Mcity Expert Weighs In On Autonomous Driving

“People tend to overestimate the amount of change that can happen in the near-term, and understate it in the long-term.” Huei Peng, Director of Mcity

Last week we made a trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan to hear more about Mcity. Mcity is a public-private partnership that focuses on the research, development, and deployment of connected and automated vehicles.  It runs the Mcity Test Facility, a 32-acre proving ground for advanced mobility vehicles and technologies, which opened in 2015 at the University of Michigan.  The Mcity Test Facility has eight connected intersections, a traffic control center, cameras, radars, and a small fleet of its own fully-automated driverless vehicles. The public-private partnership is comprised of more than 65 industry members including: BMW, Ford, GM, Honda, Toyota, Intel, Qualcomm, and State Farm.  It also leverages many government funded projects, from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Mock city approach. While there are other paved test facilities used for connected and autonomous vehicle testing, Mcity is the first purpose-built mock city in the United States designed specifically for autonomous driving research.  We see this mock city approach as an important avenue to advance autonomy. It’s important to note that WayMo and Uber’s projects in Phoenix and Pittsburgh are testing largely on public roads.  Testing in a controlled environment such as the Mcity Test Facility has many benefits: the tests are safer, cheaper, faster, and repeatable.

Importance of DSRC. One focus at Mcity is dedicated short-range communications, or DSRC. DSRC is designed specifically for automotive safety applications, and enables vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-infrastructure communications with an effective range of 1000 feet.  DSRC, like other wireless communications, does not need line-of-sight visibility to detect potential safety threats, such as an unseen vehicle ahead stopping suddenly in a snowstorm. DSRC can essentially serve as another sensor, providing useful vehicle and traffic information to support autonomous driving. We’re surprised to hear that many traditional auto manufactures believe DSRC makes cars safer, but WayMo and Tesla are not taking advantage of its benefits.

When will we have self-driving cars? Heading into our visit, we wanted to get a read for when consumers will be able to purchase a fully autonomous vehicle in the United States. Peng cautioned that while autonomous vehicles are ready for some niche and limited applications, anytime, anywhere driverless vehicles may take longer than we think, commenting that “developing a car that is 90% safe is relatively easy, 99% safe is harder, and the remaining 1% will take a very long time.” While Peng stopped short of predicting a roll out year, our sense is that 2025 will be the year when some autonomous vehicles are on par with, or better than, average human drivers in most driving conditions. It is clear that a lot needs to happen between now and the time we reach full autonomy. Peng illustrated this in an analogy that today self-driving cars are in the relatively early stages of development, much like planes before the airline industry invested a tremendous amount of time testing new technologies as it moved to fully automated planes like the fly-by-wire Boeing 777.   Getting to that level of readiness is necessary for autonomous driving to reach mainstream use, and will require much more evaluation and testing.

We took our findings from Mcity and applied it timing of Tesla autonomy, AI and auto, and quality of miles driven data. It’s important to note that the insights below are attributed to Loup Ventures.

We’re believers in Tesla, despite the fact we think they’ll miss their autonomy launch target. We expect Tesla to miss their 2019 autonomy launch target, and see 2022 as more realistic roll out year. Elon Musk has been clear that he expects each Tesla made today to be autonomous in 2019. What’s not clear about the 2019 target is what level of autonomy will be reached. At the recent Model 3 hand-off event, Musk made a reference to sleeping in your vehicle as an acceptable activity in autonomy, suggesting their 2019 goal is to reach the Level 4 or Level 5. Getting to Level 5 is a light year leap from Level 4. Level 4 autonomy is where no driver is needed, but the vehicle’s speed, range, and weather conditions (snow is a material problem) are limited. Level 2 autonomy is available today in some production cars as advanced driver assistance. It’s important to note, Tesla’s approach is evolutionary, moving Autopilot to Advanced Autopilot, and finally to self-driving. This is different than WayMo’s revolutionary approach of entering the market with a Level 4 or 5 autonomous vehicle.

AI’s fit. When we think about AI being better than humans, we think of cases where machines have defeated humans, like in chess or video games. These examples are in a world with a finite number of choices. On the other hand, driving in the real world has an infinite number of choices. WayMo, Uber, and Tesla are at an advantage when it comes to tackling these infinite choices, given that they’ve already logged significant miles to feed their respective self-driving neural networks. We believe the miles driven gap will be hard for new self-driving players to close. Because the problem is so complex, the neural network will need to learn from hundreds of billions of miles (today we are sub 2 billion miles). Also, consider that a car can only drive on roads that its trained on, so a U.S. autonomous car can’t drive in China.

Quality of data. While it’s true AI with more miles is better than fewer miles, it’s important to understand the distinctions between data captured by each player. We believe Waymo’s 3 million miles have saved most if not all of the critical data, and we have questions regarding how much data is stored and shared back from Tesla’s owners. Most Tesla data is discarded, since a Wi-Fi connection once a week doesn’t have enough bandwidth to share all of the data.

We left our visit to Mcity with a better sense of how traditional auto and tech companies are approaching autonomy. In addition, we reached a few new insights about the timing question, including the fact that the timing question is less relevant. We think back to Peng’s flight analogy, and believe we’re underestimating the significance of change autonomous vehicles will bring to the world.

Disclaimer: We actively write about the themes in which we invest: artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and augmented reality. From time to time, we will write about companies that are in our portfolio. Content on this site including opinions on specific themes in technology, market estimates, and estimates and commentary regarding publicly traded or private companies is not intended for use in making investment decisions. We hold no obligation to update any of our projections. We express no warranties about any estimates or opinions we make.

Massive VCSEL Laser Order Confirms Apple Continues To Bet Big on Augmented Reality

Following encouraging comments from Apple’s leading VCESL laser supplier, Lumentum (LITE), on their FQ4 conference call this morning, we have become incrementally more upbeat on Apple’s next iPhone launch, and specifically the number of phones that will have advanced 3D sensing capabilities enabling augmented reality applications. We believe Lumentum is one of two to three company’s supplying Apple with VCSEL laser diodes, which is a key technology that adds advanced 3D sensing capabilities.  Given Lumentum’s comments around $200m in bookings for the rest of CY17 (up from $5m in FQ4), as well as demand trends throughout 2018, we have become incrementally upbeat on the impact Apple’s next iPhone launch will have on the company and on the augmented reality industry. In total, we expect 55m 3D sensing enabled iPhone’s in 2017, going to 160m in 2018.

What They Said. In the June-qtr, Lumentum recorded $5M in 3D sensing revenue, but more impressively they received over $200M in bookings in the quarter, which they believe will all be shipped by CY17. We believe the majority, if not they entire order, is all being shipped to Apple. We believe these comments further confirms 3D sensing (and in-turn AR applications) will be a focus feature in the next iPhone. In addition, Lumentum highlighted they have increased VCSEL laser capacity by 25 – 30% from what they anticipated only one quarter ago.  Given the uptick in Management’s demand forecast, we believe advanced 3D sensing capabilities will be integrated in more iPhones than what most were previously expecting.

We also want to highlight Lumunetum acknowledged they are working with multiple customers, but one customer (aka Apple) is accounting for most of the demand. We believe Lumentum and others supplying VCSEL lasers are supply constraint and shipping everything they can manufacture. We believe Apple has secured a high percentage of all VCSEL lasers created, which we view as a large competitive advantage and will make Apple a leading AR player in the smartphone space.

September iPhone Launch Update. We believe Apple’s next iPhone launch remains on track to be released in September. We anticipate the company will ship 133M units in the 2H of CY17. Assuming Lumentum controls ~50% of the total consumer VSCEL laser market, the majority of all VCSEL lasers produced are going to Apple, and the total VCSEL laser cost (high and low-end) is ~$6 – 7, we believe 55M new iPhones (43%) will incorporate VCSEL lasers, enabling advanced 3D sensing capabilities. Given Lumentum’s comments about demand for VCSEL lasers growing in the coming quarters, as well as well into 2018, we believe this technology will be embedded in a higher-percentage of phones in CY18. Given all VCSEL suppliers are capacity constraint, we believe ~40% of iPhones shipped in 1H of CY18 will include VCSEL lasers, but as VCSEL laser manufacturing capacity is added, we believe ~85% of the new iPhones shipped in 2H of CY18 will incorporate 3D sensing capabilities. Based on these assumptions, we believe Apple will ship a total of 239M iPhones in CY18, of which 160M or 67% will include 3D sensing.

3D Sensing Financial Impact For Apple (Higher Margins). We also believe the iPhone enabling 3D sensing will be positive to the company’s bottom line. We anticipate the high-end iPhone SKU will incorporate a low-end and high-end VCSEL laser. The low-end will be front facing, while the high-end laser will be on the back side of the device. We believe the low-end lasers will cost $2 – $3, while the high-end lasers will range from $3 – $4. When factoring in manufacturing costs the total bill of materials could cost ~$20. We believe the high-end iPhone will market for ~$950, which the company will have added ~$100 to the price to incorporate 3D sensing. This nets in an 80% gross margin  up sell to the AR rich iPhone, compared to Apple’s overall gross margin of ~40%. In addition, given Lumentum’s comments about increasing laser capacity more than what they expected one quarter ago, we believe these lasers may be embedded in more that just the high-end SKU.

3 Key Takeaways. Following, these positive data points, we have three key takeaways regarding the upcoming iPhone launch. 1) The next iPhone launch remains on track to be released in September. 2) Advanced 3D sensing technologies are likely going to be integrated in more phones that previously anticipated. 3) This, coupled with the release of Apple’s ARkit in June at WWDC, is evidence that Apple continues to bet big on AR.

Disclaimer: We actively write about the themes in which we invest: artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and augmented reality. From time to time, we will write about companies that are in our portfolio. Content on this site including opinions on specific themes in technology, market estimates, and estimates and commentary regarding publicly traded or private companies is not intended for use in making investment decisions. We hold no obligation to update any of our projections. We express no warranties about any estimates or opinions we make.

Tesla: Short Term vs. Long Term

People tend to overestimate what happens in short-term, and underestimate what happens in the long-term. We believe that notion will define the Tesla story over the next six years. We caution that it will take time for the Tesla story to unfold, and that there will be disappointments along the way, but Tesla’s Jun-17 quarter results and outlook around production and demand suggest the company is on a track to be a significant beneficiary in the global paradigm shift to EV and autonomy, all while producing affordable vehicles. Traditional auto is in a tight spot, dogged by legacy engineering (both on vehicles and manufacturing), and high labor costs. Tesla’s biggest challenge is ramping production, and, to a lesser extent, the threat of other tech companies (WayMo, Baidu, Apple).

Key Takeaways From The Quarter. Tesla maintained its outlook around key expectations including Model 3 production ramp, cap ex spend and profitability. The company also achieved slightly higher gross margins in Jun-17 than expected. In addition, there was commentary that in the past 5 days, they have not seen cannibalization of Models S and Model X from Model 3.  Instead, there has been an increase in both Model S and Model X orders, plus an uptick in Model 3 reservations to an average of 1,800 per day. Tesla clarified that there are 455k net reservations for Model 3, and that the “greater than 500k” reservations comment Musk made last Friday was 518k gross reservations.

3 Additional Gigafactories Are Coming. On the call, Musk mentioned that there are plans for Gigafactories 3, 4 and 5. One of these will likely be in the US, one in Europe, and one in China. We believe it will take 3-6 years to build these additional factories. This is significant for Tesla, as other automakers need to build factories at a similar scale and have yet to even break ground on their version of a Gigafactory. This underscores the structural lead Tesla is slowly building over traditional auto manufacturers as it relates to EV battery production.

Brace for Future Disappointments. As we’ve mentioned, this will take longer and be bigger than most people think. Our belief that it will take longer implies that there will be disappointments along the way. Here’s our best guess at the top 6 disappointments over the next two years: 1) Tesla may need to raise more money. 2) Tesla may miss on production targets by a quarter or two. 3) Full autonomy may come as late as 2021, not in 2019. 4) There may be a need for another factory to grow annual production above ~600k vehicles. 5) Demand may be negatively impacted when US tax incentives are reduced in 2019. 6) We’ll continue to see competitive announcements from other auto manufacturers and tech companies. While these disappointments will fuel controversy around the story, we believe they do not change the long-term potential of Tesla.

Tesla’s stealth advantage. Not captured in the quarterly results is something much bigger: Tesla stakeholders are on a shared mission to change the world. Tesla’s stakeholders include employees (all of which are shareholders, from the management team to the custodians), Tesla owners, shareholders, and suppliers.

Changes to our Model:

2017 Unit Shipments Adjustments

  • Vehicle delivery estimates increased from 101K to 105K.
  • Adjustment is due to higher Model S and X unit delivery assumptions based on positive comments on the call.

2018 Unit Shipments Adjustments

  • Vehicle delivery estimates increased 308K to 316K.
  • Adjustment is due to higher Model S and X unit delivery assumptions based on positive comments on the call.
  • Previously modeling 4% Y/Y decline in Model S and X unit growth, but changed to flat growth.

2017 Revenues, Margins, EPS Adjustments

  • Revenues increased from $11.2B to $11.8B; driven by higher model S and X unit deliveries.
  • Gross margins decreased from 23.4% to 22.7% due to lack of scale efficiencies related to Model 3 ramp.
  • EPS lowered from ($6.77) to ($7.06) due to lower gross margins.

2018 Revenues, Margins and EPS Adjustments

  • Revenues increased from $20.4B to $21.4B, driven by higher model S and X unit shipments.
  • Gross margins increased from 23.3% to 23.6% due to faster than expected scale efficiencies with model 3 ramp. We believe they can hit 25% gross margins in 4Q18, although it could be earlier.
  • EPS goes up from ($6.76) to ($5.93) due to slightly better gross margins.

Disclaimer: We actively write about the themes in which we invest: artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and augmented reality. From time to time, we will write about companies that are in our portfolio. Content on this site including opinions on specific themes in technology, market estimates, and estimates and commentary regarding publicly traded or private companies is not intended for use in making investment decisions. We hold no obligation to update any of our projections. We express no warranties about any estimates or opinions we make.

Cook: AR “Is One of Those Huge Things That We’ll Look Back At and Marvel”

Apple’s Jun-17 results highlight that its iPhone and Services business remain solid, despite the headwind of consumers holding off on upgrading in anticipation of a new iPhone this fall. For Apple, this is a good place to be as the company starts down the five-year road to redefine its business around Services, AR, and AI.

We’re optimistic that Apple will be a central player in the next wave and maintain its track record of being a disruptive force, all while maintaining profitability. With Apple’s latest results, we are updating our AAPL model.

Jun-17 Results.  Apple reported Jun-17 quarterly results fractionally above the Street’s – and Loup Ventures’ – expectations. Shares are trading up 6% in the aftermarket for three reasons (in order of importance): 1) Investors and we were expecting guidance below consensus estimates for the Sep-17 quarter due to the timing of the next iPhone. Based on guidance and comments from Cook, it appears the next iPhone will be launching in the month of September, which is good news for Apple. 2) Services growth of 22% was ahead of the Street at 18%, and an acceleration from 17% in Mar-17. We believe there are now more than 800m daily active iOS users, fueling Services growth, a segment emerging and insulated from the quarter-to-quarter fluctuations in iPhone shipments. 3) Adjusting for iPhone channel drain, iPhone units in Jun-17 would have grown 9% y/y vs. the 1% reported and down 1% in Mar-17. As mentioned, this is impressive give some iPhone purchases were postponed due to consumer awareness of the upcoming iPhone hardware upgrade.

AR: Cook finally can share more of his thoughts. Tim Cook has been waiting a year for this. He spent the past twelve months dropping 7 public hints about Apple and AR, prior to announcing ARKit in June. The Jun-17 earnings call was Cook’s first chance to talk about the theme of AR with investors, and he made it clear that Apple believes that AR will be the foundation of an upcoming paradigm shift in computing. Cook addressed the AR use case question in the prepared remarks: “We believe AR has broad mainstream applicability across education, entertainment, interactive gaming, enterprise, and categories we probably haven’t even thought of.” He also reiterated his WWDC comments that Apple will be an early leader in AR, “With hundreds of millions of people . . . as soon as iOS 11 ships.” This is noteworthy, given that we believe these numbers compare to around 10m-20m advanced AR-enabled (Tango) Android phones.

Cook didn’t stop there, he added: “I could not be more excited about AR and what we’re seeing with ARKit in the early going. . . I’ve seen what I would call more small business solutions. I’ve seen consumer solutions. I’ve seen enterprise solutions. I think AR is big and profound, and this is one of those huge things that we’ll look back at and marvel on the start of it. So I think that customers are going to see it in a variety of ways. Enterprise takes a little longer sometimes to get going. . . I couldn’t be more excited about it.”

“I think AR is big and profound, and this is one of those huge things that we’ll look back at and marvel on the start of it… I couldn’t be more excited about it.”  – Tim Cook

Machine Learning: Apple is developing ML capabilities in face detection, object tracking, and natural language interpretation. These skills are similar to other ML platforms, and now Apple competes in a crowded space with Google TensorFlow, Microsoft Azure Machine Learning, Amazon AWS, and IBM Watson. Apple’s unique approach is that its ML platform easily integrates with iOS and ARKit development. We’re doing more work on Apple ML and will report back on how we see Apple impacting the broader ML space.

Autonomy: Consistent with past comments, Cook called autonomous systems “a core technology” for Apple. He added they’re “making a big investment” in it. New comments from Cook included, “autonomous systems can be used in a variety of ways, and a vehicle is only one. But there are many different areas of it, and I don’t want to go any further with that.” Our takeaway is that autonomous technologies shouldn’t be limited to an Apple car. That being said, we believe the company wants to build an Apple branded car but understands that it’s a massive undertaking and a long shot. We believe that Apple is running parallel approaches to the market (the second approach being a licensing approach).

AAPL Near-Term Outlook. Over the next few months, investors’ anticipation of “buy on the next iPhone rumor, sell on launch date of the new iPhone” will likely grow. In addition, typical optimism around the potential of the next iPhone driving 5-10% y/y unit growth will slowly be replaced by anxiety about the tail of the next iPhone in Mar-18 and Jun-18. This could cause some bumps in the near-term.

AAPL Long-Term Outlook. Over the next few years, Apple will be a central player in the next wave and maintain its track record of disruption while maintaining profitability. We believe shareholders will be rewarded.

Disclaimer: We actively write about the themes in which we invest: artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and augmented reality. From time to time, we will write about companies that are in our portfolio. Content on this site including opinions on specific themes in technology, market estimates, and estimates and commentary regarding publicly traded or private companies is not intended for use in making investment decisions. We hold no obligation to update any of our projections. We express no warranties about any estimates or opinions we make.

Tesla’s Stealth Advantage: Shared Mission

There’s been a lot written about the Model 3 and little more I can add about the car, but I’d like to share something I noticed at my first Tesla event last week: the incredible power of a shared mission.

Tesla’s Fremont factory is one of the world’s largest buildings, so it was no surprise that the Model 3 hand-off event was a 5 minute shuttle ride from where the guests first assembled. Twelve people rode in my shuttle, of which four earned their ticket to the event through their participation in the Tesla Referral Program, where Tesla owners receive credit towards their next Tesla purchase by referring a customer. In case you’re wondering, the other seven people were suppliers. The shuttle worked its way around the back of the factory past what seemed like an endless line of people wrapping around the building. My group wondered aloud where all the people had come from. We got dropped off on a black carpet next to a staging area for a ride in a Model S on the test track.

At 7:30PM, an hour-and-a-half before Elon Musk would take the stage, I took two Model S test rides with Spyglass Capital fund manager Jim Robillard, and talked to a wide range of Palo Alto-based Tesla employees. I started each conversation by asking, “What’s on your mind?” Each employee lit up, detailing their contribution to the Model 3, and why they believe it will change the world. Investors I spoke to were not concerned about the central bear case on the Tesla story, that the company will never make money and run out of cash. Instead, they talked about the importance of EV, Tesla’s head start in battery production, and Tesla’s mission to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.

At 8:45PM, the event kicked off with Project Loveday finalists, named after Bria Loveday, the 11-year-old who suggested to Musk that Tesla should host a user-generated commercial competition. The quality of the commercials was impressive, requiring a ton of effort given the modest grand prize of an on-stage introduction at a future Tesla event.

At 9:00PM, Musk took the stage in front of 6,000 vocal fans – all employees. The long lines my shuttle bus had passed on the way to the event was Tesla’s manufacturing muscle waiting to get into the event. The crowd’s energy suggested the rank and file share the same passion about Tesla as the optimistic Palo Alto-based employees I had talked to earlier in the evening. The main screen briefly switched to a live feed from Gigafactory 1 in Sparks, NV. Same thing: a huge crowd of hand waving employees.

During my trip home from the event I realized that I had gone to meet a car; instead, I met a group of Tesla stakeholders on a shared mission to change the world.

As an analyst, I’ve always evaluated companies based on unit forecasts, product road maps, competition, profitability, and management teams. As a venture capitalist, I’ve added to that list culture and the level of shared mission. During my trip home from the event I realized that I had gone to meet a car; instead, I met a group of Tesla stakeholders on a shared mission to change the world. Tesla’s stakeholders include employees (all of which are shareholders from the management team to the custodians), Tesla owners, shareholders, Project Loveday participants, suppliers, and even an 11-year-old fan from Michigan.

I was reminded of the famous anecdote about President John F. Kennedy. During a visit to the NASA space center in 1962, President Kennedy noticed a custodian at work. He walked over to the man and said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?” “Well, Mr. President,” the custodian responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Tesla has this same stealth advantage: a shared mission at a scale greater than I’ve seen in my 20 years in tech.

Disclaimer: We actively write about the themes in which we invest: artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and augmented reality. From time to time, we will write about companies that are in our portfolio. Content on this site including opinions on specific themes in technology, market estimates, and estimates and commentary regarding publicly traded or private companies is not intended for use in making investment decisions. We hold no obligation to update any of our projections. We express no warranties about any estimates or opinions we make.