How China’s first autonomous driving unicorn Momenta hunts for data

Cao Xudong turned up on the side of the road in jeans and a black T-shirt printed with the word “Momenta,” the name of his startup.

Before founding the company — which last year topped $1 billion in valuation to become China’s first autonomous driving “unicorn” — he’d already led an enviable life, but he was convinced that autonomous driving would be the next real big thing.

Cao isn’t just going for the moonshot of fully autonomous vehicles, which he says could be 20 years away. Instead, he’s taking a two-legged approach of selling semi-automated software while investing in research for next-gen self-driving tech.

Cao, pronounced ‘tsao’, was pursuing his PhD in engineering mechanics when an opportunity came up to work at Microsoft’s fundamental research arm in Asia, putatively the “West Point” for China’s first generation of artificial intelligence experts. He held out there for more than four years before quitting to put his hands on something more practical: a startup.

“Academic research for AI was getting quite mature at the time,” said now 33-year-old Cao in an interview with TechCrunch, reflecting on his decision to quit Microsoft. “But the industry that puts AI into application had just begun. I believed the industrial wave would be even more extensive and intense than the academic wave that lasted from 2012 to 2015.”

In 2015, Cao joined SenseTime, now the world’s highest-valued AI startup, thanks in part to the lucrative face-recognition technology it sells to the government. During his 17-month stint, Cao built the company’s research division from zero staff into a 100-people strong team.

Before long, Cao found himself craving a new adventure again. The founder said he doesn’t care about the result as much as the chance to “do something.” That tendency was already evident during his time … Read the rest

Why Tesla and Uber won’t escape 25% tariffs — for now

Tesla and Uber both had requests for tariff relief rejected by U.S. trade officials, a decision that will force the companies to pay a 25% tariff or seek new suppliers.

Reuters was the first to report the decision by the office of the U.S. Trade Representatives. TechCrunch previously reported on the Trump administration’s refusal to exempt the “brain” of Tesla’s Autopilot technology from punitive import tariffs.

Last year, the Trump administration imposed 25% tariffs on a range of imports, including electronics, to try to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with China. Tesla and Uber are among the U.S. companies that have requested relief on those tariffs.

Tesla filed at the end of December a request for an exemption on the Model 3’s car computer, including its media control unit, connectivity board and advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) hardware. Uber was seeking an exemption on its Chinese-made electric bikes.

In a May 29 letter, the USTR denied Tesla’s requests, stating that the Model 3 car computer and center screen are products that are “strategically important” or “related to Made in China 2025 or other Chinese industrial programs.”

Made in China 2025 is China’s strategic plan to move away from manufacturing to produce higher-value goods, particularly in the areas of AI, electric vehicles and robotics. The White House has remarked that Made in China is a direct threat to U.S. domestic technology and automotive companies.

Tesla declined to comment on the decision.

Earlier this year, Tesla unveiled new custom chip designed to enable what it describes as full self-driving (FSD) operation for all of its new vehicles. Today, Tesla vehicles are not self-driving. 

However, the hardware is standard in all new Model 3, S and X vehicles and customers can pay an additional $6,000 for the FSD software package. The

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China opens Nasdaq-style board to lure tech firms back home

China’s much-anticipated Science and Technology Innovation board officially launched in Shanghai today, marking Beijing’s major step in drawing high-potential tech companies to list at home.

The new Star Market, first announced by President Xi Jinping in November, is expected to be a key fundraising avenue for tech companies from an array of stages, given its criteria (link in Chinese) are less stringent than other domestic boards. Beijing has over the past year encouraged local firms to become more self-reliant in producing chips and other core technologies as an escalating trade war threatens to cut China off the U.S. supply chain.

The new startup board began taking applications in late March and have so far received applications from 122 companies, according to information from the Shanghai Stock Exchange .

The tech bourse opened as the Hong Kong Stock Exchange next door got a big boost. China’s e-commerce titan Alibaba has filed confidentially for a second listing in Hong Kong, according to reports from Bloomberg and Reuters on Thursday, citing sources. A spokesperson for Alibaba declined to comment.

Rumors of Alibaba’s potential IPO have swirled for months, but the Hangzhou-based firm has recently accelerated its application process as the U.S.-China trade war intensifies, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

Other Chinese firms that want to be closer to home now have another option to raise equity. Through the new tech board, China will allow loss-making companies to list on an exchange for the first time. This will likely draw promising pre-profit tech firms that would have otherwise chosen to list in New York for more lax regulations.

For example, unprofitable companies with an income of at least 300 million yuan ($43.43 million) from the previous year … Read the rest

Luxembourg to get €100M investment from Chinese payments startup Pingpong

For financial services firms looking to enter Europe, Luxembourg has historically been a popular anchoring point for its political and economic stability as well as a favorable regulatory environment. Another bucketload of capital is coming to the country after Chinese fintech startup Pingpong announced to invest more than €100 million ($113 million) in Luxembourg in the coming years.

Founded in 2014, Pingpong has been celebrated by its home city Hangzhou — also Alibaba’s backyard — as a pioneer in the country’s booming cross-border ecommerce sector. Backed by one of China’s largest investment banks CICC, the startup collects payments for Chinese exporters selling through Amazon, Wish, Shopee, Newegg and some other 14 ecommerce platforms around the world, which means clearing local regulatory hurdles is key to its business.

Its European ambition does not stop with Luxembourg. Luo Yonglong, a partner at Pingpong, said at a Saturday event that within three years, the company’s accumulative investment on the continent will exceed 50 billion yuan (€6.39 billion or $7.21 billion).

Pingpong unveiled the proposed infusion at the weekend event centered around the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative, of which Luxembourg is a member. The financial injection provides clues to the role that private businesses play to help China link up more countries to BRI. It also seems like a timely boost to the alliance between the two countries, arriving just three months after Luxembourg agreed to join China’s ambitious global infrastructure program, and at a time when China’s trade tensions with the U.S. run high.

Pingpong’s tie-up with Luxembourg dates further back to 2017 when it secured a payments license in the putative financial gateway of Europe, thus giving it access to facilitate payment transactions between Chinese merchants and consumers throughout the continent.

“We are actively following the country’s Belt and Road … Read the rest

China’s Didi kicks off expansion in Latin America with moves into Chile and Colombia

The wheels are turning on Didi Chuxing’s first major expansion in Latin America after the Chinese ride-hailing firm announced moves into Chile and Colombia to double its presence in the region.

Didi said it rolled into Valparaiso, Chile’s third largest metropolis, and Colombian capital city Bogota this week. The company plans to expand beyond those cities over time, and, in terms of services, it said that it will add dedicated licensed taxis in Colombia this year.

Anchored in China, where it is the country’s dominant ride-hailing service, Didi began to place focus on international expansion last year and Latin America is a key part of its global ambitions.

In the region, Didi currently operates in Brazil — where it acquired local player 99 for $1 billion — and Mexico, but recent reports have linked it with more countries in Latin America. In February, Reuters reported that the company was hiring for operational staff in Chile, Peru and Colombia. Other reports have put its total headcount in Latin America at over 1,000 staff, that’s a clear indication of its intent for the region.

In a statement, Mi Yang — who leads Didi’s operations in Central and South America — called Chile and Colombia “two important centers of growth and innovation in the region.”

Outside of Latin America and its homeland, Didi is present in Taiwan, Japan and Australia, where it has other global connection through its investment deals. The company owns a significant stake in Southeast Asia-based Grab — it doubled down with a $2 billion investment alongside SoftBank in 2017 — as well as Bolt (formerly known as Taxify) across Europe and Africa, Ola in India and Lyft in the U.S.

Didi also has relations with Uber as a mutual investment was part of the … Read the rest