Chinese bike sharing giant Mobike is making big plans for India

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Chinese bike-sharing startup Mobike, which was recently acquired in a $3 billion deal, was already present in India. The company went on an aggressive global expansion spree in 2017, India wasn’t on the radar then but that’ll soon be rectified with a launch expected in early June.

Mobike has bold plans for India, where it freely admits that there isn’t currently a strong culture of biking. The goal is to work with municipal governments and town planners to do what Mobike (and rival Ofo did in China) which is to help cut down city congestion and provide new last-mile transit options.

“We’ve had great responses from many cities around how they see bike sharing in general and Mobike specifically,” Sujith Nair, Mobike India’s Chief Business Officer, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Ofo landed in India earlier this year and local Uber rival Ola started a service on a small scale last year so Mobike isn’t the first mover here. Nair said the company plans to launch its service in early June — or potentially before the end of May — but for now he isn’t saying which cities will be first.

“We’re talking to all the big cities, such as Bangalore and Delhi,” he added. “Our intent is to grow rapidly and we’re looking at partnerships to help accelerate that.”

While there have been infamous photos of piles of bikes in China, and stories of bikes dumped in trees or canals in other parts of the world, Nair said that the government agencies he’s spoken to haven’t expressed concern at a deluge of cycles. Instead, he said, conversations has focused around the practical potential of easing congestion and enabling short trips.

“It’s a great way to jump-start a sustainable transport ecosystem,” he said. “With the local government throwing in advocacy and communication to drive awareness. They’re investing in cycling tracks and infrastructure… we can always deal with excess later, it’s not a huge concern.”

Nair suggested that Mobike will look to grow to 10-12 cities in India over the next 18 months but the company “aspires” to grow even more rapidly than that since there are over 25 cities with a population of over one million people.

Initially, the focus is on the core dockless bike service, which — in most countries — lets a customer get a ride for around $1 after they scan a vacant bike’s QR code via the Mobike app. Mobike has spoken very publicly about its desire to get into other verticals, based around its bike fleet and adjacent transportation verticals too, and Nair said he expects to have “opportunities to look at other options” for the India-based business once that core service is up and running at some scale.

To help grease the wheels, Mobike is aiming to strike partnerships with major payment players. Typically, Mobike users worldwide bind a credit or debit card to their app to enable payment, but Nair suggested Mobike will have deals to integrate India’s mobile wallet services and the government-backed UPI payment initiative to help make its bikes open to as many of the population as possible.

Ofo, Mobike’s key enemy, tied up with Paytm to go beyond payments and help drive users to its service, but it doesn’t seem like Mobike has a similar strategy in mind.

Shared housing startups are taking off

When young adults leave the parental nest, they often follow a predictable pattern. First, move in with roommates. Then graduate to a single or couple’s pad. After that comes the big purchase of a single-family home. A lawnmower might be next.

Looking at the new home construction industry, one would have good reason to presume those norms were holding steady. About two-thirds of new homes being built in the U.S. this year are single-family dwellings, complete with tidy yards and plentiful parking.

In startup-land, however, the presumptions about where housing demand is going looks a bit different. Home sharing is on the rise, along with more temporary lease options, high-touch service and smaller spaces in sought-after urban locations.

Seeking roommates and venture capital

Crunchbase News analysis of residential-focused real estate startups uncovered a raft of companies with a shared and temporary housing focus that have raised funding in the past year or so.

This isn’t a U.S.-specific phenomenon. Funded shared and short-term housing startups are cropping up across the globe, from China to Europe to Southeast Asia. For this article, however, we’ll focus on U.S. startups. In the chart below, we feature several that have raised recent rounds.

Notice any commonalities? Yes, the startups listed are all based in either New York or the San Francisco Bay Area, two metropolises associated with scarce, pricey housing. But while these two metro areas offer the bulk of startups’ living spaces, they’re also operating in other cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle and Pittsburgh.

From white picket fences to high-rise partitions

The early developers of the U.S. suburban planned communities of the 1950s and 60s weren’t just selling houses. They were selling a vision of the American Dream, complete with quarter-acre lawns, dishwashers and spacious garages.

By the same token, today’s shared housing startups are selling another vision. It’s not just about renting a room; it’s also about being part of a community, making friends and exploring a new city.

One of the slogans for HubHaus is “rent one of our rooms and find your tribe.” Founded less than three years ago, the company now manages about 80 houses in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, matching up roommates and planning group events.

Starcity pitches itself as an antidote to loneliness. “Social isolation is a growing epidemic—we solve this problem by bringing people together to create meaningful connections,” the company homepage states.

The San Francisco company also positions its model as a partial solution to housing shortages as it promotes high-density living. It claims to increase living capacity by three times the normal apartment building.

Costs and benefits

Shared housing startups are generally operating in the most expensive U.S. housing markets, so it’s difficult to categorize their offerings as cheap. That said, the cost is typically lower than a private apartment.

Mostly, the aim seems to be providing something affordable for working professionals willing to accept a smaller private living space in exchange for a choice location, easy move-in and a ready-made social network.

At Starcity, residents pay $2,000 to $2,300 a month, all expenses included, depending on length of stay. At HomeShare, which converts two-bedroom luxury flats to three-bedrooms with partitions, monthly rents start at about $1,000 and go up for larger spaces.

Shared and temporary housing startups also purport to offer some savings through flexible-term leases, typically with minimum stays of one to three months. Plus, they’re typically furnished, with no need to set up Wi-Fi or pay power bills.

Looking ahead

While it’s too soon to pick winners in the latest crop of shared and temporary housing startups, it’s not far-fetched to envision the broad market as one that could eventually attract much larger investment and valuations. After all, Airbnb has ascended to a $30 billion private market value for its marketplace of vacation and short-term rentals. And housing shortages in major cities indicate there’s plenty of demand for non-Airbnb options.

While we’re focusing here on residential-focused startups, it’s also worth noting that the trend toward temporary, flexible, high-service models has already gained a lot of traction for commercial spaces. Highly funded startups in this niche include Industrious, a provider of flexible-term, high-end office spaces, Knotel, a provider of customized workplaces, and Breather, which provides meeting and work rooms on demand. Collectively, those three companies have raised about $300 million to date.

At first glance, it may seem shared housing startups are scaling up at an off time. The millennial generation (born roughly 1980 to 1994) can no longer be stereotyped as a massive band of young folks new to “adulting.” The average member of the generation is 28, and older millennials are mid-to-late thirties. Many even own lawnmowers.

No worries. Gen Z, the group born after 1995, is another huge generation. So even if millennials age out of shared housing, demographic forecasts indicate there will plenty of twenty-somethings to rent those partitioned-off rooms.

Boosted Boards founders launch heavy-duty scooter renter Skip

All electric scooters are not created equal. I’ve found ones from Spin, Bird, and Lime to often be broken, shaky, or out of battery. But now the founders of Boosted Boards, which makes the steadiest and safest-feeling electric skateboards, are bringing their rugged hardware expertise to the scooter world. Today, they’re coming out of stealth with a supposedly stronger and longer-lasting dockless electric scooter rental startup called Skip. And the surprise is they’re hoping to only operate where permitted unlike their backlashed competitors [but no guarantees], with a deployment today in partnership with Washington D.C. and plans for San Francisco.

Formerly known by its Y Combinator codename Waybots, the company is exclusively announcing its funding and rebrand to Skip today on TechCrunch. The startup has raised a $6 million seed round led by Initialized Capital via Alexis Ohanian and Ronny Conway’s A Capital, with SV Angel joining in.

“We think the vehicle matters” Skip and former Boosted co-founder/CEO Sanjay Dastoor tells me. “It’s not the same as rideshare where two or more companies are all using the same car. There’s a big spectrum of quality in the base vehicles. A lot of these companies are buying off the shelf vehicles that are designed for personal ownership. I think these vehicles will need to be designed for a different level of use and upkeep.”

That’s why Skip is modifying bigger pre-made scooters to be more durable, and plans to build its own custom scooters. For the same $1 plus $0.15 per minute price as other services, you get a wider riding platform, full suspension, and head/tail/brake lights. The strategy is that if people feel safe and steady riding Skips, they’ll choose them over the competition. And while low-grade scooters might feel too unstable for the bike lane, leading to complaints about sidewalk riding, Skips are meant to feel secure enough to cruise next to cars.

With so much well-funded competition, Skip will have to hope customers really notice the difference. And its focus on permits could constrain growth. But if riders and cities decide they want a more reliable scooter service, Skip could carve out a solid business while being a better citizen.

Trusting Your Life To A Startup

My Boosted Board was perhaps my favorite gadget ever. After a decade as an unpowered longboard rider, I tested its electric skateboard in 2012 and loved the smooth rides so much I bought onet of the first 10 of the Kickstarter. It felt like being able to effortlessly surf uphill. I tried many others and consistently found them to feel much more jerky, wobbly, and unpredictable. That’s not what you want when you’re riding a handle-less vehicle in traffic, and essentially betting your life on some startup’s hardware.

But then I crashed. The human body is not equipped for a 22mph meeting with the pavement. The board performed perfectly, I just hit a gravel patch at full-speed, shattered my ankle, and couldn’t walk for 5 months. In conclusion, even the safest electric skateboards are risky because at high speeds, the form factor’s small hard wheels are too vulnerable to obstructions, and you’ve got no handle to save you. I haven’t skated the two years since.

Yet that’s why I think Skip has a real opportunity. There’s demand for these vehicles. Skip says it sees seven rides per day per scooter. They’re a natural complement to more expensive Ubers that have to wade through traffic. But the whole industry will fall apart if everyone’s getting injured. You can absolutely feel the lack of stability and smoothness when riding a janky or half-broken scooter. I think consumers will choose the safer device if one’s available.

Skip To A New Startup

Skip co-founder and CEO Sanjay Dastoor

“We noticed that small personal portable electric vehicles weren’t only awesome alone” but as an option alongside ridesharing, ridepooling, and car ownership, says Dastoor. “The future of transportation is a combination of these.”

Boosted co-founder Matt Tran left the company two years ago, while Dastoor exited a year ago. They wanted to try an electric vehicle service model, but “Boosted wasn’t really the right place to do that, because the company is still focused on building great hardware for people to buy.” Tran was running marketing and also craved his engineering roots. So together with Mike Wadhera, a founding team member of Involver which sold to Oracle, they formed Waybots.

Last summer, the company tried out a docked scooter sharing model in SF, but didn’t see great results. When they got accepted to YC, like Boosted before it, they started experimenting with a dockless version. Meanwhile, Washington D.C. had opened a pilot program for permitted dockless bikeshare, and Waybots convinced the city to give it the greenlight too. Those scooters now have Skip branding slapped on.

“We’re the first permitted [dockless electric scooter] system operating anywhere” Dastoor believes. “A lot of the story around dockless scooters has come from SF, and from companies that have launched without informing anyone or working with anyone.” That’s led SF to ban unpermitted dockless scooter rentals. “What we saw in DC was the opposite. We’re working with the cities to deploy, share data with them, and engage with the community, and we’ve seen none of the backlash that we’ve seen in SF.” Still, the startup wouldn’t guarantee it won’t go rogue and launch unpermitted in the future.

Designed To Deter Complaints

Skip could get along better with cities because it’s built the scooters to discourage a lot of the most annoying scooter behaviors. The Speedway Mini4 36V 21Ah scooters Skip modifies can get up to 30 miles at 10mph per charge, which means they’re less likely to have dead batteries by the afternoon like the useless vehicles-turned-paperweights from competitors that I commonly stumble across in SF. To keep them charged and off the streets at night, Skip has a crowdsourced charging program where people can get paid to pick up, plug in at home, and drop off scooters.

The durable hardware is meant to need less service so you’re less likely to rent a broken, or worse, half-broken-but-I’m-late-so-I’ll-ride-it-anyway scooter. You can adjust the handlebar height, they go up to 18mph and dual-suspension flattens road bumps.

As for keeping Skips from getting strewn in the sidewalks and obstructing pedestrians, Dastoor claims his company’s vehicles have more precise location tracking than competitors. That could help it tell the edge of a build from the center of the walkway. Combined with requiring users to photograph the scooter standing upright, and hardware in the vechiles, Skip is hoping to force users to park them properly. “They have to have the intelligence in them to give info back to the city or back to the operator to make sure they operating correctly” Dastoor says.

Unfortunately, Skip hasn’t solved the lack of helmets problem. Dastoor tells me “We’ve been looking at a bunch of ways to improve access to helmets” but for now there’s no on-vehicle compartment for them and the company merely encourages users to wear them.

Personally, I think that’s crap. Sure, Citi Bike and other scooter companies don’t offer them either. But if these are meant to be serendipitously rented for short periods, it’s crazy to think anyone other than regular commuters will bring their own helmets. I think cities should demand them. And if they don’t, an inevitable scooter fatality that could have been prevented will make permitters more cautious. At least Skip says you have to be over 18 and plans to add ID verification for that soon.

“I don’t really have a comment about our unit economics” Dastoor sidestepped, but notes how much cheaper a $1.50 or $3 ride is than hailing a car. We’ll have to see if competition spurs a scooter price war. For now, though, the well-equipped Skips have led customers to “want to use it over and over.” Still, with Lime reportedly trying to raise $500 million and Bird recently closing $100 million as they race to invade the world, Skip is starting late with a much smaller piggybank.

Competition aside, Dastoor cites maintaining relationships with cities as the startup’s biggest threat. Luckily, he says it will soon announce some big-name talent with experience here. I expect it’s hired someone like former Uber policy chief David Plouffe who already has connections.

Scoot To The Future

Where the dockless vechicle rental market goes is a mystery. Maybe it turns into a fundraising war, with the most aggressive deployers locking up markets, and the losers vaporizing in giant money bonfires. Maybe the cities get fed up, kick out the unpermitted, and only issue approvals to those with the best glad-handing or the best safety. Maybe users get tons of options on price, quality, and availability to choose from.

But absent the bad behavior spurring backlash, many who try dockless electric scooter and bike rentals love them. With traffic-jammed city streets and scarce parking, we could use ways to get cars off the road.

Eventually, I think we’ll see a ton of short rideshare trips turn into scooter cruises. And at today’s super low price point, walking could turn into a luxury depending on how you value your time. Even at minimum wage, you might save money paying $1.75 for a five-minute, one-mile Skip rather than walking for 20. Dastoor concludes, “It becomes part of their transportation routine and I think anything that does that is around to stay.”

China’s Didi pares back ‘hitchhiking’ car service following passenger murder

Didi Chxuing is making big changes to Hitch, its inter-city carpooling service, following the murder of a passenger at the hands of a driver earlier this month.

Last week, Didi — China’s dominant ride-hailing service by some margin — expressed its “deep remorse” for the murder, and suspended Hitch for a week to conduct a review of the service.

Hitch, as the name suggests, is a hitchhiking-style service that groups people who are headed in the same direction together. Unlike Didi’s other services, it isn’t commercial; passengers give the driver their share of fuel and any other costs they want to cover. That makes it affordable and hugely popular, but it has also made the service less professional than Didi’s other modes of transport. Indeed, many in China have claimed the service is ‘sleazy,’ with many comments left about passenger appearances, particularly those who are female.

The primary change will see Hitch available limited to daytime when the service resumes, with no new rides able to start between the hours of 10pm and 6am.

In an apparent nod to the unsavory elements, Didi is scrubbing all Hitch driver and passenger reviews and ratings. Personal information for users will no longer be public, and profile photos will be replaced by generic images, Didi said.

Beyond Hitch, Didi is also making changes to its driver authentication program.

That’s down, in a large part, to the fact that the suspect in the murder of the passenger was not a verified Didi driver. He was able to use the app (on more than one occasion) by taking the smartphone belonging to his father, who is a verified Didi driver. Didi’s facial recognition technology, which verifies a driver’s identity before granting them access to the service, failed in this instance — Didi said it was “defective” that day.

Didi is closing down the option for its drivers to use other people’s cars with their permission, and implementing a “zero tolerance policy” on matching cars with their registered owners — a strange loophole that drew concern.

The Didi service added an SOS button two years ago, and now it is aiming to refine that further by introducing automatic audio recording which is passed in real-time to a customer support agent once an SOS is activated. The firm said it is also weighing up adding video in the future. Conscious of privacy concerns, the company said the audio would be stored remotely, not on a passenger’s device, and deleted within 72 hours if not needed for longer.

“We understand that not everyone is comfortable with having their trips recorded. Additional user authorization may also be needed if in-vehicle video monitoring were to be introduced in the future,” the company said.

“Nevertheless, this could be a most effective means to enhance safety standards, and to ensure adequate evidence support for potential dispute resolution,” Didi added. “Would this be an acceptable solution in the eyes of our users?”

That’s one of a series of questions put out by Didi, which said it will solicit opinions for potential safety measures. The company said it has booked “proactive consultation sessions with relevant authorities and experts” and it will also put out a call for comment on its social media channels.

Didi is facing pressure from rival Meituan Dianping, which started out in local services but recently introduced ride-sharing services and moved into dockless bikes with the acquisition of Mobike.

This is not the first time that Didi, which became China’s single-largest ride-hailing company when it bought out Uber’s local business in 2016, has dealt with the murder of a customer. Two years ago, a woman in Shenzhen was robbed and murdered by a Didi driver.

Instacart names David Hahn as new Chief Product Officer

Instacart, the on-demand grocery delivery platform that finds itself at the center of ever-increasing competition, has today announced that David Hahn will be taking over as Instacart’s new Chief Product Officer.

Hahn previously served as VP of Product at LinkedIn, after which time he went to Greylock to serve as an entrepreneur in residence, helping portfolio companies think through their products and monetization strategies.

Most recently, Hahn was President and Chief Product Officer at GoFundMe.

Hahn joins Instacart during an interesting time for the grocery space. Online grocery shopping a delivery has reached “a tipping point,” in the words of Hahn, as incumbents like Walmart and Target formulate their own delivery options. Meanwhile, as we all know, Amazon is working to integrate newly acquired Whole Foods into its Prime delivery portfolio.

“Just a few years from now, everyone will get their groceries this way,” said Hahn. “I’m excited to be part of a company leading that change in such a large and important market.”

Hahn said that he’ll be prioritizing a few things as he acclimates to the role, including the front-end product for consumers and back-end products for retailers that help with inventory management.

Indeed, one of the biggest hurdles at Instacart is integrating with dozens of retailers, many of whom use varying inventory management systems, to consistently and accurately list what is available now in stores to Instacart users.

When this information isn’t correct, it sets off a series of events wherein the shopper has to replace ordered items, which could result in a less-than-perfect delivery.

While the task may seem daunting, Hahn is excited to join Instacart at this particular part of its journey. 

“It’s quite rare to find a business at this particular stage,” said Hahn. “Instacart has reached a super impressive scale with an impressive growth rate, but there is a lot of opportunity ahead and lots of building to do.”

China’s Didi Chuxing suspends carpooling service following murder of a passenger

Didi Chuxing, China’s largest ride-hailing service, has suspended its Hitch, one of its carpooling services, for one week as it investigates the murder of a passenger.

The victim was a 21-year-old air stewardess identified only as Ms. Li. State-run news agency Global Times reports that the incident took place in the evening of May 5, when she used Hitch — which lets people headed to the same destination take a ride together — to summon a ride home from Zhengzhou airport, Henan Province, after finishing work. The publication cites police reports that say Li was murdered by her driver using a weapon.

Didi has used facial recognition technology to verify its drivers since 2016. The technology is used to speed up registration of drivers when they initially sign-up, and also to prevent fraud when they log in to start a shift. The idea is that the app will only unlock when the driver account owner takes a selfie which should match with the record Didi has.

In the case of this tragic incident, that safeguard failed.

The suspect — who has been named as Liu Zhenhua — is not registered on its platform, according to Didi, but he was able to access it, and take rides, using a verified driver account belonging to his father. Didi said it did not prevent this because its facial recognition feature was “defective” that day.

It looks like there was a warning sign, however. The company said that the account had received a sexual harassment complaint before the incident — it isn’t clear if that was from the father, or his son accessing the account — but Didi was unable to reach the account despite trying to make contact an apparent five times. Yet, despite the complaint, the account was allowed to log-in and take rides.

“Due to the imperfection of the arbitration rules of the platform, the complaint was not handled properly in subsequent days,” Didi admitted in a statement.

Hitch is an inter-city carpooling service focused on commuting and distance-traveling that lets passengers cover the cost of fuel and a driver’s basic costs. Didi’s commercial carpooling services are not affected. The Hitch suspension starts tomorrow — May 12 — and Didi said it will use the time to review all of its registered drivers for “any cases involving mismatch of drivers and vehicles.”

The company also pledged to revamp its operational approach and customer support system.

In a prior statement provided to TechCrunch, Didi expressed its “deep remorse” at the incident which it said it has “undeniable” responsibility for. The company added that it must “step up to win the trust of our users.”

We are deeply saddened by and sorry about the tragedy that happened to Ms. Li while using DiDi Hitch. No words can express our deep remorse in the face of such an enormity. We give our sincere condolences and apologies to the family of Ms. Li. We need to step up to win the trust of our users. Our responsibilities in this case are undeniable.

Our special task force is working closely with law enforcement agencies with the utmost effort. The murderer needs to be brought to justice; and Ms Li and her family deserve a just answer.

We apologize again to the family of the victim and the public. Please be assured we will review thoroughly all our business practices to prevent such an incident from happening again.

Global Times reported that Didi is offered a reward of one million yuan (just over $150,000) for information about the alleged murdered, although Didi did not confirm that when we asked.

Didi is facing pressure from rival Meituan Dianping, which started out in local services but recently introduced ride-sharing services and moved into dockless bikes with the acquisition of Mobike.

This is not the first time that Didi, which became China’s single-largest ride-hailing company when it bought out Uber’s local business in 2016, has dealt with the murder of a customer. Two years ago, a woman in Shenzhen was robbed and murdered by a Didi driver.

Uber and Lyft have had fatal incidents, too.

In the U.S., those range from a seven-year-old girl being run over by an Uber driver in San Francisco in 2014, to a driver in Michigan murdering six people while on duty for the ride-hailing service in 2016. Other fatalities have taken place in Australia, Lebanon, Singapore and India.

This year, Uber’s autonomous vehicles have also been involved in civilian deaths. In March, a woman died after being struck by a self-driving Uber SUV in Tempe, Arizona. While police said Uber wasn’t responsible for the incident, the company paused its autonomous vehicle testing following the fatal crash.

Uber’s aerial taxi play

Uber’s flying taxis are taking off, as the transportation upstart looks for new ways to shorten trips made long because of distance or traffic congestion. Flying cars were once nearly the exclusive domain of tech aphorisms (“You promised us flying cars, but instead we have x.”), but now they are actually being put into gear in the form of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles. Over the last couple of days at the Uber Elevate summit in Los Angeles, the company further laid out its own ambitious plans to develop and commercially deploy air taxis by 2023.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who has been at the helm for less than one year, admitted he wasn’t initially 100 percent on board for Elevate, he said at the Uber Elevate Summit in Los Angeles. It took a couple of sessions and some reviews of the math for him to be sold on it, he said.

“For me the aha moment came when I started understanding that Uber isn’t just about cars,” Khosrowshahi said. “Ultimately, where we want to go is about urban mobility and urban transport, and being a solution for the cities in which we operate.”

Uber Elevate is Uber’s all-encompassing term for its initiative to launch uberAIR, which is the its aerial electric ride-hailing service, as well as any other initiatives (think food delivery) that may benefit from air transport. Elevate is also the name of the two-day conference Uber held in Los Angeles. Once Uber’s vision is fully implemented, Uber says the service will be cheaper than the cost of owning a car, on a per-passenger, per-mile basis, and autonomous. At launch, however, pilots will be required.

In the U.S., Uber is aiming to launch first in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Frisco, Texas, areas and Los Angeles. Last year, Uber said it would also aim to start testing in Dubai by 2020, but that’s no longer the case. Instead, Uber now has an open call out to interested international cities to describe the clear need for aerial transit, the enabling conditions of the city and local government commitment.

In order to launch uberAIR, Uber needs the actual vehicles, skyports for them to land on, as well as batteries. The company won’t be developing and producing its own vehicles. Instead, it’s relying entirely on its aerospace partners — some of which have been developing aircrafts for decades.

“There’s a lot that has to come together,” Khosrowshahi said about partnerships. “We absolutely know that we cannot make this happen ourselves.”

At the summit, Uber announced a new partnership with Karem to develop eVTOLs. Karem Aircraft, which has patented Optimum Speed Tiltroter technology for military and commercial applications, has been working with Uber for about a year to create the Butterfly concept. This type of vehicle is supposed to be a passenger-friendly adaptation of Karem’s core technology. And some of Uber’s previously announced partners also showed off what they’ve been working on over the past year. Embraer, for example, unveiled its first eVTOL concept.

At this point there are more than 70 companies working on eVTOLs for deployment in Uber’s air taxi network.

The company also needs skyports to enable people to board and exit these eVTOLs, which is where partners like Gannett Fleming and Corgan come in. On day two, these partners showed off their skyport designs as part of a skyport competition Uber ran.

Since Uber wants its offering to be all-electric from the start, it’s working with a number of battery partners. One of them is E-One Moli, a newly announced partner that will put its battery technology in the first eVTOL prototypes from Uber’s Elevate vehicle partners. With these batteries, uberAIR vehicles could travel up to 84 miles on a single charge, compared to just 60 miles. That also means Uber needs a way to charge these vehicles, which is where partners like ChargePoint come in.

Mega Skyport

Air traffic control

On day one of the summit, Uber Head of Aviation Eric Allison spoke about how certain skyports could handle hundreds or even thousands of landings per hour. In order to manage the skies and ensure uberAIR doesn’t simply replicate the horrendous traffic patterns we already have on the roads, Uber is working to develop systems that enable the ecosystem to function in what will be a more complex version of standard air traffic control, Allison told TechCrunch earlier in the day.

There are many ways to conceive of this, but one way is something Uber Director of Engineering for Airspace Systems Tom Prevot calls Dynamic Skylane Networks. He said you can think of them as a virtual network of lanes, overpasses, on-ramps and off-ramps in the sky that dynamically adjust to where the air traffic needs to flow.

But that’s a bit down the road. At the beginning of this process, Prevot said, Uber wants to work in parallel with what exists today and be “extremely cooperative, interoperable and transparent for safety and efficiency reasons. But we also need to protect, obviously, privacy information.”

He added that cybersecurity is a “first-class citizen and we need to bake that in from the beginning.”

Although Uber could theoretically create, own and control its own air traffic control system for eVTOLs, Uber says the intention is not to own it. Instead, the idea is to make it an open standard that other companies can work with, and therefore, enable interoperability.

“We don’t own airspace,” Holden said. “We’re just trying to make sure airspace is managed in an extremely safe and efficient way.”

To try to achieve this goal, Uber is working closely with the FAA and NASA. At the Summit, Uber announced it has signed a second space act agreement with NASA to model and simulate airspace requirements for urban air mobility applications. As part of the agreement, Uber will share its plans for implementing its air-based rideshare network.

Using data from Uber, NASA plans to simulate a small passenger-carrying aircraft flying through the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The idea is to identify potential safety issues in an already-crowded air traffic control system.

Simulation of 50 aircrafts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area

“We’re designing our flight paths essentially to stay out of the scheduled air carriers’ flight paths initially,” Prevot said at Elevate. “We do want to test some of these concepts of maybe flying in lanes and flying close to each other but in a very safe environment, initially.”

Regulating air taxis

All of these eVTOLs, of course, must comply with regulation from aviation authorities. At Elevate, FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell said he’s excited about everything that’s happening. But while Uber aims to start testing in 2020 and deploy commercially in 2023, all Elwell would say is, “We’ll see.”

“Everything is changing, but remember it’s changing within the construct that we’ve built, that we know,” Elwell said in a conversation with Uber Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden. “We have to adapt.” He added, whatever happens, the FAA is going to do this right. If you were to ask him what his reaction is to the idea that “it has to happen and this date is certain, my answer is, ‘well, we’ll see.'”

But Khosrowshahi said he’s confident in the 2020 testing timeframe. That’s because of the partners Uber has in place and the team on board, Khosrowshahi said.

“I think that’s something we can get to,” he said.

In tandem with ensuring uberAIR operates in ways that are safe and consistent with current FAA standards, sound regulation is key to community acceptance. For the purpose of uberAIR, Uber has tapped David Josephson, a noise and acoustics consultant at Josephson Engineering. At the Elevate summit, Josephson explained how urban air mobility noise will be different from the noise of a conventional aircraft. Part of that is due to the fact that airports are not located within city centers. With uberAIR, however, these skyports are going to be within city limits.

“We’ve decided to develop an entirely different set of metrics for this purpose,” Josephson said.

Those measurements entail looking at how many people are going to be affected by any given flight. More specifically, that means looking at how many people are going to be able to hear the noise emissions from the eVTOLs.

Aerial equity

Uber is ultimately presenting AIR as a way to increase access to transportation. In an ideal world, uberAIR would be able to reach neighborhoods that are traditionally underserved by transit agencies, Uber Head of Policy of Autonomous Vehicles and Urban Aviation Justin Erlich told me back in February. But in order to do that, Uber needs to remain conscious of the fact that it’s a goal it’s trying to achieve. That means ensuring the right policy infrastructure is in place and that’s where Erlich comes in.

We’re thinking about what this looks like for making things wheelchair accessible and so we’re having ongoing conversations with folks in that community,” Erlich said. “We’ll really need to be thoughtful long-term about where the routings are to make sure that we’re serving underserved communities in transit, and to make sure that this technology is made available to everybody.”

In addition to reducing the cost of aerial transit, it’s important to note where the skyports will be located and what areas they will serve, World Economic Forum Head of Drones and Tomorrows Airspace Timothy Reuter said at Elevate.

“One of the causes of inequality in this country is, it’s very difficult for people to live in low cost areas but get access to high wages,” Reuter said.

And as Uber continues to scale and move further into autonomy, it will be worth paying attention to who is going to be tapped to handle the more monotonous, low-wage jobs.

“What we bring to the table here,” Khosrowshahi said, “is building this to not be a service for the few but a service that is ultimately available for mass market.”

These uberAIR ‘Skyport’ designs are beautiful

UberAIR is well on its way, with the plan to start demonstrating the technology in 2020 and start operating the flying taxi service in 2023. In order to get there, it’s going to need what Uber is calling “Skyports” — areas for these electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles to board and unload passengers.

On day two of Elevate, Uber’s architect and design partners revealed their concepts for skyports. All skyport concepts are required to be able to support more than 4,000 passengers per hour within a three acre footprint. The skyports must also ensure electric VTOLs can easily recharge in between trips.

While all of these skyports are structurally feasible, financial feasibility for cities is an entirely different story. Anyway, here’s a look at some new skyport concepts from Corgan, a design and architecture firm.

[gallery ids="1635642,1635488,1635490,1635489"]

 

 

The idea with the Mega Skyport, according to Corgan, is to create a system with modular components that can be adapted anywhere. The basic component, the skyport itself, could theoretically be added to open spaces, on top of parking garages or on the roof of skycrapers. Each skyport could handle 1,000 landings per hour. Corgan also envisions using this stations as community gathering spaces for things like concerts, art festivals and botanical gardens.

“The Station reconnects once divided neighborhoods that reside on opposite sides of the highway and therefore serves as a new community gathering point,” according to Corgan’s design prospective.

On day one, Uber Head of Aviation Eric Allison explained the node concept. Nodes are essentially skyport groupings to enable Uber to better manage the network of eVTOLs. For example, 40 nodes, Allison said, could manage trips for millions of people every day.

Another concept came from Gannett Fleming (above), which designed skyports that could support up to 52 eVTOLs per hour, per module. By 2028, the framework could handle 600 arrivals and departures per hour. The design, which enables solar recharging. uses robots to rotate the aircrafts while parked to better position them for immediate takeoff.

Pickard Chilton and Arup took a more vertical approach with their design for efficiency purposes. This design would enable 180 landings and takeoffs per hour, per module.

Next up is one from Humphreys & Partners. This concept is modeled after a beehive because, similar to a bee’s flight patterns to and from a hive, eVTOLs would replicate that same pattern in the Uber Hover. The design would accommodate 900 passengers per level, per hour.

The Beck Group took a similar bee-like approach with its design, called The Hive. Though, this design looks more like an actual hive than the one from Humphreys & Partners. This design could accommodate 150 takeoffs and landings per hour, and could be scaled to handle 1,000 trips per hour.

Last but not least is one from BOKA Powell. This design can handle 1,000 takeoffs and landings per hour and has a structure that can reverse itself in order to accommodate wind change.

Which one is your favorite?

India’s Jugnoo adopts a unique take on ride-hailing to help fill Singapore’s Uber void

Another contender is throwing its hat into the ring to replace Uber in Southeast Asia after India’s Jugnoo, a startup that specializes in offering autorickshaws on-demand in India, revealed it plans to enter Singapore.

Uber announced its exit from Southeast Asia last month in a deal that sees Grab buy its regional business, and since then a number of companies have stepped into the void. Those include $4 billion-valued heavyweight Go-Jek, which has held talks with top taxi operator ComfortDelGro, and newer names like Ryde and U.S.-based Arcade City, but Jugnoo is perhaps even less expected.

Away from the main stage fight between Ola and Uber in India, Jugnoo has quietly buckled down and built a business that founder and CEO Samar Singla told TechCrunch is profitable with around 10 percent of the country’s e-hailing volumes. Key to that, he said, has been a focus on more rural areas of the country and its B2B logistics service. Uber briefly ran a competing service in 2015, while Ola is pushing its rickshaw offerings towards electric vehicles.

Jugnoo plans to take a unique approach in Singapore, where it will launch a car-on-demand service that uses a “reverse-bidding” model. That’s a play on bidding systems — which incentivize passengers to offer a tip to land a driver for their requested journey — that instead lets drivers jostle to ‘win’ a passenger’s journey. So a user makes a request to go from A to B, and then picks the driver with the price — or perhaps car, or driver rating — that they prefer.

“Drivers will bid so we hope it will be beneficial to consumers,” Singla said in an interview, admitting that the system may need to be fine-tuned further down the line. “Singapore customers are open, educated and understanding of startup models.”

Jugnoo founder and CEO Samar Singla

The company was lured to Singapore as part of a government initiative to contact potential ride-hailing services post Uber-Grab . Jugnoo claims to have signed up over 100 drivers in the past two days, and it is aiming to grow that number to at least 500 before the service launches.

“If we say we will go and compete with Uber, Grab, Didi and others on their home turf and with their money, that would be quite stupid,” the Jugnoo CEO explained. “We think this could be a decent niche. Our goal is around 10 percent market share [and] to be a sustainable company.”

The opportunistic move will be Jugnoo’s first expansion outside of India. Singla is optimistic that it can figure out alternative ways to compete in other parts of the world, which could potentially include markets outside of Southeast Asia, in the future.

Jugnoo has taken $16 million from investors to date, according to Crunchbase. Its most recent raise was a $10 million Series B round that closed in 2016.

That’s small pennies for Grab, which raised a round of more than $2 billion led by SoftBank and Didi last year at a valuation of $6 billion. To date, the Singapore-based firm has pulled in over $4 billion in capital from investors.

Grab’s acquisition of Uber Southeast Asia drives into problems

The long-rumored Grab acquisition of Uber’s Southeast Asia business may be official now, but it’s far from complete.

In fact, what should be a celebratory coming-of-age moment for the Southeast Asian local champion is threatening to become nightmarish thanks to persistent regulators, panicky Uber staff and reluctant drivers who are supposed to switch to Grab as part of the arrangement.

The agreed-upon deal sees Uber taking a 27.5 percent stake in Grab and exiting Southeast Asia’s unprofitable market.

Those moves free up Uber resources for use in other geographies where they can be used more effectively. In exchange, Singapore-based Grab gets the operational front of Uber in the region including its ride-hailing business and Uber Eats food delivery service. Meanwhile, most of the 500 employees Uber enlisted across its eight markets in the region and the drivers on its platform now have the option to migrate to Grab.

Grab’s desired outcome was simple: remove the threat of its immediate rival and beef up its business with new hires and drivers. In short, it moves loss-making Grab farther along the path to profitability far more quickly, as CEO Anthony Tan has said.

The two parties proposed a quick Uber exit — with the app scheduled to close on April 9, two weeks after the deal. UberEats would roll into the GrabFood service by the end of May.

For Grab, with hundreds of open vacancies, a key component was the Uber staff acquisition and the migration of Uber passengers and drivers.

Now, one month after the deal, things aren’t going to plan. The whole transaction will take longer than initially imagined — potentially as long as a few months to be settled in full — leaving millions of confused customers stranded on the curb.

One of Grab’s offices in Singapore (Jon Russell/Flickr)

Regulatory concerns

Most obviously, Grab has had a tougher challenge with regulators than it initially anticipated.

Roughly one month after the deal was announced the Uber app remains operational in Singapore, and had been extended for one week in the Philippines, both changes made at the request of anti-trust regulators who sought more time to assess the implications of the deal. A number of other governments in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and Malaysia, are lining up to weigh in on the merger, too.

Singapore, where Grab is registered, has been the most active.

The Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore (CCCS) pushed the deadline for the removal of Uber’s app back to May 7 — one month later than originally scheduled — so it could examine the deal. The commission also ordered Grab and Uber to “maintain pre-transaction independent pricing, pricing policies and product options” while it pored over the details.

The CCCS thinks it has “reasonable grounds” to suspect that the deal may run afoul of section 54 of Singapore’s Competition Act regulating against overly dominant monopolies.

These extensions in both Singapore and the Philippines mean additional expenses for Grab, which is paying for costs and helping manage the continuation of Uber’s app in Southeast Asia. Uber has shrugged off any responsibility.

“Uber exited eight markets, including the Philippines, as of Monday. Now, I look after 10 markets, instead of 18. Our funding is gone. Our people are gone. We don’t intend to come back to these markets,” Brooks Entwistle, head of Uber’s Asia Pacific business, told the anti-competition commission in the Philippines earlier this month, according to Rappler.

Keeping Uber open while the deal is scrutinized is undoubtedly a good thing to do, but in this scenario, the service is barely Uber.

For a start it only covers Singapore, and drivers and passengers in the tiny city-state rightly are confused after initially being told Uber’s service would fold. That’s before acknowledging that the Uber app is being financed by Grab — a situation so absurd that Monty Python may want to license the rights.

Both Uber and Grab are guilty of contributing to this current state of uncertainty. In setting out a two-week timeframe for sunsetting the app without consulting with regulators first, the two companies were aggressive and naive at best, or, at worst, recklessly determined to push their deal through without concern for the regulatory bodies whose approval they needed.

A Grab representative told TechCrunch that it contacted CCCS “informally” ahead of the deal, but the CCCS called the deal an “unnotified merger transition.” Neither Grab nor Uber were required by law to contact authorities in Singapore ahead of time, but doing so — or providing a longer timeframe because the planned closure — would clearly have avoided this situation.

Despite the inconvenience and cost, Grab did ultimately get what it wanted since Uber has left the region regardless of regulator demands, as Reuters noted, but other issues remain that should concern the Singapore-based company.

Regulators in Singapore and the Philippines demanded Grab maintain the Uber app for an additional week (Photo by studioEAST/Getty Images)

Uber employees ‘let down’

One critical part of the proposed merger is Grab’s potential ability to pick up an estimated 500 Uber employees in the region. It may be easy to overlook given the wider story of Uber’s global retrenchment, but TechCrunch understands from sources that it was a major focus for Grab.

Not only is Grab keen to fill at least some of the nearly 500 vacancies within the companybut it was particularly eager to avoid a migration of Uber staff moving en masse to direct rivals like Go-Jek in the ride-hailing space or food delivery services Deliveroo and FoodPanda.

Early signs indicate that Grab’s best laid plans are falling apart.

From conversations with over a dozen Uber staff, across various countries and management levels, TechCrunch has heard that many in the workforce are uneasy at the prospect of joining Grab. A number told TechCrunch that they feel that Uber has abandoned them.

The chief concern is that the departing Uber Southeast Asia staff are not in control of their own destiny.

Aside from a small number of employees (estimated at around 50 people), Uber’s Southeast Asian workforce is not permitted to move internally to a different Uber region. Some said they were told that they are forbidden from even applying for other jobs within the company.

The restrictions all but force Uber’s employees to move over to Grab — whether they want to or not. The strong-arming doesn’t end there. Terms for exiting staff also push would-be former Uber staffers into Grab’s orbit, according to details supplied to TechCrunch.

If Grab decides to make an offer that includes a “substantially similar” salary to what they earned at Uber — and it isn’t entirely clear what “substantially similar” means — but the staffer doesn’t want to move over, then they will only receive the minimum statutory severance based on the local laws where they live.

The only way they get a package is if Grab doesn’t want them, and in that case it is the minimum.

Here’s the information bulletin Uber gave its staff on the day the merger was announced:

No one is losing their job today. Everyone who is transitioning to Grab will continue to be an Uber employee until they formally accept an offer, sign a Letter of Employment with Grab and resign from Uber.

  • If you get a role with Grab, you will not be eligible for any severance.
  • If you accept a role with Grab and later resign, you will not be eligible for a severance payment.
  • If Grab makes a substantially similar offer to you and you reject it, you will no longer have a role at Uber so your employment will end and you will be eligible for a severance payment. You will receive the minimum statutory severance based on the local law in your country.
  • If Grab makes you an offer that is not substantially similar and you reject it, you will be eligible for a severance payment. You will receive a minimum of four months’ base salary plus one minimum month per year of service (e.g. if you have two years of service, you will receive a total of six months severance (four months minimum plus two months based on your service.)
  • If you resign before receiving an offer from Grab, you will only receive your notice and other statutory entitlements.
  • If Grab is unable to find a suitable role for you, you will be notified and offered a severance package based on your years of service with Uber. You will receive a minimum of four months’ base salary plus one month per year of service.

As you can see, there is also no exit bonus for Uber’s Southeast Asia people.

That’s a surprise considering that the company offered ‘performance bonuses’ in China and Russia. There, it told people that their hard work and dedication to the cause had been appreciated and critical in striking potentially lucrative exit deals with Didi Chuxing and Yandex, respectively.

Since Uber’s exit from Southeast Asia is a more of a victory than a defeat — its large stake in Grab is set to increase in value over time — it’s no surprise that loyal staff would be disappointed at being shoved out of the door without so much as a tip or acknowledgement of their labor. But, in keeping with Uber’s previous management style, the company seems more adept at making messes, then compensating the folks who have to clean them up.

Dara Khosrowshahi has been criticized for not making direct contact with Uber employees in Southeast Asia. (Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On top of all that, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has yet to make direct contact with the Southeast Asian staff. Several who spoke to TechCrunch were disappointed that they were not part of an internal all-hands video call with Khosrowshahi — which only included Uber’s ‘surviving’ staff in Southeast Asia.

“His arrival was billed as a positive change in culture for Uber, yet he hasn’t bothered to visit the office or even get in touch. Travis Kalanick did both when Uber China was sold to Didi,” one departing Southeast Asia-based Uber employee told TechCrunch.

Much of the discontent seems to center around communication issues.

TechCrunch understands from sources inside Uber that the company is making significant efforts to educate its staff over their options, including potentially allowing those who wish to stay within the company to do so. Uber has dispatched senior management and its head of HR for Asia Pacific and LATAM, Anika Grant, on an ’employee roadshow’ aimed at visiting each Uber Southeast Asia office in person to help staff assess their options in person.

Still, one of the biggest hurdles for both Uber and Grab is also one of the most basic. Simply getting in touch with departing Uber staff is challenging since they were removed from Uber’s system, including the email directory, as soon as the Grab deal was communicated. That’s common security protocol, but setting up and communicating new email address and phones numbers has made maintaining dialogue a challenge.

Those efforts are apparently underway, but most of the Uber employees who spoke to TechCrunch had not yet been contacted by Grab, and, in addition, most were unsure whether and when communication would happen in spite of Grab and Uber’s efforts. One source inside Uber suggested that it could be “months” before all Uber departures have been contacted by Uber or Grab and assessed for a future role at Grab.

Those employees will remain fully paid by Uber during that period, but it’s a long time to wait without updates. Already, though, a nightmare scenario is brewing for Grab.

Recruiters swarm

TechCrunch understands that Go-Jek, which is in the process of launching services in Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines, is pouring its energies into recruiting Uber’s former staff members and the platform’s drivers in a bid to hit the ground running with its long-awaited regional expansion.

Go-Jek is trying to hire key personnel from Uber’s now-defunct Southeast Asia business

Go-Jek won’t, of course, take all the Uber alums, but these conditions certainly put it in a good position to cherry pick critical new hires to fill out its business outside of Indonesia. Other Grab rivals, including well-funded logistics startup NinjaVan, food delivery companies Deliveroo and FoodPanda, bike-sharing startups, and even the likes of Facebook, WeWork, Google and Netflix are understood to have hastily arranged interviews with Uber’s departing Southeast Asia staff in a bid to suck up new talent.

That’s precisely the scenario that Grab is trying to avoid.

There are also challenges on the driver side transition, too, with many who drove for Uber reluctant or unsure of whether to move over to Grab’s platform.

TechCrunch spoke to nearly a dozen drivers in Singapore, where Uber remains operational, and Thailand and Indonesia, where the service has shuttered.

In Thailand and Singapore, the drivers had already crossed over to Grab, but they complained about the experience. Chiefly that the app is inferior, that they are making less money and that they felt like they had no choice.

Grab has said earlier this month that it has signed up over 75 percent of all Uber drivers in Indonesia, but it doesn’t have data for other markets. No independent figures exist to offer a wider picture on the success of the driver transition so far.

“Drivers tend to feel like pawns when these rideshare giants merge. A lot of drivers have bought into driving for Uber and are comfortable with their experience so the idea of migrating to a new platform can be daunting,” Harry Campbell, who writes about ride-hailing experiences for drivers at The Ride Sharing Guy blog, told TechCrunch.

“One of the nice things about competition, is that it keeps these companies in check when it comes to fighting for drivers and treating them well. There’s a reason why many drivers opted for Uber in the first place,” added Campbell, who recently moderated a Q&A between U.S. drivers and Uber CEO Khosrowshahi.

That’s the opinion of one Uber driver in Singapore, who wrote on his blog that many drivers concerned with earning less with Grab still hope for a “miracle” that sees Uber remain. Added to that concern, TechCrunch reported this week that Go-Jek has held talks with Singapore’s largest taxi operator, ComfortDelGro, with the aim of becoming the firm’s ride-hailing partner. Comfort had previously inked an agreement with Uber.

Finally, customers themselves are having to get used to Grab instead of Uber. Many have been vocal with issues which range subjective claims, such as a perceived inferior experience on Grab, and also more quantifiable concerns that include higher pricing and longer waits for a ride.

On that note, Grab explained that operates a different pricing model. Rather than Uber’s approach of a lower distance-based fare with more emphasis on surge pricing, Grab said it “always maintained a competitive per KM fare with 2.0 surge max.” Uber’s surge could reach 4X, Grab said.

Go-Jek’s opportunity

All of these factors give Go-Jek a huge opportunity to step into Uber’s shadow and becoming the Pepsi to Grab’s Coke in Southeast Asia. There’s already a track record of doing so, as recent analysis from the Financial Times suggested.

The paper’s research division surveyed 5,000 consumers across Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines and found that the gap between Grab and Uber’s services is minimal across most countries. The main exception is Indonesia, where GoJek — and its GoCar service — is the dominant player.

That suggests that things could be tighter than first assumed for Grab if it isn’t able to fully capitalize on the Uber acquisition.

With additional reporting and assistance from Jonathan Shieber