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Amazon’s secret acquisition and all the AV feels – TechCrunch

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Welcome to Transportation Weekly; I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch. I cover all the ways people and goods move from Point A to Point B — today and in the future — whether it’s by bike, bus, scooter, car, train, truck, robotaxi or rocket. Sure, let’s include hyperloop and eVTOLs, or air taxis, too.

Yup, another transportation newsletter. But I promise this one will be different. Here’s how.

Newsletters can be great mediums for curated news — a place that rounds up all the important articles a reader might have missed in any given week. We want to do a bit more.

We’re doubling down on the analysis and adding a heaping scoop of original reporting and well, scoops. You can expect Q&As with the most interesting people in transportation, insider tips and data from that white paper you didn’t have time to read. This isn’t a lone effort either. TechCrunch senior reporter Megan Rose Dickey, who has been writing about micromobility since before the scooter boom times of 2017, will be weighing in each week in our “Tiny but mighty mobility” section below. Follow her @meganrosedickey.

Consider this a soft launch. 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.

Eventually, we’ll have a way for readers to sign up and have Transportation Weekly delivered each week via email. For now, follow me on Twitter @kirstenkorosec to ensure you see it each week.

Now, let’s get to the good stuff.


ONM …

There are OEMs in the automotive world. And here, (wait for it) there are ONMs — original news manufacturers.


This is where investigative reporting, enterprise pieces and analysis on transportation will live.

We promised scoops in Transportation Weekly and here is one. If you don’t know journalist Mark Harris, you should. He’s an intrepid gumshoeing reporter whom TechCrunch has been lucky enough to hire as a freelancer. Follow him @meharris.

Amazon quietly acquired robotics company Dispatch to build Scout

dispatch-amazon-scout
Remember way back in January when Amazon introduced Scout, their autonomous delivery bot? There was speculation at the time that Amazon had bought the Estonian-based company Starship Technologies. Harris did some investigating and discovered some of the intellectual property and technology behind Scout likely came from a small San Francisco startup called Dispatch that Amazon stealthily acquired in 2017.

It’s time to stop thinking about Amazon as just an e-commerce company. It’s a gigantic logistics company, probably the biggest on the planet, with a keen interest — and the cash to pursue those interests — in automation. Think beyond Scout. In fact, wander on down this post to the deal of the week.


Dig In

Each week, transportation weekly will spend a little extra time on an approach, policy, tech or the people behind it in our “Dig In” section. We’ll run the occasional column here, too.

This week features a conversation with Dmitri Dolgov, the CTO and VP of engineering at Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that spun out to become a business under Alphabet.

waymo-google-10-years

Ten years ago, right around now, about a dozen engineers started working on Project Chauffeur, which would turn into the Google self-driving project and eventually become an official company called Waymo. Along the way, the project would give rise to a number of high-profile engineers who would go on to create their own companies. It’s a list that includes Aurora co-founder Chris Urmson, Argo AI co-founder Bryan Salesky and Anthony Levandowski, who helped launch Otto and more recently Pronto.ai.

What might be less known is that many of those in the original dozen are still at Waymo, including Dolgov, Andrew Chatham, Dirk Haehnel, Nathaniel Fairfield and Mike Montemerlo.

Dolgov and I talked about the early days, challenges and what’s next. A couple of things stood out during our chat…

There is a huge difference between having a prototype that can do something once or twice or four times versus building a product that people can start using in their daily lives. And it is, especially in this field, very easy to make progress on these kinds of one-off challenges.

Dolgov’s take on how engineers viewed the potential of the project 10 years ago …

I also use our cars every day to get around, this is how I got to work today. This is how I run errands around here in Mountain View and Palo Alto.


A little bird …

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share.
blinky-cat-birdAn early investor, or investors, in Bird appear to be selling some of their shares in the scooter company, per a tip backed up by data over at secondary trading platform EquityZen. That’s not crazy considering the company is valued at $2 billion-ish. Seed investors should take some money off the table once a company reaches that valuation.

We’ve heard that David Sacks at Craft Ventures hasn’t sold a single Bird share. We hear Tusk Ventures hasn’t sold, either. That leaves a few others, including Goldcrest Capital, which was the lone seed investor, and then Series A participants Lead Edge Capital, M13, and Valor Equity Partners.

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

While you’re over at Twitter, check out this cheeky account @SDElevator. We can’t guarantee how much of the content is actually “overheard” and how much is manufactured for the laughs, but it’s a fun account to peruse from time to time.

Another new entrant to the mobility parody genre is @HeardinMobilty.


Deal of the week

There’s so much to choose from this week, but Aurora’s more than $530 million Series B funding round announced Thursday morning is the winner.

The upshot? It’s not just that Aurora is now valued at more than $2.5 billion. The primary investors in the round — Sequoia as lead and “significant” investments from Amazon and T. Rowe Price — suggests Aurora’s full self-driving stack is headed for other uses beyond shuttling people around in autonomous vehicles. Perhaps delivery is next.

And believe it or not, the type of investor in this round tells me that we can expect another capital raise. Yes, Aurora has lots of runway now as well as three publicly named customers. But investors like Sequoia, which led the round and whose partner Carl Eschenbach is joining Aurora’s board, T. Rowe Price and Amazon, along with repeaters like Index Ventures (general partner Mike Volpi is also on the board) have patience, access to cash and long-term strategic thinking. Expect more from them.

Other deals that got our attention this week:


Snapshot

Speaking of deals and Tesla … the automaker’s $218 million acquisition this month of Maxwell Technologies got me thinking about companies it has targeted in the past.

So, we went ahead and built a handy chart to provide a snapshot view of some of Tesla’s noteworthy acquisitions. tesla-acquisitions-chart1

One note: Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted in 2018 that the company had acquired trucking carrier companies to help improve its delivery logistics. We’ve dug in and have yet to land on the company, or companies, Tesla acquired.

The deals that got away are just as interesting. That list includes a reported $325 million offer to buy Simbol Materials, the startup that was extracting small amounts of lithium near the Salton Sea east of San Diego.


Tiny but mighty mobility

Between Lime’s $310 million Series D round and the seemingly never-ending battle to operate electric scooters in San Francisco, it’s clear that micromobility is not so micro.

Lime, a shared electric scooter and bike-share startup, has now raised north of $800 million in total funding, surpassing key competitor Bird’s total funding of $415 million. Thanks to this week’s round of funding, Lime’s micromobility business is now worth $2.4 billion.

Lime currently operates its bikes and scooters in more than 100 cities worldwide. Over in San Francisco, however, Lime has yet to deploy any of its modes of transportation. Since last March, there’s been an ongoing battle among scooter operators to deploy their services in the city. The city ultimately selected Skip and Scoot for the pilot programs, leaving the likes of Lime, Uber’s JUMP and Spin to appeal the decision.

A neutral hearing officer has since determined SF’s process for determining scooter operators was fair, but the silver lining for the likes of JUMP, Spin and, most likely, Lime, is that the city may open up its pilot program to allow additional operators beginning in April.


Notable reads

Two recent studies got my attention.

The first is from Bike Pittsburgh, an advocacy group and partner of Uber, that published the findings from its latest AV survey based on responses from local residents. The last time they conducted a similar survey was in 2017.

The takeaway: people there, who are among the most exposed to autonomous vehicles due to all the AV testing on public roads, are getting used to it. A bit more than 48 percent of respondents said they approve of public AV testing in Pittsburgh, down slightly from 49 percent approval rating in 2017. 

  • 21.21% somewhat approve
  • 11.62% neutral
  • 10.73% somewhat disapprove
  • 8.73% disapprove

One standout result was surrounding responses about the fatal accident in Tempe, Ariz. involving a self-driving Uber that struck and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in March 2018. Survey participants were asked “As a pedestrian or a bicyclist how did this event and it’s outcome change your opinion about sharing the road with AVs?”

Some 60 percent of respondents claimed no change in their opinion, with another 37 percent claiming that it negatively changed their opinion. Nearly 3 percent claimed their opinion changed positively toward the technology.

Bike Pittsburgh noted that the survey elicited passionate open-ended responses. 

“The incident did not turn too many people off of AV technology in general,” according to Bike Pittsburgh. “Rather it did lead to a growing distrust of the companies themselves, specifically with Uber and how they handled the fatality.”

The other study, “Securing the Modern Vehicle: A Study of Automotive Industry Cybersecurity Practices,” was released by Synopsys, Inc. and SAE International.

The results, based on a survey of global automotive manufacturers and suppliers conducted by Ponemon Institute, doesn’t assuage my concerns. If anything, it puts me on alert.

  • 84% of automotive professionals have concerns that their organizations’ cybersecurity practices are not keeping pace with evolving technologies
  • 30% of organizations don’t have an established cybersecurity program or team
  • 63% test less than half of the automotive technology they develop for security vulnerabilities

Testing and deployments

Pilots, pilots everywhere. A couple of interesting mobility pilots and deployments stand out.

Optimus Ride, the Boston-based MIT spin-off, has made a deal with Brookfield Properties to provide rides in its small self-driving vehicles at Halley Rise — a new $1.4 billion mixed-use development in Virginia. 

This is an example of where we see self-driving vehicles headed — for now. Small deployments that are narrowly focused in geography with a predictable customer base are the emerging trend of 2019. Expect more of them.

And there’s a reason why these are the kinds of pilots that will deliver the data needed to improve their technology, as well as test out business models — gotta figure out how to make money with AVs eventually — hone in fleet operational efficiency, placate existing investors while attracting new ones and recruit talent.

Another deployment in the more conventional ride-hailing side of mobility is with Beat, the startup that has focused its efforts on Latin America.

Beat was founded by Nikos Drandakis in 2011 initially as Taxibeat. The startup was acquired by Daimler’s mytaxi in February 2017 and Drandakis still runs the show. The company was focused on Europe but shifted to Latin America, and it has made all the difference. (Beat is still available in Athens, Greece.) Beat has launched in Lima, Peru, Santiago, Chile and Bogota, Colombia and now boasts 200,000 registered drivers. 

Now it’s moving into Mexico, where more competitors exist. The company just started registering and screening drivers in Mexico City as it prepares to offer rides for passengers this month. 

TechCrunch spoke at length with Drandakis. Look out for a deeper dive soon.

Until next week, nos vemos.



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Android 12L Beta 1 released: Big screen features for all

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Today Google released the latest version of Android with Android 12L Beta 1, made ready for all intrepid Android-running smart device users to see the future. This is not the first time we’ve seen this software, but it is the first time we’ve seen the software available in the Android Beta program for just about anyone who’ll give it a shot. This version of the software can be found on the Android Beta website and through Google’s developer portal.

This software is a sort of half-step between Android 12 and Android 13. This is an operating system update that’ll work on all devices, but adds functionality and features specifically tuned for large-screen devices and devices with transforming displays. Foldables and rollable display devices will not be passed over by Android!

If you’re testing this software on a device with a large screen, you’ll find a new taskbar for easy app switching. This new taskbar also allows the user to easily drag and drop apps for split-screen mode functionality. Large-screen devices have UI refinements as well, with a focus on usability for overview, lockscreen, quick settings, notifications, and home screens.

This new software is optimized for large screen devices. Developers were given APIs and tools to “help build for large screens” with Android. This included material patterns for large screens, Jetpack Compose for adaptive UI, Window Size Classes for UI management, Activity embedding APIs, a resizeable emulator, and visual linting in Android Studio (with Android Studio Chipmunk).

You do not need a large-screen device to enroll in the Beta program for Android 12L. If you head over to the Android Beta for Pixel site, you’ll see the devices that’ll be able to run this Beta software. Most any Pixel device Pixel 3a or newer should be able to run this Android 12L Beta build.

If you own a Lenovo Tab P12 Pro, you can give Android 12L Developer Preview a try right now. There’s a Lenovo P12 Pro Android 12L Developer Preview Program available for tapping right this minute. This includes Security Patch 2021-11-01 and Android 12L DP1.

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Tile tracker prospective buyer Life360 accused of selling location data

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Many people who have caught a whiff of the many privacy issues in this digital age may presume that it all revolves around social media. The rather horrifying truth is that almost anything about a person that can be transmitted in a digital manner can be used to create a profile of that person, often for targeted marketing purposes. That especially includes the places you’ve been to, which is why location tracking has been a very thorny subject as far as privacy issues go. That’s why it’s a bit worrying that the popular Bluetooth tracker Tile might be acquired by a company that is now allegedly violating its own users’ privacy, which is ironic given the nature of Life360’s business.

Image Credit: Tile

READ: After trying Apple’s AirTag I can see why Tile is furious

Life360 might not be a familiar name to many people, but it has built a reputation around helping families keep track of one another, often with the goal of ensuring their safety. The app comes in handy in making sure kids are where they should be or that family members can send SOS messages in an emergency. These features obviously require some form of location tracking as well as some expectations of privacy.

A lengthy report from The Markup, however, casts some doubt on the latter. Former Life360 employees claim that the company basically sells the location data of its users to almost anyone for the right price. It even partnered with the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to track “mobility trends” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Life365

Most of Life360’s customers, however, are involved in the advertising industry, providing insights for use with targeted advertising. Company founder and CEO Chris Hulls admits that they see this data as an important part of their business model but that they have privacy policies in place that prevent personally identifiable information (PII) from leaking to its clients. Life360 also credits this business model for allowing them to offer free life-saving services like driver safety.

Complicating matters, however, is Life360’s intent to acquire Tile, one of the most popular brands of Bluetooth trackers in the market today. With Apple’s AirTag and Samsung’s SmartTag, that market has seen a renewed interest as well as more intense scrutiny from privacy advocates and regulators.

The report, while not exactly damning, could put a dent in Life360’s plans. According to The Markup, Hulls said Life360 “doesn’t have plans” to sell Tile tracker data.

Regardless of those privacy policies, the mere thought that Life360, a service aimed at families with kids, deals heavily in the data-selling business is enough to raise red flags. Without many external safeguards in place, there is almost no telling how much information its partners are able to glean from the precise location data that it sells. Security and privacy experts have argued that even anonymized data can still be used to build a profile of an individual for targeted advertising, which can then be used to harvest other information from other sources (via Nature).

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Instagram parental controls about to change the way you browse

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Although Meta itself is no stranger to controversy and legal inquiries, it was Instagram that was put on the hot seat a few months back for the way it treated its younger users. From accusations of trying to profit at the expense of teens’ mental health to criticisms for lack of parental control, Instagram has been painted recently as an unsafe place for young people to be, despite its popularity with that demographic. The social network has tried to recover from that bad PR and is now announcing features to reassure parents, but some of those won’t be rolling out until next year.

Image Credit: Instagram

For Parents

Instagram isn’t new to the social networking game, and the bulk of its users come from younger generations. You’d think that, at this point, it would already have safety measures in place to let parents safeguard kids, but that was definitely not the case. To be fair, it wasn’t until recently that Instagram officially allowed minors in, but it should have had provisions ready for that situation.

Image Credit: Instagram

Better late than never, as some might say, and parental controls are finally coming to Instagram. The catch is that it won’t be until March next year before these parental controls become available. When it does, parents will finally have a say on how much time they want their kids to spend on Instagram. The company is also building an educational hub for parents that will probably try to ease their worries about the network’s impact on their children’s mental health.

For Teens

Parents won’t have to wait long for one promised feature, though. Starting today, teenage users from the US, the UK, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia will be nudged to take a break every now and then when they’ve been scrolling through their feeds for too long. Although it’s too easy to dismiss these notifications, Instagram hints it will be a little persistent and almost nagging in reminding young users to leave that setting enabled.

Image Credit: Instagram

Instagram is also improving on limitations specific to teens’ accounts. For example, other people won’t be able to tag them in posts if the teens don’t follow those accounts. The network’s “Limit Even More” option for controlling sensitive content might also filter out potentially harmful search results, though this feature is still in its early testing stage.

For Everyone

There are also features being tested that will benefit not just teens but all users of all ages. Instagram is testing a new tool that will let users manage their activity better, like bulk deleting content, including previous likes and comments. If all goes well, this will be available in January.

Image Credit: Instagram

The social network is also preparing a “nudge” to remind users to look at other topics if they’ve been staring or searching for a single one for far too long. It’s almost like the “Take a Break” feature but focused on certain topics that can become an unhealthy obsession, especially if the subject matter can be deemed to be potentially harmful.

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