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Facebook announces Libra cryptocurrency: All you need to know

Posted by | Anchorage, Andreessen Horowitz, Apps, blockchain, coinbase, cryptocurrency, Developer, eBay, eCommerce, Facebook, Farfetch, Finance, funding, Libra Association, Libra Cryptocurrency, Lyft, Mobile, Move coding language, payments, PayPal, Policy, privacy, Ribbit Capital, Social, Spotify, stablecoin, stripe, TC, Thrive Capital, Uber, Union Square Ventures, visa | No Comments

Facebook has finally revealed the details of its cryptocurrency, Libra, which will let you buy things or send money to people with nearly zero fees. You’ll pseudonymously buy or cash out your Libra online or at local exchange points like grocery stores, and spend it using interoperable third-party wallet apps or Facebook’s own Calibra wallet that will be built into WhatsApp, Messenger and its own app. Today Facebook released its white paper explaining Libra and its testnet for working out the kinks of its blockchain system before a public launch in the first half of 2020.

Facebook won’t fully control Libra, but instead get just a single vote in its governance like other founding members of the Libra Association, including Visa, Uber and Andreessen Horowitz, which have invested at least $10 million each into the project’s operations. The association will promote the open-sourced Libra Blockchain and developer platform with its own Move programming language, plus sign up businesses to accept Libra for payment and even give customers discounts or rewards.

Facebook is launching a subsidiary company also called Calibra that handles its crypto dealings and protects users’ privacy by never mingling your Libra payments with your Facebook data so it can’t be used for ad targeting. Your real identity won’t be tied to your publicly visible transactions. But Facebook/Calibra and other founding members of the Libra Association will earn interest on the money users cash in that is held in reserve to keep the value of Libra stable.

Facebook’s audacious bid to create a global digital currency that promotes financial inclusion for the unbanked actually has more privacy and decentralization built in than many expected. Instead of trying to dominate Libra’s future or squeeze tons of cash out of it immediately, Facebook is instead playing the long-game by pulling payments into its online domain. Facebook’s VP of blockchain, David Marcus, explained the company’s motive and the tie-in with its core revenue source during a briefing at San Francisco’s historic Mint building. “If more commerce happens, then more small businesses will sell more on and off platform, and they’ll want to buy more ads on the platform so it will be good for our ads business.”

The risk and reward of building the new PayPal

In cryptocurrencies, Facebook saw both a threat and an opportunity. They held the promise of disrupting how things are bought and sold by eliminating transaction fees common with credit cards. That comes dangerously close to Facebook’s ad business that influences what is bought and sold. If a competitor like Google or an upstart built a popular coin and could monitor the transactions, they’d learn what people buy and could muscle in on the billions spent on Facebook marketing. Meanwhile, the 1.7 billion people who lack a bank account might choose whoever offers them a financial services alternative as their online identity provider too. That’s another thing Facebook wants to be.

Yet existing cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum weren’t properly engineered to scale to be a medium of exchange. Their unanchored price was susceptible to huge and unpredictable swings, making it tough for merchants to accept as payment. And cryptocurrencies miss out on much of their potential beyond speculation unless there are enough places that will take them instead of dollars, and the experience of buying and spending them is easy enough for a mainstream audience. But with Facebook’s relationship with 7 million advertisers and 90 million small businesses plus its user experience prowess, it was well-poised to tackle this juggernaut of a problem.

Now Facebook wants to make Libra the evolution of PayPal . It’s hoping Libra will become simpler to set up, more ubiquitous as a payment method, more efficient with fewer fees, more accessible to the unbanked, more flexible thanks to developers and more long-lasting through decentralization.

“Success will mean that a person working abroad has a fast and simple way to send money to family back home, and a college student can pay their rent as easily as they can buy a coffee,” Facebook writes in its Libra documentation. That would be a big improvement on today, when you’re stuck paying rent in insecure checks while exploitative remittance services charge an average of 7% to send money abroad, taking $50 billion from users annually. Libra could also power tiny microtransactions worth just a few cents that are infeasible with credit card fees attached, or replace your pre-paid transit pass.

…Or it could be globally ignored by consumers who see it as too much hassle for too little reward, or too unfamiliar and limited in use to pull them into the modern financial landscape. Facebook has built a reputation for over-engineered, underused products. It will need all the help it can get if wants to replace what’s already in our pockets.

How does Libra work?

By now you know the basics of Libra. Cash in a local currency, get Libra, spend them like dollars without big transaction fees or your real name attached, cash them out whenever you want. Feel free to stop reading and share this article if that’s all you care about. But the underlying technology, the association that governs it, the wallets you’ll use and the way payments work all have a huge amount of fascinating detail to them. Facebook has released more than 100 pages of documentation on Libra and Calibra, and we’ve pulled out the most important facts. Let’s dive in.

The Libra Association — crypto’s new oligarchy

Facebook knew people wouldn’t trust it to wholly steer the cryptocurrency they use, and it also wanted help to spur adoption. So the social network recruited the founding members of the Libra Association, a not-for-profit which oversees the development of the token, the reserve of real-world assets that gives it value and the governance rules of the blockchain. “If we were controlling it, very few people would want to jump on and make it theirs,” says Marcus.

Each founding member paid a minimum of $10 million to join and optionally become a validator node operator (more on that later), gain one vote in the Libra Association council and be entitled to a share (proportionate to their investment) of the dividends from interest earned on the Libra reserve into which users pay fiat currency to receive Libra.

The 28 soon-to-be founding members of the association and their industries, previously reported by The Block’s Frank Chaparro, include:

  • Payments: Mastercard, PayPal, PayU (Naspers’ fintech arm), Stripe, Visa
  • Technology and marketplaces: Booking Holdings, eBay, Facebook/Calibra, Farfetch, Lyft, Mercado Pago, Spotify AB, Uber Technologies, Inc.
  • Telecommunications: Iliad, Vodafone Group
  • Blockchain: Anchorage, Bison Trails, Coinbase, Inc., Xapo Holdings Limited
  • Venture Capital: Andreessen Horowitz, Breakthrough Initiatives, Ribbit Capital, Thrive Capital, Union Square Ventures
  • Nonprofit and multilateral organizations, and academic institutions: Creative Destruction Lab, Kiva, Mercy Corps, Women’s World Banking

Facebook says it hopes to reach 100 founding members before the official Libra launch and it’s open to anyone that meets the requirements, including direct competitors like Google or Twitter. The Libra Association is based in Geneva, Switzerland and will meet biannually. The country was chosen for its neutral status and strong support for financial innovation including blockchain technology.

Libra governance — who gets a vote

To join the association, members must have a half rack of server space, a 100Mbps or above dedicated internet connection, a full-time site reliability engineer and enterprise-grade security. Businesses must hit two of three thresholds of a $1 billion USD market value or $500 million in customer balances, reach 20 million people a year and/or be recognized as a top 100 industry leader by a group like Interbrand Global or the S&P.

Crypto-focused investors must have more than $1 billion in assets under management, while Blockchain businesses must have been in business for a year, have enterprise-grade security and privacy and custody or staking greater than $100 million in assets. And only up to one-third of founding members can by crypto-related businesses or individually invited exceptions. Facebook also accepts research organizations like universities, and nonprofits fulfilling three of four qualities, including working on financial inclusion for more than five years, multi-national reach to lots of users, a top 100 designation by Charity Navigator or something like it and/or $50 million in budget.

The Libra Association will be responsible for recruiting more founding members to act as validator nodes for the blockchain, fundraising to jump-start the ecosystem, designing incentive programs to reward early adopters and doling out social impact grants. A council with a representative from each member will help choose the association’s managing director, who will appoint an executive team and elect a board of five to 19 top representatives.

Each member, including Facebook/Calibra, will only get up to one vote or 1% of the total vote (whichever is larger) in the Libra Association council. This provides a level of decentralization that protects against Facebook or any other player hijacking Libra for its own gain. By avoiding sole ownership and dominion over Libra, Facebook could avoid extra scrutiny from regulators who are already investigating it for a sea of privacy abuses as well as potentially anti-competitive behavior. In an attempt to preempt criticism from lawmakers, the Libra Association writes, “We welcome public inquiry and accountability. We are committed to a dialogue with regulators and policymakers. We share policymakers’ interest in the ongoing stability of national currencies.”

The Libra currency — a stablecoin

A Libra is a unit of the Libra cryptocurrency that’s represented by a three wavy horizontal line unicode character ≋ like the dollar is represented by $. The value of a Libra is meant to stay largely stable, so it’s a good medium of exchange, as merchants can be confident they won’t be paid a Libra today that’s then worth less tomorrow. The Libra’s value is tied to a basket of bank deposits and short-term government securities for a slew of historically stable international currencies, including the dollar, pound, euro, Swiss franc and yen. The Libra Association maintains this basket of assets and can change the balance of its composition if necessary to offset major price fluctuations in any one foreign currency so that the value of a Libra stays consistent.

The name Libra comes from the word for a Roman unit of weight measure. It’s trying to invoke a sense of financial freedom by playing on the French stem “Lib,” meaning free.

The Libra Association is still hammering out the exact start value for the Libra, but it’s meant to be somewhere close to the value of a dollar, euro or pound so it’s easy to conceptualize. That way, a gallon of milk in the U.S. might cost 3 to 4 Libra, similar but not exactly the same as with dollars.

The idea is that you’ll cash in some money and keep a balance of Libra that you can spend at accepting merchants and online services. You’ll be able to trade in your local currency for Libra and vice versa through certain wallet apps, including Facebook’s Calibra, third-party wallet apps and local resellers like convenience or grocery stores where people already go to top-up their mobile data plan.

The Libra Reserve — one for one

Each time someone cashes in a dollar or their respective local currency, that money goes into the Libra Reserve and an equivalent value of Libra is minted and doled out to that person. If someone cashes out from the Libra Association, the Libra they give back are destroyed/burned and they receive the equivalent value in their local currency back. That means there’s always 100% of the value of the Libra in circulation, collateralized with real-world assets in the Libra Reserve. It never runs fractional. And unliked “pegged” stable coins that are tied to a single currency like the USD, Libra maintains its own value — though that should cash out to roughly the same amount of a given currency over time.

When Libra Association members join and pay their $10 million minimum, they receive Libra Investment Tokens. Their share of the total tokens translates into the proportion of the dividend they earn off of interest on assets in the reserve. Those dividends are only paid out after Libra Association uses interest to pay for operating expenses, investments in the ecosystem, engineering research and grants to nonprofits and other organizations. This interest is part of what attracted the Libra Association’s members. If Libra becomes popular and many people carry a large balance of the currency, the reserve will grow huge and earn significant interest.

The Libra Blockchain — built for speed

Every Libra payment is permanently written into the Libra Blockchain — a cryptographically authenticated database that acts as a public online ledger designed to handle 1,000 transactions per second. That would be much faster than Bitcoin’s 7 transactions per second or Ethereum’s 15. The blockchain is operated and constantly verified by founding members of the Libra Association, which each invested $10 million or more for a say in the cryptocurrency’s governance and the ability to operate a validator node.

When a transaction is submitted, each of the nodes runs a calculation based on the existing ledger of all transactions. Thanks to a Byzantine Fault Tolerance system, just two-thirds of the nodes must come to consensus that the transaction is legitimate for it to be executed and written to the blockchain. A structure of Merkle Trees in the code makes it simple to recognize changes made to the Libra Blockchain. With 5KB transactions, 1,000 verifications per second on commodity CPUs and up to 4 billion accounts, the Libra Blockchain should be able to operate at 1,000 transactions per second if nodes use at least 40Mbps connections and 16TB SSD hard drives.

Transactions on Libra cannot be reversed. If an attack compromises over one-third of the validator nodes causing a fork in the blockchain, the Libra Association says it will temporarily halt transactions, figure out the extent of the damage and recommend software updates to resolve the fork.

Transactions aren’t entirely free. They incur a tiny fraction of a cent fee to pay for “gas” that covers the cost of processing the transfer of funds similar to with Ethereum. This fee will be negligible to most consumers, but when they add up, the gas charges will deter bad actors from creating millions of transactions to power spam and denial-of-service attacks. “We’ve purposely tried not to innovate massively on the blockchain itself because we want it to be scalable and secure,” says Marcus of piggybacking on the best elements of existing cryptocurrencies.

Currently, the Libra Blockchain is what’s known as “permissioned,” where only entities that fulfill certain requirements are admitted to a special in-group that defines consensus and controls governance of the blockchain. The problem is this structure is more vulnerable to attacks and censorship because it’s not truly decentralized. But during Facebook’s research, it couldn’t find a reliable permissionless structure that could securely scale to the number of transactions Libra will need to handle. Adding more nodes slows things down, and no one has proven a way to avoid that without compromising security.

That’s why the Libra Association’s goal is to move to a permissionless system based on proof-of-stake that will protect against attacks by distributing control, encourage competition and lower the barrier to entry. It wants to have at least 20% of votes in the Libra Association council coming from node operators based on their total Libra holdings instead of their status as a founding member. That plan should help appease blockchain purists who won’t be satisfied until Libra is completely decentralized.

Move coding language — for moving Libra

The Libra Blockchain is open source with an Apache 2.0 license, and any developer can build apps that work with it using the Move coding language. The blockchain’s prototype launches its testnet today, so it’s effectively in developer beta mode until it officially launches in the first half of 2020. The Libra Association is working with HackerOne to launch a bug bounty system later this year that will pay security researchers for safely identifying flaws and glitches. In the meantime, the Libra Association is implementing the Libra Core using the Rust programming language because it’s designed to prevent security vulnerabilities, and the Move language isn’t fully ready yet.

Move was created to make it easier to write blockchain code that follows an author’s intent without introducing bugs. It’s called Move because its primary function is to move Libra coins from one account to another, and never let those assets be accidentally duplicated. The core transaction code looks like: LibraAccount.pay_from_sender(recipient_address, amount) procedure.

Eventually, Move developers will be able to create smart contracts for programmatic interactions with the Libra Blockchain. Until Move is ready, developers can create modules and transaction scripts for Libra using Move IR, which is high-level enough to be human-readable but low-level enough to be translatable into real Move bytecode that’s written to the blockchain.

The Libra ecosystem and the Move language will be completely open to use and build, which presents a sizable risk. Crooked developers could prey on crypto novices, claiming their app works just the same as legitimate ones, and that it’s safe because it uses Libra. But if consumers get ripped off by these scammers, the anger will surely bubble up to Facebook. Yet still, Calibra’s head of product tells me, “There are no plans for the Libra Association to take a role in actively vetting [developers],” Calibra’s head of product Kevin Weil tells me.

Even though it’s tried to distance itself sufficiently via its subsidiary Libra and the association, many people will probably always think of Libra as Facebook’s cryptocurrency and blame it for their woes.

Read our full story on the dangers of Libra’s unvetted developer platform

Libra incentives — rewarding early businesses

The Libra Association wants to encourage more developers and merchants to work with its cryptocurrency. That’s why it plans to issue incentives, possibly Libra coins, to validator node operators who can get people signed up for and using Libra. Wallets that pull users through the Know Your Customer anti-fraud and money laundering process or that keep users sufficiently active for over a year will be rewarded. For each transaction they process, merchants will also receive a percentage of the transaction back.

Businesses that earn these incentives can keep them, or pass some or all of them along to users in the form of free Libra tokens or discounts on their purchases. This could create competition between wallets to see which can pass on the most rewards to their customers, and thereby attract the most users. You could imagine eBay or Spotify giving you a discount for paying in Libra, while wallet developers might offer you free tokens if you complete 100 transactions within a year.

“One challenge for Spotify and its users around the world has been the lack of easily accessible payment systems – especially for those in financially underserved markets,” Spotify’s Chief Premium Business Officer Alex Norström writes. “In joining the Libra Association, there is an opportunity to better reach Spotify’s total addressable market, eliminate friction and enable payments in mass scale.”

This savvy incentive system should massively help ratchet up Libra’s user count without dictating how businesses balance their margins versus growth. Facebook also has another plan to grow its developer ecosystem. By offering venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures a portion of the reserve interest, they’re motivating to fund startups building Libra infrastructure.

Using Libra

So how do you actually own and spend Libra? Through Libra wallets like Facebook’s own Calibra and others that will be built by third-parties, potentially including Libra Association members like PayPal. The idea is to make sending money to a friend or paying for something as easy as sending a Facebook Message. You won’t be able to make or receive any real payments until the official launch next year, though, but you can sign up for early access when it’s ready here.

None of the Libra Association members agreed to provide details on what exactly they’ll build on the blockchain, but we can take Facebook’s Calibra wallet as an example of the basic experience. Calibra will launch alongside the Libra currency on iOS and Android within Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and a standalone app. When users first sign up, they’ll be taken through a Know Your Customer anti-fraud process where they’ll have to provide a government-issued photo ID and other verification info. They’ll need to conduct due diligence on customers and report suspicious activity to the authorities.

From there you’ll be able to cash in to Libra, pick a friend or merchant, set an amount to send them and add a description and send them Libra. You’ll also be able to request Libra, and Calibra will offer an expedited way of paying merchants by scanning your or their QR code. Eventually it wants to offer in-store payments and integrations with point-of-sale systems like Square.

The Libra Association’s e-commerce members seem particularly excited about how the token could eliminate transaction fees and speed up checkout. “We believe blockchain will benefit the luxury industry by improving IP protection, transparency in the product life cycle and — as in the case of Libra — enable global frictionless e-commerce,” says FarFetch CEO Jose Neves.

Privacy — at least from Facebook

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained some of the philosophy behind Libra and Calibra in a post today. “It’s decentralized — meaning it’s run by many different organizations instead of just one, making the system fairer overall. It’s available to anyone with an internet connection and has low fees and costs. And it’s secured by cryptography which helps keep your money safe. This is an important part of our vision for a privacy-focused social platform — where you can interact in all the ways you’d want privately, from messaging to secure payments.”

By default, Facebook won’t import your contacts or any of your profile information, but may ask if you wish to do so. It also won’t share any of your transaction data back to Facebook, so it won’t be used to target you with ads, rank your News Feed, or otherwise earn Facebook money directly. Data will only be shared in specific instances in anonymized ways for research or adoption measurement, for hunting down fraudsters or due to a request from law enforcement. And you don’t even need a Facebook or WhatsApp account to sign up for Calibra or to use Libra.

“We realize people don’t want their social data and financial data commingled,” says Marcus, who’s now head of Calibra. “The reality is we’ll have plenty of wallets that will compete with us and many of them will not be in social, and if we want to successfully win people’s trust, we have to make sure the data will be separated.”

In case you are hacked, scammed or lose access to your account, Calibra will refund you for lost coins when possible through 24/7 chat support because it’s a custodial wallet. You also won’t have to remember any long, complex crypto passwords you could forget and get locked out from your money, as Calibra manages all your keys for you. Given Calibra will likely become the default wallet for many Libra users, this extra protection and smoother user experience is essential.

For now, Calibra won’t make money. But Calibra’s head of product Kevin Weil tells me that if it reaches scale, Facebook could launch other financial tools through Calibra that it could monetize, such as investing or lending. “In time, we hope to offer additional services for people and businesses, such as paying bills with the push of a button, buying a cup of coffee with the scan of a code or riding your local public transit without needing to carry cash or a metro pass,” the Calibra team writes. That makes it start to sound a lot like China’s everything app WeChat.

A global coin

Facebook got one thing right for sure: Today’s money doesn’t work for everyone. Those of us living comfortably in developed nations likely don’t see the hardships that befall migrant workers or the unbanked abroad. Preyed on by greedy payday lenders and high-fee remittance services, targeted by muggers and left out of traditional financial services, the poor get poorer. Libra has the potential to get more money from working parents back to their families and help people retain credit even if they’re robbed of their physical possessions. That would do more to accomplish Facebook’s mission of making the world feel smaller than all the News Feed Likes combined.

If Facebook succeeds and legions of people cash in money for Libra, it and the other founding members of the Libra Association could earn big dividends on the interest. And if suddenly it becomes super quick to buy things through Facebook using Libra, businesses will boost their ad spend there. But if Libra gets hacked or proves unreliable, it could cost lots of people around the world money while souring them on cryptocurrencies. And by offering an open Libra platform, shady developers could build apps that snatch not just people’s personal info like Cambridge Analytica, but their hard-earned digital cash.

Facebook just tried to reinvent money. Next year, we’ll see if the Libra Association can pull it off. It took me 4,000 words to explain Libra, but at least now you can make up your own mind about whether to be scared of Facebook crypto.

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Google Assistant comes to Waze navigation app

Posted by | Android, Android Auto, Apps, Assistant, automotive, computing, Google, Google-Maps, Lyft, smartphones, Software, TC, Transportation, Uber, United States, waze | No Comments

Ever since Google acquired Waze back in 2013, features from each have been slowly making their way back and forth between it and Google Maps — and today Waze gets a big upgrade with Google Assistant integration, which means you can use the smart voice companion within the app.

Google Assistant in Waze will provide access to your usual Assistant features, like playback of music and podcasts, but it’ll also offer access to many Waze-specific abilities, including letting you ask it to report traffic conditions, or specifying that you want to avoid tolls when routing to your destination.

Google has done a good job of rolling out support for Assistant in its own Android Auto in-car software, and even brought it to Google Maps on Apple’s competing CarPlay system earlier this year. The benefits of having Assistant work natively within Waze are many, but the number one might be its potential to reduce distractions while on the road.

Waze remains a top choice among drivers, and anecdotally most Uber and Lyft drivers I encounter still swear by its supremacy over the competition, including Google’s other own-branded Maps solution.

Google Assistant will be available via a rollout starting today in the U.S., in English only to start and on Android smartphones. Expect that availability to expand over time.

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Waymo launches robotaxi app on Google Play

Posted by | Android, Apps, automotive, electric vehicles, Google, Lyft, robotaxi, self-driving car, self-driving cars, transport, Transportation, Uber, waymo | No Comments

Waymo is making its ride-hailing app more widely available by putting it on the Google Play store as the self-driving car company prepares to open its service to more Phoenix residents.

The company, which spun out to become a business under Alphabet, launched a limited commercial robotaxi service called Waymo One in the Phoenix area in December. The Waymo One self-driving car service, and accompanying app, was only available to Phoenix residents who were part of its early rider program, which aimed to bring vetted regular folks into its self-driving minivans.

Technically, Waymo has had Android and iOS apps for some time. But interested riders would only gain access to the app after first applying on the company’s website. Once accepted to the early rider program, they would be sent a link to the app to download to their device.

The early rider program, which launched in April 2017, had more than 400 participants the last time Waymo shared figures. Waymo hasn’t shared information on how many people have moved over to the public service, except to say “hundreds of riders” are using it.

Now, with Waymo One launching on Google Play, the company is cracking the door a bit wider. However, there will be still be limitations to the service.

Interested customers with Android devices can download the app. Unlike a traditional ride-hailing service, like Uber or Lyft, this doesn’t mean users will get instant access. Instead, potential riders will be added to a waitlist. Once accepted, they will be able to request rides in the app.

These new customers will first be invited into Waymo’s early rider program before they’re moved to the public service. This is an important distinction, because early rider program participants have to to sign non-disclosure agreements and can’t bring guests with them. These new riders will eventually be moved to Waymo’s public service, the company said. Riders on the public service can invite guests, take photos and videos and talk about their experience.

“These two offerings are deeply connected, as learnings from our early rider program help shape the experience we ultimately provide to our public riders,” Waymo said in a blog post Tuesday.

Waymo has been creeping toward a commercial service in Phoenix since it began testing self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans in suburbs like Chandler in 2016.

The following year, Waymo launched its early rider program. The company also started testing empty self-driving minivans on public streets that year.

Waymo began in May 2018 to allow some early riders to hail a self-driving minivan without a human test driver behind the wheel. More recently, the company launched a public transit program in Phoenix focused on delivering people to bus stops and train and light-rail stations.

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Transportation Weekly: Polestar CEO speaks, Tesla terminology, and a tribute

Posted by | alex roy, Android, Aptiv, Audi, Automation, automotive, BMW, Canada, car, car sharing, Carmera, cars, China, e-bikes, Environmental Protection Agency, Ford, Google, honda, Joshua Schachter, Kia, Kirsten Korosec, Las Vegas, Lyft, mobility services, Netflix, New York, Peugeot, pininfarina, Polestar, rakuten, self-driving car, sidewalk labs, simulation, TechCrunch, Tesla Model S, tokyo, toronto, Toyota, toyota research institute, Transportation, Transportation Weekly, volkswagen, volvo, waymo, Zipcar, Zum | No Comments

Welcome back to Transportation Weekly; I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch . This is the fourth edition of our newsletter, a weekly jaunt into the wonderful world of transportation and how we (and our packages) move.

This week we chat with Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath, dig into Lyft’s S-1, take note of an emerging trend in AV development, and check out an experiment with paving. Oh, and how could we forget Tesla.

Never heard of TechCrunch’s Transportation Weekly? Catch up here, here and here. As I’ve written before, consider this a soft launch. Follow me on Twitter @kirstenkorosec to ensure you see it each week. (An email subscription is coming). 


ONM …

There are OEMs in the automotive world. And here, (wait for it) there are ONMs — original news manufacturers. (Cymbal clash!) This is where investigative reporting, enterprise pieces and analysis on transportation lives.

This week, we’re featuring excerpts taken from a one-on-one interview with Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath.

On February 27, Volvo’s standalone electric performance brand Polestar introduced its first all-electric vehicle, a five-door fastback called the Polestar 2. The EV, which has a 78 kWh battery pack and can travel 275 miles (estimated EPA guidance) on a single charge, will be manufactured at a new factory in Chengdu, China. Other notable specs: The infotainment system will be powered by Android OS, Polestar is offering subscriptions to the vehicle, and production starts in 2020.

yellow-jacket-polestar

Here is what Ingenlath had to say to me about …

EV charging infrastructure

To be very unpolitical, I think it would be totally stupid if we were to aim to develop electric charging infrastructure on our own or for our brand specifically. If you join the electric market today, of course, you would see partnerships; that’s sensible thing to do. Car companies together are making a big effort in getting out a network of necessary charging stations along the highway. 

That’s what we’re doing; we’re teaming up and have the contracts being designed and soon signed.

On the company’s approach to automation 

The terminology is important for us. We very clearly put that into a different picture, we’re not talking about, and we clearly do not ever want to label it, anautopilot.” The focus of this system is a very safe distance control, which brakes for you and accelerates for you, and of course, the lane keeping. This is not about developing an autopilot system, it is about giving your safety. And that’s where we don’t want to provoke people thinking that they have full rollout autopilot system there. But it is a system that helps you being safe and protected on the road.

I also reached out to Transportation Weekly readers and asked what they wanted to know and then sent some of those questions to Ingenlath.

TW Reader: How did it feel taking one of your personal styling elements – the C shaped rear lamps – from your previous brand over to Polestar?
Ingenlath: It’s an evolutionary process. Polestar naturally builds on its “mothers” DNA and as a new branch develops its own personality. Thor’s hammer, the rear light signature -—with each new model launch (Volvo and Polestar) those elements diverge into a brand specific species.
TW Reader: How much do you still get to do what you love, which is design?
Ingenlath: Being creative is still my main job, now applied on a broader scope — trying to lead a company with a creative and  brand building mindset. Still, I love the Fridays when I meet up with Robin and Max to review the models, sketches and new data. We really enjoy driving the design of both brands to new adventures.

Dig In

Tesla is finally going to offer customers a $35,000 Model 3. How the automaker is able to sell this electric vehicle at the long-awaited $35,000 price point is a big piece of that story — and one that some overlooked. In short, the company is blowing up its sales model and moving to an online only strategy. Tesla stores will close or be converted to “information centers” and retail employees will be laid off.

But this is not what we’re going to talk about today. Tesla has also brought back its so-called “full self-driving” feature, which was removed as an option on its website last year. Now it’s back. Owners can opt for Autopilot, which has automatic steering on highways and traffic-aware cruise control, or FSD.

FSD capability includes several features such as Navigate on Autopilot that is supposed to guide a car from a highway on-ramp to off-ramp, including navigating interchanges and making lane changes. FSD also includes Advanced Summon, Auto Lane Change, and Autopark. Later this year, the system will recognize and respond to traffic lights in more complex urban environments, Tesla says.

All of these features require the driver to be engaged (or ready to take over), yet it’s called “full self-driving.” Now Tesla has two controversially named automation features. (The other is Autopilot). As Andrew Hawkins at The Verge noted in his coverage, “experts are beginning to realize that the way we discuss, and how companies market, autonomy is significant.”

Which begs the obvious question, and one that I asked Musk during a conference call on Thursday. “Isn’t it a problem that you’re calling this full self-driving capability when you’re still going to require the driver to take control or be paying attention?” (I also wanted to ask a followup on his response, but the moderator moved onto the next reporter).

His response:

“We are very clear when you buy the car what is meant by full self driving. It means it’s feature complete, but feature complete requiring supervision.

As we get more — we really need billions of miles, if not maybe 10 billion sort of miles or kilometers on that order collectively from the fleet — then in our opinion probably at that point supervision is not required, but that will still be up to regulators to agree.

So we’re just very clear.  There’s really three steps: there’s being feature complete of full self driving that requires supervision, feature complete but not requiring supervision, and feature complete not requiring supervision and regulators agree.

In other Tesla news, the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a crash, that at first glance seems to be similar to the fatal crash that killed Tesla owner Joshua Brown.

In cooperation with the Palm Beach sheriff’s office, the NTSB is sending a team of three to conduct a safety investigation of the commercial motor vehicle and Tesla crash in Delray Beach, FL.

— NTSB_Newsroom (@NTSB_Newsroom) March 2, 2019


A little bird …

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share.

blinky-cat-bird

It’s no secret that Pittsburgh is one of the hubs of autonomous vehicle development in the world. But what’s not so widely known — except for a group of government and company insiders — is that Mayor William Peduto is on the verge of issuing an executive order that will give more visibility into testing there. 

The city’s department of mobility and infrastructure is the central coordinator of this new executive order that aims to help guide testing and policy development there. The department is going to develop guidelines for AV testing, we’re told. And it appears that information on testing will be released to the public at least once a year.

Got a tip or overheard something in the world of transportation? Email me or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.


Deal of the week

Daimler and BMW are supposed to be competitors. And they are, except with mapping (both part of the HERE consortium), mobility services (car sharing, ride-sharing), and now the development of highly automated driving systems. The deal is notable because it illustrates a larger trend that has emerged as the AV industry hunkers down into the “trough of disillusionment.” And that’s consolidation. If 2016, was the year of splashy acquisitions, then 2019 is shaping up to be chockfull of alliances and failures (of some startups).

Also interesting to note, and one that will make some AV safety experts cringe, both companies are working on Level 3 driving automation, a designation by the SAE that means conditional driving automation in which multiple high levels of automation are available in certain conditions, but a human driver must be ready to take over. This level of automation is the most controversial because of the so-called “hand off” problem in which a human driver is expected to take control of the wheel in time.

Speaking of partnerships, another deal that got our attention this week involved New York-based mapping and data analytics startup Carmera and Toyota Research Institute-Advanced Development. TRI-AD is an autonomous drive unit started by Toyota with Denso and Aisin. TRI-AD’s mission is to take the research being done over at the Toyota Research Institute and turn its into a product.

The two companies are going to test a concept that will use cameras in Toyota test vehicles to collect data from downtown Tokyo and use it to create high definition maps for urban and surface roads.

TRI-AD considers this the first step towards its open software platform concept known as Automated Mapping Platform that will be used to support the scalability of highly automated driving, by combining data gathered from vehicles of participating companies to generate HD maps. AMP is new and has possible widespread implications at Toyota. And TRI-AD is full of A-listers, including CEO James Kuffner, who came from the Google self-driving project and Nikos Michalakis, who built Netflix’s cloud platform, and Mandali Khalesi, who was at HERE.

Read more on Khalesi and the Toyota’s open source ambitions here.

Other deals:


Snapshot

Snapshot this week is a bit untraditional. It’s literally a snapshot of myself and my grandmother, months before her 100th birthday. Her memorial service was held Saturday. She died at 101. She loved cars and fast ones, but not so much driving them. And every time I got a new press car, we’d hit the road and she’d encourage me to take the turns a bit faster.

She also loved road trips and in the 1920s, her father would drive the family on the mostly dirt roads from New Jersey to Vermont and even Canada. In her teens, she loved riding in the rumble seat, a feature found in a few vehicles at the time including the Ford Model A.

She was young at heart, until the very end. Next week, we’ll focus on the youngest drivers and one automotive startup that is targeting that demographic.


Tiny but mighty micromobility

Lyft’s S-1 lays out the risks associated with its micromobility business and its intent to continue relying on third parties to manufacture its bikes and scooters. Here’s a key nugget about adoption:

“While some major cities have widely adopted bike and scooter sharing, there can be no assurance that new markets we enter will accept, or existing markets will continue to accept, bike and scooter sharing, and even if they do, that we will be able to execute on our business strategy or that our related offerings will be successful in such markets. Even if we are able to successfully develop and implement our network of shared bikes and scooters, there may be heightened public skepticism of this nascent service offering.”

And another about seasonality:

“Our limited operating history makes it difficult for us to assess the exact nature or extent of the effects of seasonality on our network of shared bikes and scooters, however, we expect the demand for our bike and scooter rentals to decline over the winter season and increase during more temperate and dry seasons.”

Lyft, which bought bike-share company Motivate back in July, also released some data about its electric pedal-assist bikes this week, showing that the pedal assist bikes are, unsurprisingly, more popular than the traditional bikes. They also traveled longer distances and improved winter ridership numbers. Now, Lyft is gearing up to deploy 4,000 additional electric bikes to the Citi Bike system in New York City.

One more thing …

Google Maps has added a feature that lets users see Lime scooters, pedal bikes and e-bikes right from the transit tab in over 80 new cities around the world. Users can click the tab to find out if Lime vehicle is available, how long it’ll take to walk to the vehicle, an estimate of how much their ride could cost, along with total journey time and ETA.


Notable reads

If take the time to read anything this week (besides this newsletter), spend some time with Lyft’s S-1. The ride-hailing company’s prospectus mentions autonomous 109 times. In short, yeah, it’s something the company’s executives are thinking about and investing in.

Lyft says it has a two-pronged strategy to bring autonomous vehicles to market. The company encouraging developers of autonomous vehicle technology to use its open platform to get access to its network and enable their vehicles to fulfill rides on the Lyft platform. And Lyft is trying to build its own autonomous vehicle system at its confusingly named “Level 5 Engineering Center.”

  • The company’s primary investors are Rakuten with a 13 percent stake, GM with 7.8 percent, Fidelity with 7.7 percent, Andreessen Horowitz with 6.3 percent and Alphabet with 5.3 percent. GM and Alphabet have business units, GM Cruise and Waymo respectively, that are also developing AV technology.
  • Through Lyft’s partnership with AV systems developer and supplier Aptiv, people in Las Vegas have taken more than 35,000 rides in Aptiv autonomous vehicles with a safety driver since January 2018.
  • One of the “risks” the company lists is “a failure to detect a defect in our autonomous vehicles or our bikes or scooters”

Other quotable notables:

Check out the Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State report, a newly released report from Volvo Car USA and The Harris Poll called  The State of Electric Vehicles in America.


Testing and deployments

Again, deployments doesn’t always mean the latest autonomous vehicle pilot.

On Saturday, Sidewalk Labs hosted its Open Sidewalk event in Toronto. This is part of Sidewalk Toronto, a joint effort by Waterfront Toronto and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to create a “mixed-use, complete community” on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront

The idea of this event was to share ideas and prototypes for making outdoor public space the “social default year-round.” One such prototype “hexagonal paving” got our attention because of its use case for traffic control and pedestrian and bicyclist safety. (Pictured below)

These individual precast concrete slabs are movable and permeable, can light up and give off heat. The idea is that these hexagonal-shaped slabs and be used to clear snow and ice in trouble spots and light up to warn drivers and pedestrians of changes to the street use or to illuminate an area for public uses or even designate bike lanes and hazard zones. And because they’re permeable they can be used to absorb stormwater or melted snow and guide it to underground stormwater management systems.

Sidewalk Labs tell me that the pavers have “plug and play” holes, which allow things like bike racks, bollards, and sign posts to be inserted. Sidewalk Labs initially built these with wood, and the new prototype is the next iteration, featuring modules built from concrete.


On our radar

There is a lot of transportation-related activity this month.

The Geneva Motor Show: Press days are March 5 and March 6. Expect concept, prototype and production electric vehicles from Audi, Honda, Kia, Peugeot, Pininfarina, Polestar, Spanish car company Hispano Suiza, and Volkswagen.

SXSW in Austin: TechCrunch will be at SXSW this coming week. Here’s where I’ll be.

  • 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. March 9 at the Empire Garage for the Smart Mobility Summit, an annual event put on by Wards Intelligence and C3 Group. The Autonocast, the podcast I co-host with Alex Roy and Ed Niedermeyer, will also be on hand.
  • 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. March 12 at the JW Marriott. The Autonocast and founding general partner of Trucks VC, Reilly Brennan will hold a SXSW podcast panel on automated vehicle terminology and other stuff.
  • 3:30 p.m over at the Hilton Austin Downtown, I’ll be moderating a panel Re-inventing the Wheel: Own, Rent, Share, Subscribe. Sherrill Kaplan with Zipcar, Amber Quist, with Silvercar and Russell Lemmer with Dealerware will join me.
  • TechCrunch is also hosting a SXSW party from 1 pm to 4 pm Sunday, March 10, 615 Red River St., that will feature musical guest Elderbrook. RSVP here

Self Racing Cars

Finally, I’ve been in contact with Joshua Schachter who puts on the annual Self Racing Car event, which will be held March 23 and March 24 at Thunderhill Raceway near Willows, California.

There is still room for participants to test or demo their autonomous vehicles, drive train innovation, simulation, software, teleoperation, and sensors. Hobbyists are welcome. Sign up to participate or drop them a line at contact@selfracingcars.com.

Thanks for reading. There might be content you like or something you hate. Feel free to reach out to me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share those thoughts, opinions or tips. 

Nos vemos la próxima vez.

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My product launch wishlist for Instagram, Twitter, Uber and more

Posted by | 2018 Year in Review, Apps, instagram, iOS, Lyft, Mobile, Opinion, Pinterest, product design, Snapchat, Social, Spotify, Startups, TC, Twitter, Uber | No Comments

‘Twas the night before Xmas, and all through the house, not a feature was stirring from the designer’s mouse . . . Not Twitter! Not Uber, Not Apple or Pinterest! On Facebook! On Snapchat! On Lyft or on Insta! . . . From the sidelines I ask you to flex your code’s might. Happy Xmas to all if you make these apps right.

Instagram

See More Like This – A button on feed posts that when tapped inserts a burst of similar posts before the timeline continues. Want to see more fashion, sunsets, selfies, food porn, pets, or Boomerangs? Instagram’s machine vision technology and metadata would gather them from people you follow and give you a dose. You shouldn’t have to work through search, hashtags, or the Explore page, nor permanently change your feed by following new accounts. Pinterest briefly had this feature (and should bring it back) but it’d work better on Insta.

Web DMs Instagram’s messaging feature has become the defacto place for sharing memes and trash talk about people’s photos, but it’s stuck on mobile. For all the college kids and entry-level office workers out there, this would make being stuck on laptops all day much more fun. Plus, youth culture truthsayer Taylor Lorenz wants Instagram web DMs too.

Upload Quality Indicator – Try to post a Story video or Boomerang from a crummy internet connection and they turn out a blurry mess. Instagram should warn us if our signal strength is low compared to what we usually have (since some places it’s always mediocre) and either recommend we wait for Wi-Fi, or post a low-res copy that’s replaced by the high-res version when possible.

Oh, and if new VP of product Vishal Shah is listening, I’d also like Bitmoji-style avatars and a better way to discover accounts that shows a selection of their recent posts plus their bio, instead of just one post and no context in Explore which is better for discovering content.

Twitter

DM Search – Ummm, this is pretty straightforward. It’s absurd that you can’t even search DMs by person, let alone keyword. Twitter knows messaging is a big thing on mobile right? And DMs are one of the most powerful ways to get in contact with mid-level public figures and journalists. PS: My DMs are open if you’ve got a news tip — @JoshConstine.

Unfollow Suggestions – Social networks are obsessed with getting us to follow more people, but do a terrible job of helping us clean up our feeds. With Twitter bringing back the option to see a chronological feed, we need unfollow suggestions more than ever. It should analyze who I follow but never click, fave, reply to, retweet, or even slow down to read and ask if I want to nix them. I asked for this 5 years ago and the problem has only gotten worse. Since people feel like their feeds are already overflowing, they’re stingy with following new people. That’s partly why you see accounts get only a handful of new followers when their tweets go viral and are seen by millions. I recently had a tweet with 1.7 million impressions and 18,000 Likes that drove just 11 follows. Yes I know that’s a self-own.

Analytics Benchmarks – If Twitter wants to improve conversation quality, it should teach us what works. Twitter offers analytics about each of your tweets, but not in context of your other posts. Did this drive more or fewer link clicks or follows than my typical tweet? That kind of info could guide users to create more compelling content.

Facebook

(Obviously we could get into Facebook’s myriad problems here. A less sensationalized feed that doesn’t reward exaggerated claims would top my list. Hopefully its plan to downrank “borderline content” that almost violates its policies will help when it rolls out.)

Batched Notifications – Facebook sends way too many notifications. Some are downright useless and should be eliminated. “14 friends responded to events happening tomorrow”? “Someone’s fundraiser is half way to its goal?” Get that shit out of here. But there are other notifications I want to see but that aren’t urgent nor crucial to know about individually. Facebook should let us decide to batch notifications so we’d only get one of a certain type every 12 or 24 hours, or only when a certain number of similar ones are triggered. I’d love a digest of posts to my Groups or Events from the past day rather than every time someone opens their mouth.

I so don’t care

Notifications In The “Time Well Spent” Feature – Facebook tells you how many minutes you spent on it each day over the past week and on average, but my total time on Facebook matters less to me than how often it interrupts my life with push notifications. The “Your Time On Facebook” feature should show how many notifications of each type I’ve received, which ones I actually opened, and let me turn off or batch the ones I want fewer of.

Oh, and for Will Cathcart, Facebook’s VP of apps, can I also get proper syncing so I don’t rewatch the same Stories on Instagram and Facebook, the ability to invite people to Events on mobile based on past invite lists of those I’ve hosted or attended, and the See More Like This feature I recommended for Instagram?

Uber/Lyft/Ridesharing

“Quiet Ride” Button – Sometimes you’re just not in the mood for small talk. Had a rough day, need to get work done, or want to just zone out? Ridesharing apps should offer a request for a quiet ride that if the driver allows with a preset and accepts before you get in, you pay them an extra dollar (or get it free as a loyalty perk), and you get ferried to your destination without unnecessary conversation. I get that it’s a bit dehumanizing for the driver, but I’d bet some would happily take a little extra cash for the courtesy.

“I Need More Time” Button – Sometimes you overestimate the ETA and suddenly your car is arriving before you’re ready to leave. Instead of cancelling and rebooking a few minutes later, frantically rushing so you don’t miss your window and get smacked with a no-show fee, or making the driver wait while they and the company aren’t getting paid, Uber, Lyft, and the rest should offer the “I Need More Time” button that simply rebooks you a car that’s a little further away.

Spotify/Music Streaming Apps

Scan My Collection – I wish I could just take photos of the album covers, spines, or even discs of my CD or record collection and have them instantly added to a playlist or folder. It’s kind of sad that after lifetimes of collecting physical music, most of it now sits on a shelf and we forget to play what we used to love. Music apps want more data on what we like, and it’s just sitting there gathering dust. There’s obviously some fun viral potential here too. Let me share what’s my most embarrassing CD. For me, it’s my dual copies of Limp Bizkit’s “Significant Other” because I played the first one so much it got scratched.

Friends Weekly Spotify ditched its in-app messaging, third-party app platform, and other ways to discover music so its playlists would decide what becomes a hit in order to exert leverage over the record labels to negotiate better deals. But music discovery is inherently social and the desktop little ticker of what friends are playing on doesn’t cut it. Spotify should let me choose to recommend my new favorite song or agree to let it share what I’ve recently played most, and put those into a Discover Weekly-style social playlist of what friends are listening to.

Snapchat

Growth – I’m sorry, I had to.

Bulk Export Memories – But seriously, Snapchat is shrinking. That’s worrisome because some users’ photos and videos are trapped on its Memories cloud hosting feature that’s supposed to help free up space on your phone. But there’s no bulk export option, meaning it could take hours of saving shots one at a time to your camera roll if you needed to get off of Snapchat, if for example it was shutting down, or got acquired, or you’re just bored of it.

Add-On Cameras – Snapchat’s Spectacles are actually pretty neat for recording first-person or underwater shots in a circular format. But otherwise they don’t do much more, and in some ways do much less, than your phone’s camera and are a long way from being a Magic Leap competitor. That’s why if Snapchat really wants to become a “Camera Company”, it should build sleek add-on cameras that augment our phone’s hardware. Snap previously explored selling a 360-camera but never launched one. A little Giroptic iO-style 360 lens that attaches to your phone’s charging port could let you capture a new kind of content that really makes people feel like they’re there with you. An Aukey Aura-style zoom lens attachment that easily fits in your pocket unlike a DSLR could also be a hit

iOS

Switch Wi-Fi/Bluetooth From Control Center – I thought the whole point of Control Center was one touch access, but I can only turn on or off the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It’s silly having to dig into the Settings menu to switch to a different Wi-Fi network or Bluetooth device, especially as we interact with more and more of them. Control Center should unfurl a menu of networks or devices you can choose from.

Shoot GIFs – Live Photos are a clumsy proprietary format. Instagram’s Boomerang nailed what we want out of live action GIFs and we should be able to shoot them straight from the iOS camera and export them as actual GIFs that can be used across the web. Give us some extra GIF settings and iPhones could have a new reason for teens to choose them over Androids.

Gradual Alarms – Anyone else have a heart attack whenever they hear their phone’s Alarm Clock ringtone? I know I do because I leave my alarms on so loud that I’ll never miss them, but end up being rudely shocked awake. A setting that gradually increases the volume of the iOS Alarm Clock every 15 seconds or minute so I can be gently arisen unless I refuse to get up.

Maybe some of these apply to Android, but I wouldn’t know because I’m a filthy casual iPhoner. Send me your Android suggestions, as well as what else you want to see added to your favorite apps.

[Image Credit: Hanson Inc]

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New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission approves minimum wage rules for app-based drivers

Posted by | gig economy, Lyft, Mobile, Policy, Startups, Transportation, Uber | No Comments

The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission has approved new rules designed to provide a minimum hourly wage of $17.22 (after expenses) for drivers who work with app-based services like Uber, Lyft, Via and Juno.

Fast Company reports that the rules try to deliver that wage by requiring drivers be paid according to a formula that incorporates mileage, time and utilization rate (the average percentage of time drivers have passengers in their cars). They also call for a higher payment when drivers have to take passengers far outside the city (to compensate for them for the return trip).

A proposed bonus payment for drivers offering Uber Pool and other shared-ride options appears to have been removed from the rules.

The Independent Drivers Guild, a labor organization that advocates for drivers, has been advocating for these changes, and it praised the TLC vote in a press release.

“Today we brought desperately needed relief to 80,000 working families,” said IDG founder Jim Conigliaro, Jr. “All workers deserve the protection of a fair, livable wage and we are proud to be setting the new bar for contractor workers’ rights in America. We are thankful to the Mayor, Commissioner [Meera] Joshi and the Taxi and Limousine Commission, City Council Member Brad Lander and all of the city officials who listened to and stood up for drivers.”

And The New York Taxi Workers Alliance issued a statement from Executive Director Bhairavi Desai:

It’s the first real attempt anywhere to stop app driver pay cuts, which is an Uber and Lyft business practice at the heart of poverty wages … Ultimately, the TLC needs to regulate Uber and Lyft passenger rates, guarantee that app drivers get 80 percent of those rates, and regulate the yellow/green meter to charge the same minimum rates, so drivers across the industry can earn a raise.

Uber and Lyft, meanwhile, criticized the decision, though with careful wording emphasizing that the companies aren’t opposed to ensuring that drivers receive a living wage.

“Uber supports efforts to ensure that full-time drivers in NYC – whether driving with taxi, limo or Uber – are able to make a living wage, without harming outer borough riders who have been ignored by yellow taxi and underserved by mass transit,” said Uber Director of Public Affairs Jason Post in a statement. “The TLC’s implementation of the City Council’s legislation to increase driver earnings will lead to higher than necessary fare increases for riders while missing an opportunity to deal with congestion in Manhattan’s central business district.”

Post argued that the rules do not account for the bonuses and other incentive payments that Uber and other companies might make. He criticized the TLC for adopting “an industry-wide utilization rate that does not hold bases accountable for keeping cars full with paying passengers.”

And here’s the statement from Lyft:

Lyft believes all drivers should earn a livable wage and we are committed to helping drivers reach their goals. Unfortunately, the TLC’s proposed pay rules will undermine competition by allowing certain companies to pay drivers lower wages, and disincentive drivers from giving rides to and from areas outside Manhattan. These rules would be a step backward for New Yorkers, and we urge the TLC to reconsider them.

Specifically Lyft says that companies would be able to essentially pay drivers less by claiming a higher utilization rate than the industry average. It also says that it will be nearly impossible to implement the higher out-of-town payment rates in the 30-day window before the new rules take effect.

Update: You can read the new Driver Income and Transparency Rules here.

“Convenience costs, and going forward, that cost will no longer be borne by the driver,” said TLC Chair Meera Joshi in a statement. “Today’s rules will raise driver earnings by on average $10,000 a year and require companies to be completely transparent on how they calculate pay and car leasing costs.”

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The top 10 startups from Y Combinator’s Demo Day S18 Day 2

Posted by | 500 startups, accelerator, Android, Ant Financial, Facebook, General Catalyst, george church, instagram, Lyft, Novartis, qvc, Snap, Startups, TC, Uber, Y Combinator | No Comments

Fifty-nine startups took the stage at Y Combinator’s Demo Day 2, and among the highlights were a company that helps developers manage in-app subscriptions; a service that lets you create animojis from real photos; and a surplus medical equipment-reselling platform. Oh… and there was also a company that’s developed an entirely new kind of life form using e coli bacteria. So yeah, that’s happening.

Based on some investor buzz and what caught TechCrunch’s eye, these are our top picks from the second day of Y Combinator’s presentations.

You can find the full list of companies that presented on Day 1 here, and our top picks from Day 1 here. 

64-x

With a founding team including some of the leading luminaries in the field of biologically inspired engineering (including George Church, Pamela Silver and Jeffrey Way from Harvard’s Wyss Institute), 64-x is engineering organisms to function in otherwise inaccessible environments. Chief executive Alexis Rovner, herself a post-doctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute, and chief operating officer Ryan Gallagher, a former BCG Consultant, are looking to commercialize research from the Institute around accelerating and expanding the ability to produce functionalized proteins and sequence-defined polymers with diverse chemistries. Basically they’ve engineered a new life form that they want to use for novel kinds of bio-manufacturing.

Why we liked it: These geniuses invented a new life form.

CB Therapeutics

Sher Butt, a former lab directory at Steep Hill, saw that cannabinoids were as close to a miracle cure for pain, epilepsy and other chronic conditions as medicine was going to get. But plant-based cannabinoids were costly and produced inconsistent results. Alongside Jacob Vogan, Butt realized that biosynthesizing cannabinoids would reduce production costs by a factor of 10 and boost production 24 times current yields. With a deep experience commercializing drugs for Novartis and as the founder of the cannabis testing company SB Labs, Butt and his technical co-founder are uniquely positioned to bring this new therapy to market.

Why we liked it: Using manufacturing processes to make industrial quantities of what looks like nature’s best painkiller at scale is not a bad idea.

RevenueCat

RevenueCat founders

RevenueCat helps developers manage their in-app subscriptions. It offers an API that developers can use to support in-app subscriptions on iOS and Android, which means they don’t have to worry about all the nuances, bugs and updates on each platform.

The API also allows developers to bring all the data about their subscription business together in one place. It might be on to something, though it isn’t clear how big that something is quite yet. The nine-month-old company says it’s currently seeing $350,000 in transaction volume every month; it’s making some undisclosed percentage of money off that amount.

Read more about RevenueCat here.

Why we liked it: Write code. Release app. Use RevenueCat. Get paid. That sounds like a good formula for a pretty compelling business.

Ajaib

Indonesia is a country in transition, with a growing class of individuals with assets to invest yet who, financially, don’t meet the bar set by many wealth managers. Enter Ajaib, a newly minted startup with the very bold ambition of becoming the “Ant Financial of wealth management for Indonesia.” Why the comparison? Because China was in the same boat not long ago — a  country whose middle class had little access to wealth management advice. With the founding of Ant Financial nearly four years ago, that changed. In fact, Ant now boasts more than 400 million users.

China is home to nearly 1.4 billion, compared with Indonesia, whose population of 261 million is tiny in comparison. Still, if its plans work out to charge 1.4 percent for every dollar managed, with an estimated $370 billion in savings in the country to chase after, it could be facing a meaningful opportunity in its backyard if it gains some momentum.

Why we liked it: If Ajaib’s wealth management plans (to charge 1.4 percent for every dollar it manages) work out — and with a total market of $370 billion in savings in Indonesia — the company could be facing a meaningful opportunity in its backyard.

Grin

The scooter craze is hitting Latin America and Grin is greasing the wheels. The Mexico City-based company was launched by co-founder Sergio Romo after he and his partner realized they weren’t going to be able to get a cut of the big “birds” on the scooter block in the U.S. (as Axios reported). Romo and his co-founder have already lined up a slew of investors for what may be the hottest new deal in Latin America. Backers include Sinai Ventures, Liquid2 Ventures, 500 Startups, Monashees and Base10 Partners.

Why we liked it: Scooters are so 2018. But there’s a lot of money to be made in mobility, and as the challenge from Bird and Lime to Uber and Lyft in hyperlocal transit has revealed, there’s no dominant player that’s taken over the market… yet.

Emojer

Creating animated emojis made from real photos, Emojer just might be the most fun you can have with a camera. The company’s software uses deep learning algorithms to detect body parts and guides users in creating their own avatars with just a simple photo take from a mobile phone. It’s replacing deep Photoshop expertise and animation skills with a super simple interface. The avatars look very similar to Elf Yourself, a popular site that let you paste your friends’ faces on dancing Christmas elves goes viral every year at Christmastime. Founders have PhDs in machine learning and computer vision.

Why we liked it: As the company’s chief executive said, Snap was for sexting, and Facebook was hot or not, so who says the next big consumer platform couldn’t be the Trojan horse of easily generated selfiemojis (akin to Elf Yourself)?

Osh’s Affordable Pharmaceuticals

Osh’s Affordable Pharmaceuticals is a public benefit corporation connecting doctors and patients with sources of low-cost, compounded pharmaceuticals. The company is looking to decrease barriers to entry for drugs for rare diseases. Three weeks ago the company introduced a drug to treat Wilson’s Disease. There was no access to the drug that treats the disease before in Brazil, India or Canada. It slashes the cost of drugs from $30,000 a month to $120 per month. The company estimates it has a total addressable market of $17 billion. “Generic drug pricing is a crisis, people are dying because they can’t get access to the medicine they need,” says chief executive Alex Oshmyansky. Osh’s might have a solution.

Why we liked it: Selling lower-cost medications for rare diseases in countries that previously hadn’t had access to them is a good business that’s good for the world.

Medinas Health

Tackling a $75 billion problem of healthcare waste, Medinas Health is giving hospitals an easy way to resell their used supplies. The company has already raised $1 million for its marketplace to help healthcare organizations buy and sell equipment. With a seed round led by Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures, and General Catalyst’s Rough Draft Ventures fund, the company is also working to lower costs for cash-strapped rural healthcare centers.

Why we liked it: Finding uses for hospital equipment that’s been lying fallow in corners is a big business. A $75 billion business if Medinas’ estimates are correct. Add helping cut costs for rural medical facilities and Medinas is a business we can get behind.

And Comfort

Plus-size women have limited clothing options even at the largest retailers like Nordstrom and Macy’s. While a majority of American women fall into the plus-size clothing category, 100 million women are constrained to shopping for a very small percentage of options. And Comfort wants to solve the supply problem. To do this, the founders, two former Harvard classmates, are building a direct-to-consumer fashion brand with stylish, minimalist offerings for plus-size women, including tunic shirts and an apron dress. It’s very early days for the brand, but since launching in recent weeks, they’ve seen $25,000 in sales.

Why we liked it: This direct-to-consumer fashion brand is bringing higher quality, better-designed clothing options to a market that’s underserved and growing quickly. What’s not to like?

ShopWith

Influencers of the world are uniting on mobile app, ShopWith, which allows shoppers to browse virtual storefronts and aisles alongside their favorite fashion and beauty creators and YouTubers. Users can see exactly what products those influencers have featured and can buy them without ever leaving the app. It’s a free download and hours of commercially consumptive fun.

It’s like the QVC model, but for GenZ shoppers whose buying habits are influenced by social video content on YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. The company revealed that one beauty influencer made $10,000 within five hours using the ShopWith platform. The founders are former product managers with experience building social commerce products at Facebook and Amazon.

Why we liked it: The QVC for GenZ not only has a nice ring to it, it’s a recipe for making cash registers hum. A mobile-first, influencer-based shopping company is something that we’d definitely not call an impulse purchase.

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New York City Council votes to cap licenses for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft

Posted by | Apps, bill de blasio, Lyft, Mobile, new york city, Policy, Transportation, Uber | No Comments

The New York City Council has approved legislation that will halt the issuing of new licenses for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.

The stated goal of the policy is to give the city time to study the industry’s impact. During that time, ride-hailing companies would only be able to add new vehicles if they’re wheelchair accessible. The legislation also allows the city to set a minimum wage for drivers.

There were drivers demonstrating in favor of the bill package outside City Hall today, and the Independent Drivers Guild (which says it represents more than 60,000 drivers for ride-hailing apps in New York City) praised the decision.

“We hope this is the start of a more fair industry not only here in New York City, but all over the world,” said IDG founder Jim Conigliaro, Jr. in a statement. “We cannot allow the so-called ‘gig economy’ companies to exploit loopholes in the law in order to strip workers of their rights and protections.”

Uber and Lyft, meanwhile, had asked their riders to oppose the legislation, saying that it would result in fewer drivers and less reliable service. They also suggested there were other ways to address the underlying issues, and in fact proposed creating a $100 million “hardship fund” for drivers as an alternative.

NYC drivers

Drivers demonstrating outside City Hall

In response to today’s news, Danielle Filson from Uber’s communications team provided the following statement:

The City’s 12-month pause on new vehicle licenses will threaten one of the few reliable transportation options while doing nothing to fix the subways or ease congestion. We take the Speaker at his word that the pause is not intended to reduce service for New Yorkers and we trust that he will hold the TLC accountable, ensuring that no New Yorker is left stranded. In the meantime, Uber will do whatever it takes to keep up with growing demand and we will not stop working with city and state leaders, including Speaker [Corey] Johnson, to pass real solutions like comprehensive congestion pricing.

The company plans to explore other strategies to keep up with demand. Those include recruiting drivers with licensed vehicles who aren’t currently working with Uber, or finding additional drivers who could drive licensed vehicles at times when they would otherwise be idle.

Lyft, meanwhile, sent this statement from its vice president of public policy Joseph Okpaku:

These sweeping cuts to transportation will bring New Yorkers back to an era of struggling to get a ride, particularly for communities of color and in the outer boroughs. We will never stop working to ensure New Yorkers have access to reliable and affordable transportation in every borough.

The New York Times reports that the cap will take effect as soon as Mayor Bill de Blasio signs the bill.

“Our city is directly confronting a crisis that is driving working New Yorkers into poverty and our streets into gridlock,” de Blasio tweeted. “The unchecked growth of app-based for-hire vehicle companies has demanded action – and now we have it.”

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Miles gives you reward miles for almost everything

Posted by | Android, Apps, ceo, customer relationship management, fontinalis partners, Gabe Klein, gas station, Gautam Gupta, iOS App Store, Jigar Shah, Keith Teare, loyalty program, Lyft, Marketing, miles, NatureBox, Porsche, Pricing, san jose, Silvercar, starbucks, Startups, TC, Uber, whole foods | No Comments

Reward miles are nice if you fly a lot but what if you bike or take Lyfts or just like to wander around town? A new app called Miles aims to give you rewards for all of those things, bringing the concept of rewards out of the air and onto the ground.

Miles, co-founded by Jigar Shah, Paresh Jain and Parin Shah, is a San Jose-based company that looked at the problem of reward miles outside of airlines as well as the problems associated with city planning and traffic data generation. The app, which is now in the iOS App Store, can see when you walk, ride a bike, take the bus, drive yourself, or even hop in a Lyft or an Uber. It then rewards you on a sliding scale depending on how eco-friendly your trip is. Biking, for example, is worth more than driving or even taking the bus.

“Mobility today is a universal behavior that goes largely unrewarded,” said Jigar Shah. “To date, travel rewards have been siloed and limited to one form of travel – with consumers facing exclusions when comes to earning and redeeming rewards. Miles solves for this gap in market by allowing anyone to earn rewards – simply by traveling and commuting how they do every day.”

What can you get with your miles? Just for signing up you can get 2,000 miles which is enough for a $5 Starbucks, Target, or Whole Foods gift card, among others. There are also “nearby” that bring up deals from merchants in your area but right now most of the deals are online. More miles gets you better deals.

“In contrast to rewards programs in the market today, Miles delivers value for every mile traveled, across every mode of travel, anywhere in the world. Whether by car (as a driver, passenger or rideshare), plane, train, subway, bus, boat, bicycle, or on foot, the Miles app effortlessly awards users’ travel – regardless of where their journey takes them. Miles can be saved or redeemed at any time – with the value increasing every month as more merchants accept them as a form of payment,” said Shah.

Because the app tracks your movement on multiple types of transport the Miles team foresees connecting with city governments to supply traffic and usage data for various forms of transport. Further, because miles can be redeemed locally, they could also increase foot traffic.

The company raised $3 million from Porsche Digital, Scrum Ventures, and others. Former TechCruncher Keith Teare also worked with the team on the raise.

Interestingly, the platform can also work to create predictive recommendations based on your position and past likes and dislikes.

“By leveraging the Miles’ predictive AI platform, business and brands can deliver value to customers by offering to meet their near future needs as they travel, such as when someone needs a meal, a fill-up at the gas station, or a ride,” wrote the team. “Annoying marketing can become true customer service by enabling hyper-targeted rewards related to immediate need. This not only leads to increased customer loyalty and repeat visits, but also increased sales.”

“We saw an opportunity to deliver more value to people as transportation continued to evolve,” said Shah.

Multiple city governments are looking to implement the technology locally and the Contra Costa Transportation Authority will “offer rewards as an incentive to promote alternative and sustainable mode of transportation through the Miles platform.” Seattle is next and maybe some day soon you’ll be earning miles for walking and driving in your home town. At least it will get us out of the house.

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Wave Uber’s new Spotlight or send canned chats to find your driver

Posted by | Apps, Lyft, Mobile, Transportation, Uber | No Comments

Uber is aiming to perfect the art of the pickup with three features it says minimize cancellations. Guaranteed pickup windows boost confidence that you’ll make your flight, and give you a credit of $10 if your scheduled ride is late. Pre-written messages let drivers and riders let each other know they’ll “Be right there” or “I’ve arrived” with a single tap.

And most flashily, three years after I suggested Uber let you hold up a colored screen so your driver could find you amidst a crowd of hailers, it’s introducing Spotlight. Each driver gets assigned a semi-unique color gradient to look for. Hit the Spotlight button, that color takes over your screen, and you can wave it to help your driver locate you. 

These optimizations show the depths Uber is willing to go to shave seconds off of pickups. That can reduce unpaid waiting time for drivers while boosting the number of rides they complete per hour for the startup. And the peace of mind that they’ll be able to hop in right when they’re ready could lure riders away from competitors as Uber dukes it out across the globe. The updates are rolling out on iOS and Android in the U.S. and Canada today.

“Human-to-human interaction is hard. Driver-initiated cancellations after the driver has arrived at the pickup point are particularly stressful,” Uber senior product manager for rider experience Ryan Yu tells me. But in tests of the new quick messages features, he said “We found cancellations on both sides reduced significantly, especially for drivers after they’ve arrived.”   

We can only hope this level of attention to detail will be applied to optimizing its internal company culture — a hope shaken by this month’s resignation of Uber’s head of HR Liane Hornsey after a probe into how she handled racial discrimination at the company, and the NYT’s report of insensitivity complaints about COO Barney Harford.

Uber has been steadily adding little improvements to the pickup process over the years. Here’s a quick, abridged list:

  • Incentivizing drivers to wait instead of cancelling by starting the meter after waiting at the pickup spot for more than 2 minutes
  • Live location sharing so riders can optionally let drivers see where they are as they seek the vehicle
  • Suggested pickup spots nearby where drivers can safely pull over, and avoid them looping around one way streets
  • Sequential pickups so you’re assigned the nearest driver, even if they’re still finishing their previous ride
  • Pickup location changing so you can choose a different spot nearby if you got the address wrong or are on the other side of the building

There are three upgrades in particular that serve as the foundation for today’s updates.

In-app chat between riders and drivers makes it so you don’t have to use SMS. Uber could only anonymize your number in some markets, creating privacy concerns, and SMS could be cost-prohibitive in some parts of the world. Uber messaging launched in mid-2017, and could be read aloud to the driver and replied to with a thumbs-up emoji to reduce the chance of distracted driving. Lyft still uses SMS for comparison.

Now both users and drivers will see the most common messages pre-written and sendable with the touch of a button so they don’t have to type. “Drivers noted that they were more reassured when their rider actually sent them a message,” said Yu, which can keep them from cancelling if the rider needs a little more time to get to the pickup spot. I asked if automatic translation would be available here, so if a driver in Brazil sent an American user “eu cheguei,” it’d show up as “I have arrived.” Yu told me “Translations are on the road map. We’re figuring out how to best pair them alongside voice.”

Uber added scheduled rides in mid-2016 shortly after Lyft did the same. You can plan a ride up to 30 days in advance, but you’re still subject to surge pricing in the moment. At least now you’ll get $10 credit if the driver is late. Unfortunately, the pickup window Uber showed me in the demo was 15 minutes, though Yu said it may very by region. I sometimes only make my flights by 10 minutes, and since my pickup ETA in San Francisco is typically only 3 to 5 minutes, I’m probably better off just booking the ride when I’m ready.

Uber’s Beacon and Lyft’s Amp are color-coded dashboard lights that help riders find their driver

Back in 2015, I suggested that “Uber could offer some signal on the driver or passenger’s phone to help them find each other.” A week later it announced it would start testing Spot, which let users pick a color that would light up on an LED bar installed on driver’s windshields. In November 2016, Lyft launched its Amp dashboard light that assigned a random color riders could look out for. A month later, Uber’s Spot had evolved into the dashboard Beacon light that lets users pick the color and is now available in 14 cities.

Today’s update gives riders a light too, which is great if you’re one of dozens of people waiting outside a concert or sports game trying to find their Uber. Hit the Spotlight button, and you’ll get instructions to wave your colored screen in the air. Drivers are permanently assigned a color that stays constant across trips so they can train themselves to look out for it.

“Spotlight is meant to supplement Beacon. Not all drivers will have a Beacon, and we want to pass that to two-way communication,” says Yu. But since the Beacon dashboard lights are always visible, Uber says that if a driver has one, users won’t see the Spotlight option and will instead just be able to choose the Beacon’s color.

Together, these features should eliminate most pickup problems. We’ll see if Uber’s competitors and international partners like Didi adopt them too. After retreating from markets like China in exchange for a percentage of ownership of the local leader, there’s more pressure on Uber to squash its homeland competitor Lyft, which has been gaining market share. Yet neither has offered an oft-requested feature some users would even be willing to pay an extra dollar for: a “quiet ride” where the driver doesn’t make small talk.

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