Tesla resurrects long-range RWD Model 3 for the Chinese market

Tesla is now producing and selling the long-range rear-wheel drive version of its Model 3 electric vehicle at its Shanghai factory, a month after receiving approval from the Chinese government.

The move might not be a milestone, but it’s notable because Tesla discontinued production of the long-range RWD Model 3 in the U.S. and now only offers that variant as a dual-motor all-wheel drive. It also marks a shift from Tesla’s initial plan to sell a more basic version of the Model 3 in China.

The company updated its China website showing the standard range plus — the first vehicle to produced at the Shanghai factory — as well as the long range RWD and performance versions of the Model 3. Bloomberg was the first to report the change. The long range RWD version starts at 366,550 yuan, or about $52,000 after incentives. Deliveries of the long-range RWD version are expected to begin in June.

The standard-range plus Model starts at 323,800 yuan, or about $46,000, before local subsidies.

The standard-range-plus Model 3 can travel 276 miles on a single charge, according to Tesla’s China website. The same website says the long-range RWD Model 3 has 668 km, or 415-mile range. Those range estimates are based on the New European Driving Cycle, a forgiving standard that Europe replaced several years ago with the WLTP. The real-word range is likely much lower.

Tesla model 3 long range RWD china

Image Credits: Tesla/screenshot

Tesla started producing a standard-range-plus rear-wheel-drive version of the Model 3 at its Shanghai factory late last year. The first deliveries began in early January. The March approval from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology gave Tesla permission to add another variant to its Chinese portfolio.

Eventually, Tesla plans to manufacture the Model Y electric vehicle at the China factory.

Starship Technologies is sending its autonomous robots to more cities as demand for contactless delivery rises

Starship Technologies has launched a robot food delivery service in Tempe, Ariz., as part of the autonomous delivery startup’s expansion plans following a $40 million funding round announced last August.

Starship Technologies, which was launched in 2014 by Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, has been ramping up commercial services in the past year, including a plan to expand to 100 universities by late summer 2021.

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing traditional restaurants to close and placing more pressure on gig economy workers, Starship Technologies has an opportunity to accelerate that growth.

Tempe isn’t the only new areas added amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Starship added a grocery delivery service in Washington, D.C in late March and expanded to Irvine, Calif. It also expanded its service area in Milton Keynes, U.K., where it has been operating since 2018. The company said it plans to add more cities in the coming weeks.

“The demand for contactless delivery has expanded exponentially in recent weeks,” Ryan Tuohy, who heads up business development at Starship Technologies, said in a statement. “We’re looking forward to serving the Tempe community as more people are looking for ways to support local businesses while spending more time at home. Our robots are doing autonomous deliveries in five countries and we’re grateful that our robots can make life a little bit easier for everyone.”

The autonomous robots, which can carry up to 20 pounds, could find a new customer base as people seek ways to get groceries and food without having to visit in person. Users place their order via the Starship Deliveries app and drop a pin where they want the delivery sent. The robot’s progress can be watched via an interactive map. Once the robot arrives, users receive an alert, and can then meet and unlock it through the app. The robots, which can cross streets, climb curbs, travel at night and operate in both rain and snow, are monitored remotely by Starship. Human operators can take control of the robots if needed.

In Tempe, the delivery service will initially employ more than 30 autonomous, on-demand robots between 10:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. daily in a geofenced area that includes several restaurants and a residential area. The service area is located about two miles from Arizona State University. Local residents are able to use the app to order from three restaurants, including Fate Brewing Company, Tempe City Tacos and Venezia’s Pizza of “Breaking Bad” fame.

Starship Technologies said it will expand the Tempe service area and add more restaurants and grocery stores soon.

And while COVID-19 has caused universities to close, Starship said it is continuing delivery services on multiple college campuses across the U.S. where international and grad students are residing.

Stocks rally again as new COVID-19 cases show signs of slowing

All major indices rose Wednesday, led by the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which increased 3.44% to close above 23,000 for the first time since March 13.

Investors seemed heartened by comments made by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, who said Wednesday that the U.S. death count from COVID-19 is lower than initially modeled. He warned that the death count will continue to climb even as new cases slow.

The action Wednesday followed rallies earlier this week. Still, it should be noted that the Dow Jones Industrial Average still closed below yesterday’s high of 23,537.44, suggesting that this could be a bear market run.

Here’s the breakdown at closing:

  • Dow Jones rose 3.44%, or 779.71 points, to close at 23,433.57
  • S&P 500 increased 3.41%, or 90.57, to close at 2,749.98
  • Nasdaq popped 2.58%, or 203.64 points, to close at 8,090.90

Equities were also buoyed by oil prices and news that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, whose policies fueled concerns about higher taxes, was dropping out of the race.

Transportation saw a bump today. Uber rose 4.66% to close at $26.94. That’s still more than 34.7% below this year’s high of $41.27, reached in February. Meanwhile, Lyft also saw shares rise 7.78% to close at $29.64. Again, it’s the same story as Uber. Lyft’s share price is still off — about 45% — from the year-to-date highs. (Uber and Lyft have seesawed this year, first on profit promises, later on cash concerns, and more. It’s been an active year so far for ride-hailing companies.)

Among today’s leaders were airlines, which have been one of the harder hit industries in this COVID-19 era. United led the pack with a 12.38% bump to close at $27.51, followed by American Airlines and Delta, which rose 109.% and 4.4% respectively. Tesla had a volatile day that ended nearly where it began, with a 0.62% increase to close at $548.84.

Automakers also saw shares rise. GM shares rose 8.59% to close at $23.13, while Ford increased 6.59% to $5.03 and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles closed up 3.15% to $7.86 a share.

Finally today, the rally touched on a key group of stocks that we track carefully here at TechCrunch, namely SaaS stocks — the equities associated with modern software companies and cloud-focused firms. The index that we track monitoring the group of companies, the Bessemer cloud index, shot 5.8% higher today, a huge rally. The index is still off from its recent highs, but has recovered along with the broader stock market. If its gains will help startups that are SaaS-based raise more easily is not yet clear, but the index’s gains are good news for founders and investors in private software companies.

Airbnb rolls out new features aimed at its next big bet: longer term stays

Airbnb is tweaking its landing page and introducing new features all aimed at longer-term stays, as the online rental marketplace looks to capitalize on a growing segment of its business.

The changes are being rolled out just days after Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said the company had raised $1 billion and laid out plans to direct its attention and new funds toward three core products: hosts, long-term stays and Airbnb experiences. Airbnb raised the $1 billion in debt and equity from private equity firms Silver Lake and Sixth Street Partners.

Chesky acknowledged Monday that while the desire to connect and travel has been reinforced during this time, the “way it manifests will evolve as the world changes.”

Airbnb is betting how and where people work will evolve; in the company’s view, it’s heading towards longer term stays. Recent data shared by Airbnb supports that view. In last two weeks of March, the company saw the number of guests booking longer-term stays within their same cities nearly double. Meanwhile, 80% of Airbnb hosts now accept longer-term stays and about half of the company’s active listings now provide discounts for stays of one month or longer.

On Thursday, Airbnb will change its main landing page to highlight longer-term stays. The company introduced a new notification hosts to educate them on the benefits of longer-term stays as well as a guide to update their listings to accept these types of bookings. Airbnb has decided to make that a permanent feature in the portal that hosts use to manage their listings.

airbnb new landing page

Image Credits: Airbnb

When the new landing page launches Thursday, Airbnb will have more than 1 million listings that offer monthly stays, according to the company. These homes are equipped with the kinds of amenities required for a longer stay such as kitchens, laundry facilities, and wifi.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted travel and sparked a need among healthcare and other essential workers to find places to stay in their own cities, has contributed to that growth.

However, it appears this trend was already afoot in 2019. According to Airbnb, one in every seven nights booked in 2019 was for a longer-term stay.

The push into longer term stays will likely butt up against property management companies that handle traditional one-year leases. There’s already some evidence that Airbnb’s longer term stays are looking more like traditional rentals.

The company said it’s seeing more people such as students, doctors and nurses in residency, or others in long term work assignment turning to Airbnb to find housing for six- to nine-month stays. Already in 2020, Airbnb said it has seen bookings for more than 600 days; the longest booking made so far this year was more than 700 days.

Uber for Business expands its corporate Eats delivery feature to 20 more countries

Uber for Business, a platform designed for corporate customers, is expanding its food delivery Eats product to more than 20 countries this year, in response to a surge in demand as more employees work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The expansion kicks off Wednesday, starting with Brazil, Canada, France and the UK.

The ride-hailing company launched Business for Uber in 2014 to give companies a tool that would streamline payments for rides taken by their employees and clients. In 2018, the platform added a corporate version of its on-demand Uber Eats app, which lets companies set meal programs so employees can order food at certain times and locations and create automatic spending allowances.

Uber had plans to expand the business version of Eats. Uber said it accelerated those plans in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has prompted governments around the world to issue stay at home orders that has millions of employees working remotely.

In March, active Uber for Business customers using Eats grew 28% from the previous month, according to the company.

Uber for Business has also added new features to Eats. Employees can now use their individual
corporate cards and manage orders through a business profile on the Uber Eats app or website.

Tesla to cut salaries, furlough workers as COVID-19 shutdowns expected to last until May 4

Tesla will suspend production at its U.S. factories until at least May 4 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting the company to cut pay for salaried employees between 10% and 30% and furlough workers, according to an internal email sent Tuesday night and viewed by TechCrunch.

Pay cuts for salaried employees — which ranges from 30% for vice presidents, 20% for director-level executives and 10% for the remaining workforce — is expected to be in place until the end of the second quarter, according to the email. The salary cuts and furloughs will begin April 13. Employees who cannot work from home and have not been assigned critical onsite positions will be furloughed until May 4, according to the email.

“While we are continuing to keep only minimum critical operations running, we expect to resume normal production at our U.S. facilities on May 4, barring any significant changes,” the email from Tesla’s human resources department head Valerie Workman. “Until that time, it is important we take action to ensure we remain on track to achieve our long-term plans.”

“This is a shared sacrifice across the company that will allow us to progress during these challenging times,” the email read.

Furloughed employees will remain employees of Tesla without pay. They will their healthcare benefit. The email directs furloughed employees to apply for unemployment benefits.

Tesla said in the email to employees that it will also put any merit-based actions such as equity grants on hold.

Tesla operates a number of factories and facilities throughout the U.S., namely its main assembly plant in Fremont, Calif., its Nevada gigafactory that produces battery packs and electric motors for the Model 3 and its factory in Buffalo, New York, which makes solar products.

Tesla announced March 19 plans to suspend production at its Fremont and Buffalo factories. At the time, the company didn’t say when it expected to restart production. The production suspension at its Fremont factory was set to begin March 23, a week after a shelter in place order went into effect in Alameda County due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some basic operations that support Tesla’s charging infrastructure and what it describes as its “vehicle and energy services operations” has continued at the Fremont factory, which under normal circumstances employs more than 10,000 people. About 2,500 workers are still working at the plant.

Tesla said in March that it had enough liquidity to weather the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Its cash position at the end of the fourth quarter was $6.3 billion before its recent $2.3 billion capital raise.

“We believe this level of liquidity is sufficient to successfully navigate an extended period of uncertainty,” Tesla said.

The company had available credit lines worth about  $3 billion, including working capital lines for all regions as well as financing for the expansion of its Shanghai factory at the end of the fourth quarter of 2019.

Nuro gets OK to test its driverless delivery vehicles on California public roads

Autonomous delivery startup Nuro has been granted a permit to begin driverless testing on California’s public roads, paving the way for the company to roll out commercial operations throughout the state.

Nuro, which raised $940 million from SoftBank Vision Fund last year, is allowed to put two of its low-speed electric R2 delivery vehicles on public roads in parts of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the agency that regulates autonomous vehicle testing in the state.

The driverless permit allows the vehicles to operate at a maximum speed of 25 mph and only in fair weather conditions on streets with a speed limit of no more than 35 mph, the DMV said Tuesday. The permit covers nine cities, including Atherton, East Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills, Los Altos, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and Woodside.

“The safety of the motoring public is the DMV’s top priority, and we do not give out these permits lightly,” DMV Director Steve Gordon said in statement. “Nuro has met the DMV’s requirements to receive this permit to test their driverless delivery vehicles on California’s public roads.”

Nuro won’t start its driverless testing right away due to stay-at-home orders issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom because of the spreading COVID-19 pandemic. The company will be actively engaging in logistical planning for the day public roads testing can begin, Nuro’s chief legal and policy officer David Estrada said in a blog post Tuesday. “Our hope is that residents of neighboring cities and counties will see R2 on the road soon,” he said.

A path to commercialization

While 65 companies have an active permit to test autonomous vehicles with a human safety driver, Waymo, and now Nuro, are the only companies allowed to operate driverless vehicles on California’s public roads.

Nuro might end up being the first company to actually use it. Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that spun out to become a business under Alphabet, received the first permit in October 2018. However, the company has never used it. Instead, Waymo has focused its efforts on Arizona, where it already operates a robotaxi service called Waymo One and it has a clear commercial path.

In California, the commercial path is muddled for most AV developers. Under state law, the DMV regulates autonomous vehicle testing. If a company wants to transport passengers — essentially operating a ride-hailing service — it must get an Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot permit from the California Public Utilities Commission.

The CPUC lets companies use their self-driving vehicles to transport people. However, they can’t charge for rides and the vehicles must have safety drivers behind the wheel.

Nuro’s R2 vehicle isn’t designed for people, only packages. While the company can’t charge a delivery fee, there is nothing stopping it from working with local retailers to launch a commercial delivery business using the autonomous vehicles.

Nuro will start with free deliveries to select customers in Mountain View and the surrounding area, Estrada said, adding that this will allow a formal delivery service in partnership with local brands and retailers.

The company already has its eyes on a statewide delivery service. Estrada said Nuro will apply for a full commercial deployment permit to bring its services to California residents throughout the state.

“Putting our driverless R2 delivery vehicles on the road will be an important first for our company and the self-driving industry. But it is just a glimmer of what is to come,” Estrada said. “We have always believed in the transformative power of autonomous vehicles, and in the climate of COVID-19 we understand their potential even more deeply.”

Nuro’s R2 unit

Nuro was founded in June 2016 by Google alums Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu. The company was issued an AV testing permit — with a human safety operator — in 2017. Initially, the company used modified Toyota Prius sedans for testing as well as for pilot grocery deliveries in Arizona and Texas.

The company transitioned in December 2018 to the R1, the first step towards a vehicle designed exclusively for packages.

The R2, which was designed and assembled in the U.S. in partnership with Michigan-based Roush Enterprises, was introduced in February 2020. Nuro received a driverless exemption from the federal government for its R2 vehicle, a milestone for the company. 

The exemption granted by the the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration allows the vehicle to operate without three features that are normally required: side-view mirrors, windshield and a rear-view camera that shuts off when driving forward. This exemption is different from the one that GM is currently pursuing for its self-driving unit Cruise. That vehicle, which is not considered a low-speed vehicle, has a much longer list of exemptions.

Boeing suspends 787 airplane production

Boeing said Monday it will suspend all 787 operations at its South Carolina factory following a stay-at-home order issued by the governor, effectively putting the company’s entire commercial airplane production on hiatus.

The closure will start at the end of the second shift April 8. Boeing announced the production suspension on the same day it confirmed that it would re-fly the Starliner capsule Orbital Flight Test following a partial failure of that mission late last year. The test aims to demonstrate the Starliner’s launch, flight, Space Station docking and landing capabilities prior to flying a version of the mission with actual astronauts on board.

“It is our commitment to focus on the health and safety of our teammates while assessing the spread of the virus across the state, its impact on the reliability of our global supply chain and that ripple effect on the 787 program,” Brad Zaback, vice president and general manager of the 787 Program and BSC site leader said in a statement.

Boeing already stopped operations at its Seattle area facilities. Boeing said Sunday it would extend the suspension of production operations at its Puget Sound area and Moses Lake sites in Washington until further notice. The company said it extended the closure due to the spread of COVID-19 in Washington as well as the reliability of the supply chain.

Boeing didn’t provide a date when it will restart production of the 787 airplanes or provide guidance on any of its other operations in the U.S.

Employees at the Boeing South Carolina (BSC) facility who can work remotely will continue to do so, the company said. Those who cannot will receive paid leave for 10 working days of the suspension. Boeing said this is twice as long as its company policy. If the closure persists, employees will have the option to use a combination of paid time off or file for emergency state unemployment benefits.

Airbnb turns to private equity to raise $1 billion

Airbnb said Monday that it has raised $1 billion in debt and equity from private equity firms Silver Lake and Sixth Street Partners, even as the online rental marketplace has seen its business plummet due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed. It’s unclear how this funding might alter Airbnb’s previously shared plans to go public.

COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, prompted governments throughout the world to issue stay-at-home orders, triggering a wave of cancellations in the travel and hospitality industries. Airbnb emphasized that the funds would support its ongoing work to invest over the long term, a statement aimed at couching this raise as strategic and not a bailout in troubled times. 

“While the current environment is clearly a difficult one for the hospitality industry, the desire to travel and have authentic experiences is fundamental and enduring,” Silver Lake co-CEO and managing partner Egon Durban said in a statement. “Airbnb’s diverse, global, and resilient business model is particularly well suited to prosper as the world inevitably recovers and we all get back out to experience it.”

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky acknowledged Monday that while the desire to connect and travel has been reinforced during this time, the “way it manifests will evolve as the world changes.”

Airbnb is betting how and where people work will evolve. As a result, the company said it will direct its attention and new funds toward three core products: hosts, long-term stays and Airbnb experiences.

Last month, Airbnb said it would direct $250 million to help hosts who have been impacted by COVID-19. The funds will be used to pay a host 25% of what they would normally receive through their cancellation policy if a guest cancels a reservation due to COVID-19 between March 14 and May 31. Airbnb said this policy applies retroactively to all cancellations during that period.

The move was an attempt by Airbnb to make amends to its hosts who complained that the company’s policy would allow guests to cancel reservations and receive a full refund. That policy, which is still active, lets guests who booked reservations on or before March 14 that begin anytime on or before May 31 to cancel and receive a standard refund or travel credit.

Stocks drop as unemployment spikes

Stocks fell in regular trading Friday, as all major American indices fell in the wake of a broadly negative jobs report. With more than 700,000 jobs lost in the March data, unemployment in the United States rose from 3.5% to 4.4%.

The markets have been bracing for widespread job losses due to the continued fallout from COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus that has prompted local, county and state officials throughout the U.S. and Europe to issue stay-at-home orders. Those directives have forced bars, restaurants, gyms and other non-essentials businesses to close.

While the market had expected a wave of job losses, stocks fell as those figures surpassed expectations. Selloffs were further spurred by this troubling recognition: Friday’s figures only account for unemployment-insurance claims individuals filed in the first two weeks of March, before most of the COVID-related layoffs began.

This was unlike Thursday, when negative data led to market gains.

Here are the day’s raw results:

  • Dow Jones Industrial Average: down 1.67%, or 357.99 points, to close at 21,055.45
  • S&P 500: fell 1.52%, or 38.34 points, to close at 2,488.56
  • Nasdaq composite: declined 1.53%, or 114.23 points, to close at 7,373.08

Shares of SaaS and cloud companies tracked by the Bessemer cloud index fell as well, while cryptocurrencies were roughly flat in the 24-hour period ending with the close of equity trading.

There were standouts, however. Shares of Tesla held onto some of their after-hours gains recorded yesterday, closing the day up 5.62% to close at $408.01 as the company continued to ride its positive report that it had delivered more vehicles than expected. Bill.com, a recent SaaS IPO, managed gains as well, closing the day up 2.71%. It was somewhat hard to find exceptions to the selloff; most companies lost ground in the face of worse-than-expected economic data.

Every sector saw downward pressure Friday, with the exception of energy and consumer products, which saw a bit of a lift. Oil futures had one of its best days on record, after Russian President Vladimir Putin said global cuts of around 10 million barrels a day are possible.

Airlines were also hit Friday after the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered the industry to provide refunds on any flights that companies had canceled. While airline stocks recovered, they all closed in negative territory. United Airlines fell 2.28% to close at $22.88, American Airlines declined 6.8% to $9.38 and Delta Airlines dropped 0.88% to $22.48.