Apple reportedly partners with Volkswagen for self-driving employee shuttles

Apple has decided to work with Volkswagen for some of its self-driving car efforts, The New York Times reported today. The plan, according to the NYT, is to turn some of Volkswagen’s T6 Transporter vans into autonomous shuttles for employees.

However, this project is reportedly behind schedule and taking up much of the time of Apple’s autonomous driving team. According to the NYT, Apple’s lengthy talks pertaining to partnerships with manufacturers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz have ended.

A Volkswagen T6 van

Earlier this month, Apple’s fleet of self-driving cars registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles grew to 55 vehicles. That means Apple has the second largest fleet of self-driving cars in California, with General Motors’ Cruise coming in at number one. Apple’s standard autonomous vehicle tests rely on Lexus SUVs that have been equipped with sensors and autonomous hardware.

I’ve reached out to Apple and Volkswagen, and will update this story if I hear back.

Uber Shutting Down Self-Driving Operations In Arizona After Fatal Crash

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Arizona Republic: Uber is shutting down its self-driving car tests in Arizona, where one of the cars was involved in a fatal crash with a pedestrian in March, the company said Wednesday. The company notified about 300 Arizona workers in the self-driving program that they were being terminated just before 9 a.m. Wednesday. The shutdown should take several weeks. Test drivers for the autonomous cars have not worked since the accident in Tempe, but Uber said they continued to be paid. The company's self-driving trucks have also been shelved since the accident. Uber plans to restart testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh once federal investigators conclude their inquiry into the Tempe crash. The company also said it is having discussions with California leaders to restart testing.

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Uber’s raising up to $600M in a secondary round at $62B valuation, Q1 sales grew to $2.5B

Uber’s CEO is in Paris this week meeting with the French president to talk tech in Europe and expanding its insurance coverage in the region, but back in the U.S. the company is moving ahead on another kind of expansion.

TechCrunch has learned and confirmed that Uber is raising another secondary round of funding of up to $600 million, on a valuation of $62 billion. The fundraising development comes at the same time that Uber is also releasing its Q1 financials — which indicate that the company pulled in $2.5 billion in net revenues, with a net loss of $601 million, and negative EBIDTA of $304 million on a pro forma basis.

Raising between $400 million and $600 million on a valuation of $62 billion (at $40 per share) would indicate that while Uber is recovering from the drop in valuation from its last round with SoftBank at the end of 2017 — another round with secondary components that valued the company at $48 billion — it’s still not back up (or higher than) its loftiest valuation of $69 billion. 

From what we understand, investors participating in the offering, which has yet to close, include Coatue, Altimeter and TPG. Uber employees with at least 1,000 shares can also participate in the financing. According to the terms of offer, no one can sell more than $10 million worth of shares.

That general upward trend is also being reflected in Uber’s financials.

An investor presentation that was shared with TechCrunch indicated that the company’s $2.5 billion in net revenues was a seven percent quarter over quarter increase, and a 67 percent increase year over year. Uber’s $304 million losses, meanwhile, were about half the amount they were last year: in Q1 2017, Uber’s adjusted losses were $597 million. Gross bookings — the total taken for all of Uber’s transportation services — was $11.3 billion in Q1, a 55 percent increase compared to $7.5 billion a year ago. At the end of Q1, Uber had $6.3 billion in gross cash.

GAAP numbers indicated net revenues of $2.6 billion with a GAAP profit nearly as big: $2.456 billion. “We had $3 billion of income on a GAAP basis because of the ‘gain’ from the Yandex and Grab deals,” a spokesperson said. “That’s why we prefer to focus on EBITDA as the best number to show our underlying business in the quarter.”

“We are off to a terrific start in 2018, with our rides business beating internal plan and continuing to grow at healthy rates, while we significantly reduce our losses and maintain our leadership position around the world,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said in a statement. “Given the size of the opportunity ahead of us and our goal of making Uber a true mobility platform, we plan to reinvest any over-performance even more aggressively this year, both in our core business as well as in big bets like Uber Eats globally.”

In other words, that could mean losses might get worse in the short-term as Uber continues to invest money in businesses like Eats and JUMP, the bike-share service it acquired for about $200 million earlier this year to expand them into more markets. As with many tech companies, Uber appears to be focused more on growth than profitability, even as it eyes up an IPO, possibly as soon as next year.

Uber has raised over $21 billion in funding to date.

Uber is done testing self-driving cars in Arizona

Uber, which had already pulled its autonomous cars off the road following a fatal crash in Tempe, Arizona, is officially calling it quits in the state of Arizona, The Wall Street Journal first reported, citing an internal memo from Uber Advanced Technologies Group lead Eric Meyhofer.

As part of the wind-down, Uber has let go 300 of its test drivers. This comes after the state of Arizona in March officially barred Uber from testing its autonomous vehicles on public roads.

“We’re committed to self-driving technology, and we look forward to returning to public roads in the near future,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement. “In the meantime, we remain focused on our top-to-bottom safety review, having brought on former NTSB Chair Christopher Hart to advise us on our overall safety culture.”

Uber is hoping to have its self-driving cars performing tests on public roads again within the next few months, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said at an Uber conference earlier this month. Once the National Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation of the Tempe crash, Uber plans to continue testing in San Francisco, Toronto and Pittsburgh. But if Uber wants to continue its tests in California, it will need to apply for a new permit, as well as “address any follow-up analysis or investigations from the recent crash in Arizona,” DMV Deputy Director/Chief Counsel Brian Soublet wrote in a letter to Uber in March. Uber may also need to set up a meeting with the DMV.

MIT’s Super-Efficient Dispatching Algorithm Minimizes a City’s Taxi Fleet

An app-based algorithm could cut Manhattan's cab population by nearly a third
Photo: iStockphoto

Researchers at MIT say they’ve found an efficient dispatching algorithm that can cut a city’s fleet of taxis by 30 percent.

They describe their work in a paper published today in Nature.

“New York would need 30 percent fewer vehicles if the taxi fleet, even with human drivers, is managed better,” Carlo Ratti, the director of MIT's Senseable City Lab tells IEEE Spectrum. That’s a big savings, both in taxis and in the space they take up on city streets. New York’s 14,000-odd taxis log some 500,000 trips a day. 

The technology would seem to help the beleaguered taxi business fend off private ride-hailing services, like Uber and Lyft. They have their own algorithms, optimized partly to match drivers and passengers and partly to pool ride-sharing customers.

Ride sharing was the first thing Ratti and his colleagues studied, back in 2014, when they determined that if taxi passengers in Manhattan could put up with just a five-minute delay, nearly 95 percent of their trips could be shared. That would cut the total time that passengers spend in taxis by up to 40 percent.

This time, the researchers asked how a better dispatching model could make better use of the taxi fleet as it’s run today, that is, without assuming much ride sharing. They call it the minimum fleet problem, and they handle it as a master pool player does, by making each shot set up the next one. By giving due weight to minimizing the distance between a taxi’s destination and the origin of its next potential trip, the model moves more passengers per vehicle over a given period of time.

A perfect solution would lay to rest the famous Traveling Salesman Problem, which tries to find the shortest path a salesman must take to hit every spot on his route. That problem quickly becomes intractable, however, as the number of spots increases. You could solve it for Mayberry, but not for Manhattan.

Instead, the MIT researchers created what they call a vehicle sharing network, similar to the network they used in 2014 for optimizing ride sharing. It looks like a graph in which each node represents a trip and each line linking two nodes represents a pair of trips that one vehicle can handle. Manipulating the layout of the graph provides ways of improving (if not perfecting) the solution.

What if all of Manhattan’s 280,000 or so vehicles were robocars, driving themselves while under the control of the MIT master plan? “If we were to look at a fully autonomous city,” Rotti says, “the reduction in vehicles would be closer to 50 percent.”

This company wants to put “brains” in electric scooters and bikes to keep riders safer

Superpedestrian, a Cambridge, Ma.-based company, has been known until now for its electric Copenhagen wheel, which a user attaches to his or her bikes and operates through an app. It’s essentially a circular unit that houses a motor, a battery and sensors and is placed in the middle of the rear wheel, measuring how fast and how forcefully someone is riding and adding a little electric oomph when a bike’s pedals are pushed.

Riders love the wheel, but now, Superpedestrian is shifting gears. It isn’t abandoning its consumer base. Instead, it’s taking the wraps off an entirely new second business that plans to use the one million kilometers of data it has amassed from Copenhagen customers to improve the offerings of urban mobility companies. More specifically, it wants to sell them hardware and software that will keep their fleets up to snuff.

It doesn’t matter if these companies are renting out electric bikes, scooter, mopeds or all three. Superpedestrian is “micro vehicle” agnostic, suggests its founder, Assaf Biderman — who’d earlier spent 10 years working at MIT’s Senseable City Lab. In fact, he says Superpedestrian has been quietly modeling out this business-to-business diagnostics business since nearly the company’s launch five years ago but was waiting for small motorized vehicles to gain momentum.

Now, of course, scooter and e-bike sharing services are suddenly booming. Enter Superpedestrian, which says it’s time for the companies that are peppering city streets with their vehicles to improve their quality, and that Superpedestrian can help make them more reliable, easier to track, and more cost-effective over time.

Biderman is, alas, a little vague on some of the specifics. For competitive reasons, he declines to discuss how much Superpedestrian will charge for its technology or precisely how a customer like an Uber or a Spin or a Scoot would incorporate its tech into their products. He also won’t say whether Superpedestrian is already selling to any of these, or other, mobility companies already.

He is comfortable talking broadly about the sensors, embedded controllers, and software that Superpedestrian has created and protected thanks to the “dozens of patents” that the company has secured over the years, “from Japan to China to Europe to the U.S.” He suggests that what Superpedestrian has built in some ways mirrors the smarts in self-driving cars.

When a car opens in front of a rider, for example, that person’s natural inclination might be to slam on the brakes, but Biderman argues they aren’t always able to do this on pedal-assist bikes, which are actuated by sensing rider pedaling but have “very limited ability when it comes to sensing what the rider is actually doing with his or her feet.” Delays in power output due to controls, or gear lag, can also prove dangerous if the expectation is that a bike will push in synch with how the pedals are pushed. Superdestrian’s tech gives riders more control over the bike because it ensures the power is better synchronized with pedaling motions, he says.

The technology doesn’t just protect riders. Bideman says companies that work with Superpedestrian can also better protect their products. For one thing, he says, its technology can ensure their batteries don’t overheat. (As we’ve seen with autonomous cars, laptops and mobile phones, lithium-ion batteries can, on rare occasion, catch fire and explode.)

Investors certainly like Superpedestrian’s new direction. The company, which employs roughly 50 people, just closed on $16.5 million in Series B1 funding expressly to introduce its products and services into the e-bike and electric scooter sharing market. Designer Tony Fadell, investing from his investment and advisory firm Future Shape, participated in the round. So did Spark Capital, General Catalyst, and Charles Kim of Extol Capital, who also serves as managing director at China Renaissance in the U.S.

The new round brings the company’s total funding to $44 million. Biderman sounds highly motivated to put it to work, too.

“It’s great that micro mobility is becoming a reality in cities,” he says. He’d become obsessed long ago with how to squeeze more capacity out of roads, and nothing makes him happier than “one-person vehicles, because they’re occupied at 100 percent,” unlike cars that are “usually 60 to 80 percent unoccupied” and the “wrong scale as cities become more congested.”

Still, he continues, these new vehicles “need to have a different brain in them.” If he has his way, Superpedestrian will design it.

Lyft invests $100 million in its drivers

Lyft is committing $100 million to better support its drivers. The company is specifically putting this money toward cheaper oil changes, basic car maintenance, serviced car washes and more. Lyft will also almost double its operating hours at its driver hubs in 15 cities throughout the nation.

The idea is to help drivers make more money and maximize their earnings by offsetting the costs of driving. Other benefits will include car and SUV rentals, tax education and more.

Lyft also says it expects to more than double its driver base in the next five years. Currently, Lyft has 1.4 million drivers, according to its latest economic impact report.

“Just as advancements in aviation technologies haven’t reduced the need for pilots or flight staff, there’s still security in the future for the 1.4 million people who depend on driving for an income,” Lyft COO Jon McNeill wrote in a blog post. “We are in the business of supporting our drivers for the long haul. Period.”

McNeill joined Lyft just earlier this year from Tesla, where he was president of global sales and service.

Given that a number of Lyft drivers also drive for Uber, Lyft will likely tier some specific perks and discounts based on number of driver hours, a Lyft spokesperson told TechCrunch.

People Are Losing Faith In Self-Driving Cars Following Recent Fatal Crashes

oldgraybeard shares a report from Mashable: A new survey (PDF) released Tuesday by the American Automobile Association found that 73 percent of American drivers are scared to ride in an autonomous vehicle. That figure is up 10 percent from the end of last year. The millennial demographic has been the most affected, according to the survey of more than 1,000 drivers. From that age group, 64 percent said they're too afraid to ride in an autonomous vehicle, up from 49 percent -- making it the biggest increase of any age group surveyed. "There are news articles about the trust levels in self-driving cars going down," writes oldgraybeard. "As a technical person, I have always thought the road to driverless cars would be longer than most were talking about. What are your thoughts? As an individual with eye problems, I do like the idea. But technology is not as good as some think." The Mashable article also references a separate study from market research company Morning Consult "showing increased fear about self-driving vehicles following the deadly March crashes in the Bay Area and Arizona." Another survey from car shopping site CarGurus set to be released Wednesday found that car owners aren't quite ready to trade their conventional vehicles for self-driving ones. "Some 84 percent of the 1,873 U.S. car owners surveyed in April said they were unlikely to own a self-driving car in the next five years," reports Mashable. "79 percent of respondents said they were not excited about the new technology."

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Tesla’s Promised $35,000 Model 3 Is Still a Long Way Off

When the Model 3 was first unveiled, it was pitched as an EV for the masses that would have a reasonable $35,000 price. Two years later and we still don't have a clear timeline as to when the $35,000 Model 3 will ship. In fact, Elon Musk last weekend unveiled the pricing and specs of a newer, more expensive Model 3 with AWD. It will cost $78,000. Engadget reports: CEO Elon Musk recently tweeted that the $35,000 Model 3 now won't ship until three to six months after Tesla achieves its 5,000 vehicle-per-week production goal. The reason for the new delay in the base model is simple: If the company was to ship it now, it would lose money on every vehicle and "die," as Musk put it. If Tesla had hit its initial forecasts and was producing 5,000 vehicles a week by January, the base, $35,000 Model 3 probably wouldn't have been delayed by so much. One potential problem for Tesla, as the WSJ points out, is that many of the 500,000 buyers who laid down a $1,000 deposit did so expecting to buy a $35,000 car, not a $49,000 one. When they get a letter saying the time has come to configure their EVs, quite a few might decide to back out, which could impact Tesla's already precarious cash flow situation.

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Boeing’s Folding Wingtips Get the FAA Green Light

Boeing received FAA approval today for its folding wingtips, which will let the planes stop at airport gates big enough to accommodate typical 777 models. "Once the 777X lands, the wingtips will rotate until they point upwards," reports Engadget. "Bloomberg notes that the plane will be the only commercial model in widespread use to have such a feature." From the report: The 777X's wingtips are so novel that U.S. regulators had to draw up new standards for them. The FAA rubber-stamped those measures Friday. The agency was concerned that the wingtips could cause safety issues -- some plane crashes occurred after pilots did not secure flaps on wings before takeoff. The FAA required Boeing to have several warning systems to make sure pilots won't attempt a takeoff before the wingtips are locked in the correct position. The FAA also wanted assurances that there was no way the tips would rotate during flight, and that the wings could handle winds of up to 75 miles per hour while on the ground. The new wings are made from carbon-fiber composites that are stronger and lighter than the metal Boeing uses in other wings. That lets the company increase the wings' width by 23 feet to 235 feet, which makes flying more efficient. These are the widest wings Boeing has attached to a plane, surpassing the 747-8's 224 feet. However, it doesn't hold the record for a commercial plane: the Airbus A380 has a 262-foot-wide wing, which forced some airports to install gates specifically to accommodate it.

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