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Startup Kinetic rolls out robots to fix electric cars, and someday robotaxis

4 weeks ago 424

Kinetic cofounders: CEO Nikhil Naikal, CTO Sander Marques, COO Chris Weber

Courtesy: Kinetic Automation

While electric vehicle demand is still increasing in the U.S., the sales growth rate for cars that pollute less has cooled down in 2024 due partly to the high cost of insurance and repairs for tech-laden new models.

A 2024 study by J.D. Power found that, despite the climate benefits, only 26% of car buyers in the U.S. were "very likely to consider purchasing" an EV in the next year, and more than 20% were "very unlikely to consider an EV purchase" at all.

That's where Santa Ana, California startup Kinetic Automation comes in. By providing diagnostics and recalibration of the high-tech systems in modern vehicles, the company hopes to decrease costs associated with EV ownership and repairs.

The startup, which employs about 40 people full-time, has developed a robotic system that uses computer vision and machine-learning software to quickly diagnose issues with a vehicle's digital systems.

Kinetic CEO and co-founder Nikhil Naikal explained that a lot of new models, especially battery electrics, are loaded with bells and whistles such as touchscreens and robust infotainment software, along with a variety of cameras and sensors that enable everything from rapid charging to driver safety features including forward collision avoidance, lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control.

The existing collision repair industry is well-equipped to handle most physical fixes like replacing a bumper, a busted windshield, brakes and paint or adjusting alignment. But for many collision repair centers and auto dealerships, ensuring all sensors, software and computers are working properly can prove time-consuming and expensive.

Kinetic puts its robotic systems and technicians to work helping these shops and dealerships fix the finicky, "digital" aspects of customers' cars.

Here's how it works: A customer's car rolls up to one of Kinetic's service bays, where it is scanned from bumper to fender with machine vision sensors, some on a robotic arm that peers over the top of the vehicle.

The scan determines which systems need to be precisely programmed or need a recalibration. Then Kinetic's software, which is connected to the vehicle's systems, will initiate and track the completion of those fixes.

Kinetic uses robotics and AI to recalibrate the software and sensors in electric vehicles.

Courtesy: Kinetic Automation

The company built its first four service hubs in Las Vegas, and Orange County, San Bernardino and Riverside counties in California.

To fuel its growth, Kinetic has raised $21 million in a Series B round of venture funding led by Menlo Ventures, joined by Allstate Strategic Ventures, Liberty Mutual Strategic Ventures and the company's earliest investors Lux Capital, Construct Capital and Haystack Ventures.

Menlo Ventures' Partner Shawn Carolan, who invested in Uber and Jump Bikes, said collision companies and auto dealerships that had worked with Kinetic as pilot customers helped convince his firm to lead the deal.

"They were saying, 'This reduced our cycle time by days.' Or 'We got cars back to customers faster and cheaper,' and 'This made my life way easier,'" he explained. "So we knew this was already solving a tremendous pain point."

Before starting Kinetic with his co-founders, COO Chris Weber and CTO Sander Marques, Naikal worked as the vice president of software engineering at Velodyne, a company that made lidar sensors that enable robots, drones and autonomous vehicles to detect and avoid objects in their surrounding environment. Velodyne merged with Ouster in 2023.

Weber previously worked as an operations leader at Uber, while Marques is a repeat tech entrepreneur whose prior company developed engine control modules for high-performance vehicles.

Kinetic will one day provide its services to robotaxi fleets, Naikal said, and to the owners of other autonomous vehicles. But for now, the startup is focused on hiring, training technicians and building out its service hubs across the U.S. to handle a higher volume of auto repairs, especially the electric vehicles that are growing to comprise a larger portion of cars on U.S. roads each year.

So far, Kinetic has most commonly worked on Ford Mach-E, GM Chevy Bolt, Hyundai Ioniq EVs, and some Teslas at its existing service hubs, the CEO said.

Market research firm Canalys forecasts that sales of battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles combined will reach 2.2 million units in 2024 in North America, representing about 12.5% of all new vehicle sales in the region.

"Motor vehicle insurance for EVs, and across the board, has been a major contributor to inflation rising something like 20% when you look at the Consumer Price Index over the last 12 months," Naikal said. "I'd like to hope we can shave a few points off of that while making people more comfortable switching to electrics."

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