Transportation

Uber bets on developing world growth with low-data Uber Lite

Posted by | Apps, Mobile, Ola, Startups, TC, Transportation, Uber, uber india | No Comments

“The next hundreds of millions of riders for us are going to come from outside of the United States”, Uber’s head of rider experience Peter Deng tells me. The transportation giant already sees 75 million riders per month and 15 million rides per day. But to grow in the developing world, it had to rethink its app to work on the oldest phones and slowest networks. So Deng’s team traveled the globe asking people what they needed from Uber, but also what they didn’t.

The result is Uber Lite.

It’s launching today in India before rolling out to more countries, though there’s still a waitlist form instead of a download link. The Android app takes up just 5 megabytes. “You delete three selfies, you have room for Uber” Deng laughs. 300-millisecond response time means its quick to hail a ride, even for the 4 percent of users in India on sluggish 2G networks. And by streamlining the design and only showing maps by request, it won’t burn much data for users on a budget.

Uber needs to score growth in developing markets after retreating while cutting deals with local winner like Didi in China, Grab in Southeast Asia, and a forthcoming arrangement with Yandex in Russia. India’s Ola rideshare service already has a ‘Lite” app that’s just 1 megabyte and a 45% share of the taxi market, compared to Uber’s 35%. Uber has reported has talked with Ola about a possible merger in India, sources have told TechCrunch and others. With the country making up 10% of Uber’s rides, it’s a market it can’t forfeit.

To reach its full potential, Uber has to start out-competing homegrown competitors. Success with Uber Lite could give it leverage with Ola and path to gaining more of it around the world.

“We know we’re not just a U.S. company, we’re a global company. Not only have we built this for the world, it was built in India” Deng tells me. Deng came to Uber in March 2017 after 10 years at Facebook’s various companies. It was early to the “Lite” idea, with its shrunken app reaching over 200 million users. 

But Deng says Uber Lite didn’t come from stripping down the main app, but building it up from scratch. “The team has traveled to markets around the world to do in home interviews to understand the needs of the customers.”

Compared to the 181 megabyte standard version, Uber Lite is a lot easier for low-storage phones to handle. Uber Lite launches not to a map or a text entry box, but instead a suggested nearby business or landmark based on your GPS. “You have to do less typing and can do more tapping” Deng explains. It also tries to guess your destination based on pre-cached popular city spots. You can input addresses, but Uber Lite won’t load a data-heavy map unless you purposefully grab for it. ‘Tap for map’.

Same goes for your driver’s ETA. After you’ve selected your vehicle type and hailed, you’ll just get a countdown to their arrival unless you tap to see them on their way. Payment for now is cash only. But soon Uber plans to add India’s popular Paytm payment platform and credit card options. It’s also still lacking notifications, which seem worth the data. More languages will come too.

Uber wouldn’t explain how, but it also revealed that it plans to offer offline hailing, possibly through some peer-to-peer Bluetooth mesh network or other technology. One other interesting test its running in India lets users punch in a code found at a bus stop to instantly hail a ride there. Another lets older or less phone savvy users phone in to an accessibility team that can hail a ride for them. It’s already offered web bookings. “The whole charter is to allow everyone around the world to experience Uber” Deng says.

What Uber wouldn’t skip in v1 was the in-app support and a way to share your ETA with loved ones so they can watch out for you. “We knew how important safety was in these markets. I’m really proud we took additional steps to empathize” Deng says.

The company is clearly trying to put the darker moments of its past behind it. While cynics might take the compassion talk as just lip service like the company’s big apology ad campaign, it’s also the reason some tech talent has stayed at or joined Uber. If the company is going to be unavoidable, making it secure and accessible is a pretty good reason to wake up in the morning.

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Scooter startup Lime is reportedly raising $250M led by Uber investor GV

Posted by | bird, electric scooters, GV, lime, Mobile, Recent Funding, Startups, Transportation | No Comments

It’s scooters all the way down this morning, with Lime also reportedly raising $250 million in a funding after a new Delaware filing this morning indicated that competitor Bird authorized the sale of up to $200 million in shares.

GV (formerly Google Ventures) is leading this round, according to the report by Axios, as the massive land grab for a stake in the scooter wars continues to heat up — whether that’s funding or actual scooters piling up on the sidewalk. Both companies have faced pushback from some city regulators (probably on the basis of tripping over them and falling on your face), but it still means the venture community is still salivating over potentially the next major mode of metropolitan transportation. Most venture investors in the Valley argue scooters make sense for short trips throughout areas that are just too far to be considered a trek, but too close that it would be a waste of time and money to call a rideshare like Uber or Lyft.

Given that Uber exposed a massive hole for easier transportation in major metropolitan areas — and potentially replacing cars in those areas — getting into the next big transportation revolution is more than tempting enough for firms like GV (which is also an investor in Uber). Lime was previously reported to be seeking up to $500 million in funding and was taking meetings with some major firms in Silicon Valley over the past few weeks. It might not get that, but a $250 million influx might be plenty to try to continue to ramp up its business and get more rides on board. Axios is reporting that Lime has told investors users have taken 4.2 million rides and each scooter gets 8 to 12 rides per day.

Still, while it’s not $500 million, there’s plenty of interest in the on-demand scooter business — challenges of keeping them charged and intact included — that Bird has authorized the sale of up to $200 million in new shares at a $1 billion valuation just months after its previous round. So it might not be surprising if this, too, ends up as kind of a rolling process where Lime eventually gets all the capital it sought.

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Here’s Mary Meeker’s essential 2018 Internet Trends report

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Apps, automotive, Collaborative Consumption, cryptocurrency, eCommerce, Education, Enterprise, Finance, Government, Health, internet trends, Mary Meeker, Media, Mobile, Social, Startups, TC, Transportation, Venture Capital | No Comments

Want to understand all the most important tech stats and trends? Legendary venture capitalist Mary Meeker has just released the 2018 version of her famous Internet Trends report. It covers everything from mobile to commerce to the competition between tech giants. Check out the full report below, and we’ll add some highlights soon. Then come back for our slide-by-slide analysis of the most important parts of the 294 page report.

  • Internet adoption: As of 2018, half the world population, or about 3.6 billion people, will be on the internet. That’s thanks in large part to cheaper Android phones and Wifi becoming more available, though individual services will have a tougher time adding new users as the web hits saturation.
  • Mobile usage: While smartphone shipments are flat and internet user growth is slowing, U.S. adults are spending more time online thanks to mobile, clocking 5.9 hours per day in 2017 versus 5.6 hours in 2016.
  • Mobile ads: People are shifting their time to mobile faster than ad dollars are following, creating a $7 billion mobile ad opportunity, though platforms are increasingly responsible for providing safe content to host those ads.
  • Crypto: Interest in cryptocurrency is exploding as Coinbase’s user count has nearly quadrupled since January 2017
  • Voice: Voice technology is at an inflection point due to speech recognition hitting 95% accuracy and the sales explosion for Amazon Echo which went from over 10 million to over 30 million sold in total by the end of 2017.
  • Daily usage – Revenue gains for services like Facebook are tightly coupled with daily user growth, showing how profitable it is to become a regular habit.
  • Tech investment: We’re at an all-time high for public and private investment in technology, while the top six public R&D + capex spenders are all technology companies.

Mary Meeker, analyst with Morgan Stanley, speaks during the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010. This year’s conference, which runs through Nov. 17, is titled “Points of Control: The Battle for the Network Economy.” Photographer: Tony Avelar/Bloomberg via Getty Images

  • Ecommerce vs Brick & Mortar: Ecommerce growth quickens as now 13% of all retail purchases happen online and parcel shipments are rising swiftly, signaling big opportunities for new shopping apps.
  • Amazon: More people start product searches on Amazon than search engines now, but Jeff Bezos still relies on other surfaces like Facebook and YouTube to inspire people to want things.
  • Subscription services: They’re seeing massive adoption, with Netflix up 25%, The New York Times up 43%, and Spotify up 48% year-over-year in 2017. A free tier accelerates conversion rates.
  • Education: Employees seek retraining and education from YouTube and online courses to keep up with new job requirements and pay off skyrocketing student loan debt.
  • Freelancing: Employees crave scheduling and work-from-home flexibility, and internet discovery of freelance work led it to grow 3X faster than total workforce growth. The on-demand workforce grew 23% in 2017 driven by Uber, Airbnb, Etsy, Upwork, and Doordash.
  • Transportation: People are buying fewer cars, keeping them longer, and shifting transportation spend to rideshare, which saw rides double in 2017.
  • Enterprise: Consumerization of the enterprise through better interfaces is spurring growth for companies like Dropbox and Slack.
  • China: Alibaba is expanding beyond China with strong gross merchandise volume, though Amazon still rules in revenue.
  • Privacy: China has a big opportunity as users there are much more willing to trade their personal data for product benefits than U.S. users, and China is claiming more spots on the top 20 internet company list while making big investments in AI.
  • Immigration: It is critical to a strong economy, as 56% of top U.S. companies were founded by a first- or second-generation immigrant.

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Uber lets you rate mid-ride before you forget feedback

Posted by | Apps, Health, Mobile, Startups, TC, Transportation, Uber | No Comments

“Last year was pretty hard, I’m not gonna lie,” says Peter Deng, Uber’s head of rider experience. But as part of new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s push to rebrand Uber around safety, Deng says, “we’ve seen the company shift to more listening.”

That focus on hearing users’ concerns prompted today’s change. Have a bad Uber ride when you’re busy and you might neglect to rate the driver or accidentally rush through giving them 5 stars. Forcing users to wait until a ride ends to provide feedback deprives them of a sense of control, while decreasing the number of accurate data points Uber has to optimize its service.

I had just this experience last month, leading me to tweet that Uber should let us rate trips mid-ride:

Uber & Lyft could let us rate drivers mid-ride, but only apply the ratings 5 minutes after a ride ends in case something goes better/worse before the end of the trip.

— Josh Constine (@JoshConstine) April 25, 2018

Uber apparently felt similarly, so it’s making an update. Starting today, Uber users can rate their trip mid-ride, providing a star rating with categorized and written feedback, plus a compliment or tip at any time instead of having to wait for the trip to end. “Every day 15 million people take a ride on Uber. If you can capture incrementally more and better feedback . . . we’re going to use that feedback to make the service better,” says Deng. Lyft still won’t let you rate until a ride is over.

Specifically, the data will be used to “recognize top-quality drivers . . . through a new program launching in June,” Uber tells me. “We’re going to be celebrating the drivers that provide really awesome service,” Deng says, though he declined to say whether that celebration will include financial rewards, access to extra driver perks or just a pat on the back.

But Uber will also now use the feedback options that appear when you give a less-than-perfect rating to tune the technology on its back end. So that way, if you say that the pickup was the issue, it might be classified as a “PLE – pickup location error,” and that data gets routed to the team that improves exactly where drivers are told to scoop you up. To ensure there’s no tension between you and the driver, Uber won’t share your feedback with them anonymously until the ride ends.

I asked if reminding users to buckle their seat belts would be in that Safety Center and Uber tells me it’s now planning to add info about buckling up. It’s been a personal quest of mine to dispel the myth that professionally driven vehicles are invulnerable to accidents. That idea, propagated by heavy-duty Ford Crown Victoria yellow cabs piloted by life-long drivers in cities they know doesn’t hold up, given Ubers are often lightweight hybrids often operating in places less familiar to the driver. 

The launch follows the unveiling of Uber’s new in-app Safety Center last month that gives users access to insurance info, riding tips and an emergency 911 button. After a year of culture and legal issues, Uber needs to recruit users who deleted it or check an alternative first when they need transportation.

Enhanced safety and feedback could earn their respect. As competition for ride sharing heats up around the world, all the apps will be seeking ways to differentiate. They’re already battling for faster pick-ups and better routing algorithms. But helping riders feel like their complaints are heard and addressed could start to work some dents out of Uber’s public image.

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Waymo reportedly applies to put autonomous cars on California roads with no safety drivers

Posted by | artificial intelligence, automotive, autonomous vehicles, Gadgets, Government, robotics, Transportation, waymo | No Comments

Waymo has become the second company to apply for the newly-available permit to deploy autonomous vehicles without safety drivers on some California roads, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. It would be putting its cars — well, minivans — on streets around Mountain View, where it already has an abundance of data.

The company already has driverless driverless cars in play over in Phoenix, as it showed in a few promotional videos last month. So this isn’t the first public demonstration of its confidence.

California only just made it possible to grant permits allowing autonomous vehicles without safety drivers on April 2; one other company has applied for it in addition to Waymo, but it’s unclear which. The new permit type also allows for vehicles lacking any kind of traditional manual controls, but for now the company is sticking with its modified Chrysler Pacificas. Hey, they’re practical.

The recent fatal collision of an Uber self-driving car with a pedestrian, plus another fatality in a Tesla operating in semi-autonomous mode, make this something of an awkward time to introduce vehicles to the road minus safety drivers. Of course, it must be said that both of those cars had people behind the wheel at the time of their crashes.

Assuming the permit is granted, Waymo’s vehicles will be limited to the Mountain View area, which makes sense — the company has been operating there essentially since its genesis as a research project within Google. So there should be no shortage of detail in the data, and the local authorities will be familiar with the people necessary for handling any issues like accidents, permit problems, and so on.

No details yet on what exactly the cars will be doing, or whether you’ll be able to ride in one. Be patient.

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Massterly aims to be the first full-service autonomous marine shipping company

Posted by | artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, Europe, Gadgets, GreenTech, hardware, Logistics, massterly, robotics, Shipping, TC, Transportation | No Comments

Logistics may not be the most exciting application of autonomous vehicles, but it’s definitely one of the most important. And the marine shipping industry — one of the oldest industries in the world, you can imagine — is ready for it. Or at least two major Norwegian shipping companies are: they’re building an autonomous shipping venture called Massterly from the ground up.

“Massterly” isn’t just a pun on mass; “Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship” is the term Wilhelmson and Kongsberg coined to describe the self-captaining boats that will ply the seas of tomorrow.

These companies, with “a combined 360 years of experience” as their video put it, are trying to get the jump on the next phase of shipping, starting with creating the world’s first fully electric and autonomous container ship, the Yara Birkeland. It’s a modest vessel by shipping terms — 250 feet long and capable of carrying 120 containers according to the concept — but will be capable of loading, navigating and unloading without a crew

(One assumes there will be some people on board or nearby to intervene if anything goes wrong, of course. Why else would there be railings up front?)

Each has major radar and lidar units, visible light and IR cameras, satellite connectivity and so on.

Control centers will be on land, where the ships will be administered much like air traffic, and ships can be taken over for manual intervention if necessary.

At first there will be limited trials, naturally: the Yara Birkeland will stay within 12 nautical miles of the Norwegian coast, shuttling between Larvik, Brevik and Herøya. It’ll only be going 6 knots — so don’t expect it to make any overnight deliveries.

“As a world-leading maritime nation, Norway has taken a position at the forefront in developing autonomous ships,” said Wilhelmson group CEO Thomas Wilhelmson in a press release. “We take the next step on this journey by establishing infrastructure and services to design and operate vessels, as well as advanced logistics solutions associated with maritime autonomous operations. Massterly will reduce costs at all levels and be applicable to all companies that have a transport need.”

The Yara Birkeland is expected to be seaworthy by 2020, though Massterly should be operating as a company by the end of the year.

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Chinese police foil drone-flying phone smugglers at Hong Kong border

Posted by | Asia, China, crime, drones, Gadgets, hardware, hong kong, smuggling, TC, Transportation | No Comments

Dozens of high-tech phone smugglers have been apprehended by Chinese police, who twigged to the scheme to send refurbished iPhones into the country from Hong Kong via drone — but not the way you might think.

China’s Legal Daily reported the news (and Reuters noted shortly after) following a police press conference; it’s apparently the first cross-border drone-based smuggling case, so likely of considerable interest.

Although the methods used by the smugglers aren’t described, a picture emerges from the details. Critically, in addition to the drones themselves, which look like DJI models with dark coverings, police collected some long wires — more than 600 feet long.

Small packages of 10 or so phones were sent one at a time, and it only took “seconds” to get them over the border. That pretty much rules out flying the drone up and over the border repeatedly — leaving aside that landing a drone in pitch darkness on the other side of a border fence (or across a body of water) would be difficult to do once or twice, let alone dozens of times, the method is also inefficient and risky.

But really, the phones only need to clear the border obstacle. So here’s what you do:

Send the drone over once with all cable attached. Confederates on the other side attach the cable to a fixed point, say 10 or 15 feet off the ground. Drone flies back unraveling the cable, and lands some distance onto the Hong Kong side. Smugglers attach a package of 10 phones to the cable with a carabiner, and the drone flies straight up. When the cable reaches a certain tension, the package slides down the cable, clearing the fence. The drone descends, and you repeat.

I’ve created a highly professional diagram to illustrate this technique (feel free to reuse):

It’s not 100 percent to scale. The far side might have to be high enough that the cable doesn’t rest on the fence, if there is one, or not to drag in the water if that’s the case. Not sure about that part.

Anyway, it’s quite smart. You get horizontal transport basically for free, and the drone only has to do what it does best: go straight up. Two wires were found, and the police said up to 15,000 phones might be sent across in a night. Assuming 10 phones per trip, and say 20 seconds per flight, that works out to 1,800 phones per hour per drone, which sounds about right. Probably this kind of thing is underway at more than a few places around the world.

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University of Michigan opens up its M-Air UAV testing facility to students

Posted by | drones, Education, Gadgets, robotics, Transportation, UAVs, University of Michigan | No Comments

Companies and students who want to test an autonomous vehicle at the University of Michigan have the excellent Mcity simulated urban environment. But if you wanted to test a drone, your options were extremely limited — think “at night in a deserted lecture hall.” Not anymore: the school has just opened its M-Air facility, essentially a giant netted playground for UAVs and their humans.

It may not look like much to the untrained eye, and certainly enclosing a space with a net is considerably less labor-intensive than building an entire fake town. But the benefits are undeniable.

Excited students at a school like U-M must frequently come up with ideas for drone control systems, autonomous delivery mechanisms, new stabilization algorithms and so on. Testing them isn’t nearly as simple, though: finding a safe, controlled space and time to do it, getting the necessary approvals and, of course, containing the fallout if anything goes wrong — tasks like these could easily overwhelm a few undergrads.

M-Air serves as a collective space that’s easy to access but built from the ground up (or rather, the air down) for safe and easy UAV testing. It’s 80 by 120 feet and five stories tall, with a covered area that can hold 25 people. There are lights and power, of course, and because it’s fully enclosed it technically counts as “indoor” testing, which is much easier to get approval for. For outdoor tests you need special authorization to ensure you won’t be messing with nearby flight paths.

We can test our system as much as we want without fear of it breaking, without fear of hurting other people,” said grad student Matthew Romano in a U-M video. “It really lets us push the boundaries and allows us to really move quickly on iterating and developing the system and testing our algorithms.”

And because it’s outside, students can even test in the lovely Michigan weather.

“With this facility, we can pursue aggressive educational and research flight projects that involve high risk of fly-away or loss-of-control — and in realistic wind, lighting and sensor conditions,” said U-M aerospace engineering professor Ella Atkins.

I feel for the neighbors, though. That buzzing is going to get annoying.

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The top 7 startups from Y Combinator’s W18 Demo Day 1

Posted by | Apps, hardware, Health, Mobile, Startups, Transportation, universe, voicery, Volley, Y Combinator | No Comments

Autonomous cargo shipping, voice games and a camera that fits in a catheter were amongst the most impressive startups that launched yesterday at the Y Combinator Winter 2018 Demo Day 1. You can read about all 64 startups that launched in verticals like biotech and robotics, and our full coverage of all the companies from Day 2. Based on investor buzz and what interested TechCrunch’s writers, click (web) or scroll (mobile) to see our picks for Day 1’s top seven startups.

Additional reporting by Greg Kumparak, Katie Roof, Megan Rose Dickey and Lucas Matney

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What it’s like using the Owl car security camera

Posted by | Gadgets, Owl, Reviews, TC, Transportation | No Comments

When you get a new car, and you’re feeling like a star, the first thing you’re probably going to do is ghost ride it. This is where the Owl camera can come in.

I’ve been testing Owl, an always-on, two-way camera that records everything that’s happening inside and outside of your car all day, every day for the last couple of weeks.

The Owl camera is designed to monitor your car for break-ins, collisions and police stops. Owl can also be used to capture fun moments (see above) on the road or beautiful scenery, simply by saying, ‘Ok, presto.’

If Owl senses a car accident, it automatically saves the video to your phone, including the 10 seconds before and after the accident. Also, if someone is attracted to your car because of the camera and its blinking green light, and proceeds to steal it, Owl will give you another one.

For 24 hours, you can view your driving and any other incidents that happened during the day. You can also, of course, save footage to your phone so you can watch it after 24 hours.

Setting it up

The two-way camera plugs into your car’s on-board diagnostics port (Every car built after 1996 has one), and takes just a few minutes to set up. The camera tucks right in between the dashboard and windshield. Once it’s hooked up, you can access your car’s camera anytime via the Owl mobile app.

I was a bit skeptical about the ease with which I’d be able to install the camera, but it was actually pretty easy. From opening the box to getting the camera up and running, it took fewer than ten minutes.

Accessing the footage

This is where it can get a little tricky. If you want to save footage after the fact, Owl requires that you be physically near the camera. That meant I had to put on real clothes and walk outside to my car to access the footage from the past 24 hours in order to connect to the Owl’s Wi-Fi. Eventually, however, Owl says it will be possible to access that footage over LTE.

But that wasn’t my only qualm with footage access. Once I tried to download the footage, the app would often crash or only download a portion of the footage I requested. This, however, should be easily fixable, given Owl is set up for over-the-air updates. In fact, Owl told me the company is aware of that issue and is releasing a fix this week. If I want to see the live footage, though, that’s easy to access.

Notifications

Owl is set up to let you know if and when something happens to your car while you’re not there. My Owl’s out-of-the-box settings were set to high sensitivity, which meant I received notifications if a car simply drove by. Changing the settings to a lower sensitivity fixed the annoyance of too many notifications.

Since installing the Owl camera, there hasn’t been a situation in which I was notified of any nefarious behavior happening in or around my car. But I do rest assured knowing that if something does happen, I’ll be notified right away and will be able to see live footage of whatever it is that’s happening.

My understanding is that most of the dash cams on the market aren’t set up to give you 24/7 video access, nor are they designed to be updatable over the air. The best-selling dash cam on Amazon, for example, is a one-way facing camera with collision detection, but it’s not always on. That one retails for about $100 while Amazon’s Choice is one that costs just $47.99, and comes with Wi-Fi to enable real-time viewing and video playback.

Owl is much more expensive than its competition, retailing at $299, with LTE service offered at $10 per month. Currently, Owl is only available as a bundle for $349, which includes one year of the LTE service.

Unlike Owl’s competition, however, the device is always on, due to the fact it plugs into your car’s OMD port. That’s the main, most attractive differentiator for me. To be clear, while the Owl does suck energy from your car’s battery, it’s smart enough to know when it needs to shutdown. Last weekend, I didn’t drive my car for over 24 hours, so Owl shut itself down to ensure my battery wasn’t dead once I came back.

Owl, which launched last month, has $18 million in funding from Defy Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Menlo Ventures, Sherpa Capital and others. The company was founded by Andy Hodge, a former product lead at Apple and executive at Dropcam, and Nathan Ackerman, who formerly led development for Microsoft’s HoloLens.

P.S. I was listening to “Finesse” by Bruno Mars and Cardi B in the GIF above.

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