortly and will update this post with more from that.

Continue Reading

Uncategorized

All the tech crammed into the 2022 Mercedes-Benz EQS

Published

on

Mercedes-Benz lifted the final veil Thursday on its flagship EQS sedan after weeks of teasers, announcements and even a pre-production drive that TechCrunch participated in. The company peeled off the camouflage of the EQS — the electric counterpart to the Mercedes S Class — and revealed an ultra-luxury and tech-centric sedan.

The exterior is getting much of the attention today; but it’s all of the tech that got ours from the microsleep warning system and 56-inch hyperscreen to the monster HEPA air filter and the software that intuitively learns the driver’s wants and needs. There is even a new fragrance called No.6 MOOD Linen and is described as “carried by the green note of a fig and linen.”

“There is not one thing because this car is 100 things,” Ola Kaellenius, the chairman of the board of management of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz, told TechCrunch in an interview the morning of the EQS launch. “And it’s those 100 little things that make the difference and that makes a Mercedes, a Mercedes.”

Mercedes is betting that the tech coupled with performance and design will attract buyers. This is a high-stakes game for Mercedes. The German automaker is banking on a successful rollout of the EQS in North America that will erase any memory of its troubled — and now nixed — launch of the EQC crossover in the United States.

Quick nuts and bolts

Before diving into the all the techy bells and whistles, here are the basics. The EQS is the first all-electric luxury sedan under the automaker’s new EQ brand. The first models being introduced to the U.S. market will be the EQS 450+ with 329 hp and the EQS 580 4MATIC with 516 hp. Mercedes didn’t share the price of these models. It did provide a bevy of other details on its performance, design and range.

The EQS that will be available in the U.S. has a length that is a skosh over 17 feet, precisely 205.4 inches long, which is the Goldilocks equivalent to the Mercedes S Class variants.

Mercedes-EQS

Mercedes EQS 580 4MATIC

The vehicle has a co-efficient drag of 0.202, which sneaks below Tesla’s Model S and the upcoming Lucid Motors Air, making its the most aerodynamic production car in the world. All EQS models have an electric powertrain at the rear axle. The EQS 580 4MATIC also has an electric powertrain at the front axle, giving it that all-wheel drive capability. The EQS generates between 329 hp and 516 hp, depending on the variant. Mercedes said a performance version is being planned that will have up to 630 hp. Both the EQS 450+ and the EQS 580 4MATIC have a top speed of 130 miles per hour. The EQS 450+ will have a 0 to 60 mph acceleration time of 5.5 seconds while its more powerful sibling will be able to achieve that speed in 4.1 seconds.

The EQS will have two possible batteries to choose from, although Mercedes has only released details of one. The heftiest configuration of the EQS has a battery with 107.8 kWh of usable energy content that can travel up 478 miles on a single charge under the European WLTP estimates. The EPA estimates, which tend to be stricter, will likely fall below that figure.

The vehicle can be charged with up to 200 kW at fast charging stations with direct current, according to Mercedes. At home or at public charging stations, the EQS can be charged with AC using the on-board charger.

Now onto some of the technological highlights within the vehicle.

ADAS

There are loads of driver assistance features in the EQS, which are supported by a variety of sensors such as ultrasound, camera, radar and lidar that are integrated into the vehicle. Adaptive cruise, the ability to adjust the acceleration behavior, lane detection and automatic lane changes as well as steering assist helps the driver to follow the driving lane at speeds up to 130 mph are some of the ADAS features. The system also recognizes signposted speed limits, overhead frameworks and signs at construction zones and includes warnings about running a stop sign and a red light.

Another new feature is the micro-sleep warning function, which becomes active once the vehicle reaches speeds over 12 mph. This feature works by analyzing the driver’s eyelid movements through a camera on the driver’s display, which is only available with MBUX Hyperscreen.

There are several active assist features that will intervene if needed. An active blind spot assist can give a visual warning of potential lateral collisions in a speed range from around 6 mph to 124 mph. However, if the driver ignores the warnings and still initiates a lane-change, the system can take corrective action by one-sided braking intervention at the last moment if the speed exceeds 19 mph, Mercedes said. The feature remains active even while parked and will warn against exiting if a vehicle or cyclist is passing nearby.

There is also an active emergency stop assist feature that will brake the vehicle to a standstill in its own lane if the sensors and software recognizes that the driver is no longer responding to the traffic situation for a longer period. The brakes are not suddenly applied. If the driver is unresponsive, it begins with an acoustic warning and a visual warning appears in the instrument cluster. Those warnings continue as the vehicle starts to slowly decelerate. Hazard lights are activated and the driver’s seatbelt is briefly tensioned as a haptic warning. The final step is what Mercedes describes as a “short, strong brake jolt” as an additional warning followed by the car decelerating to a standstill, with an optional single lane change if necessary.

Mercedes is also offering the option of DRIVE PILOT, which is an SAE Level 3 conditional automated driving system feature. This would allow hands free driving. Regulations in Europe prevent that level of automation to be deployed in production vehicles on public roads. However,  Kallenius told media in Germany on Thursday that the company is on “on the verge of trying to certify the first volume production car Level 3 system in Germany in the second half of this year,” Automotive News Europe reported.

The car that learns

Many of the technological gee-whiz doodads in the EQS tie back to an underlying AI that is designed to learn the driver’s behavior. That is achieved through software and a dizzying number of sensors. Mercedes said that depending on the equipment, the EQS will have up to 350 sensors that are used to record distances, speeds and accelerations, lighting conditions, precipitation and temperatures, the occupancy of seats as well as the driver’s blink of an eye or the passengers’ speech.

The sensors capture information, which is then processed by electronic control units (computers) and software algorithms then take over to make decisions. TechCrunch automotive reviewer Tamara Warren noticed the vehicle’s ability to learn her preference during a half day with the EQS.

Mercedes ran through a number of examples of how these sensors and software might work together, including an optional driving sound that is interactive and reacts to different parameters such as position of the accelerator pedal, speed or recuperation.

The intuitive learning is mostly apparent through interactions with the MBUX infotainment system, which will proactively show the right functions for the user at the right time. Sensors pick up on change in the surroundings and user behavior and will react accordingly. Mercedes learned from data collected from the first-generation MBUX, which debuted in the 2019 Mercedes A Class, and found most of the use cases fall in the Navigation, Radio/Media and Telephone categories.

That user data informed how the second-generation MBUZ, and specifically the one in the EQS, is laid out. For instance, the navigation app is always in the center of the visual display unit.

2022_Mercedes_EQS__79

Image Credits: Mercedes-Benz

The MBUX uses a natural language processing and so drivers can always use their voice to launch a radio station or control the climate. But Mercedes is really pushing the EQS’ intuitive learning capabilities. This means that as a driver uses the vehicle, items that might be typically buried in the menu will appear up front, or offered up depending on the time or even location of the vehicle.

“The car gets to know you as a person and your preferences and what you do,” said Kaellenius. “It’s almost like it serves up the option that you want to do next, before you even think about it you get.”

“You get a pizza delivered before you even get hungry,” Kaellenius said, jokingly. “That phenomenal in terms of intuition.”

According to Mercedes there are more than 20 other functions such as birthday reminders that are automatically offered with the help of artificial intelligence when they are relevant to the customer. These suggestion modules, which are displayed on the zero-layer interface, are called “Magic Modules.” Here is how it might work: if the driver always calls a particular friend ore relative on the way home on certain evenings, the vehicle will deliver a suggestion regarding this particular call on this day of the week and at this time. A business card will appear with their contact information and – if this is stored – their photo, Mercedes said. All the suggestions from MBUX are coupled with the logged-in profile of the user. This means that if someone else drives the EQS on that same evening, with their own profile logged-in, this recommendation is not displayed.

If a driver always listens to a specific radio program on their commute home, this suggestion will be displayed or if they regularly use the hot stone massage, the system will automatically suggest the comfort function in colder temperatures.

This also applies to the vehicle’s driving functions. For example, the MBUX will remember if the driver has a steep driveway or passes over the same set of speed bumps entering their neighborhood. If the vehicle approaches that GPS position, the MBUX will suggest raising the chassis to offer more ground clearance.

Health and wellness

Remember those sensors? There’s a way for drivers to take it a step further and link their smartwatch — Mercedes-Benz vivoactive 3, the Mercedes-Benz Venu or another compatible Garmin — to the vehicle’s so-called energizing coach. This coach responds to the user’s behavior and will offer up one of several programs such as “freshness,” “warmth,” “vitality,” or “joy” depending on the individual. Via the Mercedes me App, the smartwatch sends vital data of the wearer to the coach, including pulse rate, stress level and sleep quality. The pulse rate recorded by the integrated Garmin wearable is shown in the central display.

What does this all mean in practice? Depending on the user’s wants and the AI system’s understanding of what he or she wants, the lighting, climate, sound and seating might change. This is, of course, all integrated with the voice assistant ‘Hey Mercedes’ so drivers can simply make a statement to trigger the program they want.

If the driver says “I am stressed,” the Joy program will be launched. If the driver says “I’m tired,” they are then prompted to take a break the Vitality program.

Mercedes S Class owners might already be familiar with these options, although the automaker notes that EQS builds on the system. There are now three new energizing nature programs called forest glade, sounds of the sea and summer rain as well as training and tips options. Each program launches different and immersive sounds, which created in consultation with the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton. For instance, “forest glade” will deliver a combination of birdsong, rustling leaves and a gentle breeze. The program is rounded off by warm music soundscapes and subtle fragrance.

Sounds of the Sea will produce soft music soundscapes, wave sounds and seagull sounds. Blasts of air from the air conditioning system completes the effect. Meanwhile “summer rain” offers up sounds of raindrops on leafy canopies, distant thunder, pattering rain and ambient music soundscapes.

2022_Mercedes_EQS__64

Image Credits: Mercedes-Benz

For those long drives which require a break, Mercedes added a power nap feature. Once power nap is selected (and no never when driving), the program runs through three phases: falling asleep, sleeping, and waking up. The driver’s seat moves into a rest position, the side windows and panorama roof sunshade are close and the air ionization is activated. Soothing sounds and the depiction of a starry sky on the central display support falling asleep, according to Mercedes. Once it is time to wake up, a soundscape is activated, a fragrance is deployed and a brief active massage and seat ventilation begins. The seat raises and the sunshade in the roof liner opens.

Voice

As mentioned before the “Hey Mercedes” voice assistant uses natural language processing and can handle an array of requests. Mercedes said the assistant can now do more and certain actions such as accepting a phone call can be made without the activation keyword “Hey Mercedes.” The assistant can now explain vehicle functions.

The assistant can also recognize vehicle occupants by their voices. There is in fact individual microphones placed at each seating area within the vehicle. Once they have been learned, the assistant can access personal data and functions for that specific user.

The voice assistant in the EQS can also be operated from the rear, according to Mercedes.

These personal profiles are stored in the Cloud as part of “Mercedes me.” That means  the profiles can also be used in other Mercedes-Benz vehicles with the new MBUX generation. Security is built in and includes a PIN and then combines face and voice recognition to authenticate. This allows access to individual settings or verification of digital payment processes from the vehicle, the automaker said.

Screens and entertainment

Finally, yes the screens. All of the screens. The 56-inch hyperscreen gets the most attention, but there are screens throughout the EQS. What is important about them is how they communicate with each other.

The hyperscreen is actually three screens that sit under a common bonded glass cover and visually merge into one display. The driver display is 12.3 inches, the central display is 17.7 inches and front passenger display is 12.3 inches. The MBUX Hyperscreen is a touchscreen and also throws in haptic feedback and force feedback.

“Sometimes when I think about the first design and what we’ve actually done here, it’s like, ‘Are we mad to try to create a one meter 41 centimeters curved bonded glass, one piece in the car,” said Kaellenius. “The physical piece in its own right — It’s a piece of technological art.”

2022_Mercedes_EQS

Image Credits: Mercedes-Benz

A lot of attention was paid to the backseat because the EQS, like its S Class counterpart, are often used to chauffeur the owner. Mercedes won’t call this a rear-seat entertainment system and instead refers to it as multi seat entertainment system because everything is connected to each other.

Kaellenius explained that if a driver wants the two rear passengers to watch a different movie, a simple drag and swipe motion on the main screen will throw that new programming back to the rear. The passengers can also throw movies from left to right.

Continue Reading

Trending