The Station: Volvo evolves, Skip trips and touchscreen tech

The Station is back for another week of news and analysis on all the ways people and goods move from Point A to Point B — today and in the future. As always, I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior reporter at TechCrunch.

Portions of the newsletter will be published as an article on the main site after it has been emailed to subscribers (that’s what you’re reading now). To get everything, you have to sign up. And it’s free. To subscribe, go to our newsletters page and click on The Station.

This week, we’re looking at factories in China, scooters in San Francisco and touchscreens in cars, among other things.

Please reach out anytime with tips and feedback. Tell us what you love and don’t love so much. Email me at [email protected] to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

Welcome to micromobbin’ — a weekly dive into the tiny but mighty chaotic world of micromobility. This also happens to be a place where Megan Rose Dickey reigns. Follow her @meganrosedickey.

Uber, Lime and Spin each deployed 500 electric scooters in San Francisco as part of the city’s permitting program. This means residents in SF can now choose from Uber-owned JUMP, Lime, Spin or Scoot scooters. Unfortunately for Skip, the company did not receive a permit to continue operating in the city, which means layoffs at the local level are afoot, Skip CEO Sanjay Dastoor said earlier this week.

Meanwhile, former Uber executive Dmitry Shevelenko unveiled Tortoise, an autonomous repositioning software for micromobility operators. The idea is to help make it easier for these companies to more strategically deploy their respective vehicles and reposition them when needed.

Let’s close this section with the obligatory funding round. Wheels, a pedal-less electric bike-share startup, raised a $50 million round led by DBL Partners. That brought its total funding to $87 million.

Oh, but wait, TC reporter Romain Dillet reminded us that micromobbin’ happens outside of the U.S. too. Uber also announced this past week that it has integrated its app with French startup Cityscoot, which has a fleet of free-floating moped-style scooters.

This is the latest example of Uber’s plan to become a super mobility app that goes well beyond its own network of ride-hailing vehicles.

— Megan Rose Dickey

Snapshot: Touchscreen tech

We’ve seen a lot of different approaches when it comes to engaging with connected car services: head-up displays on the windshield, small screens perched on the dashboard, interactive voice and, of course, connections and mounts for smartphones.

But how about if your whole car becomes the touchscreen? A startup called Sentons is working on technology that could make that happen. The company uses a technique involving processors and AI that emit and read ultrasound to detect physical movement on a surface, such as touch, force or gestures, and users can create “virtual controls” on the fly that work on these surfaces.

This week, it released SurfaceWave, a software and hardware stack that works on glass, metal and plastic surfaces of smartphones.

CEO Jess Lee says the next iterations are going to be the kinds of materials that are used to make car dashboards and other interior surfaces you find inside the vehicle, including leather, thicker plastic and other materials. The company is already engaging with automotive companies, Lee told TechCrunch.

I can see a lot of possibilities for this in the human-driven vehicles of today. We’ve already seen how Tesla has changed how we think about infotainment systems in cars. And then there’s electric vehicle startup Byton, which plans to bring a vehicle to market with a touchscreen that extends along the entire dashboard.

The real opportunity for Sentons will be with autonomous vehicles, a product that will afford its passengers more leisure time.

— Ingrid Lunden

Made in China

the station china

Earlier this week, Tesla was given the OK to begin producing vehicles at its $2 billion factory in Shanghai. Tesla was added to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s list of approved automotive manufacturers.

Now we’ll watch and wait to see if production starts this month. Expect the topic of China and this factory to come up during Tesla’s earnings call with analysts October 23.

In other China factory news, we hear that electric vehicle startup Byton plans to host a splashy opening ceremony in early November for its new plant. The event will include lots of Chinese officials, company executives and maybe a preview of a near-final production version of its M-Byte vehicle.

Byton’s factory in Nanjing covers some 800,000 square meters (8.6 million square feet) funded with a total investment of more than $1.5 billion. Over the summer, the walls and roof went up, equipment was installed and commissioning began in five major workshops: stamping, welding, paint, battery and assembly.

The plant will begin trial production in late 2019.

This all sounds great, but there have been challenges, and the constant requirement for capital is one of them. Byton has delayed the launch of the production version of the M-Byte by two quarters. It’s now looking like commercial production will begin by the end of the second quarter of 2020.

Here are a couple of interesting tidbits for those manufacturing geeks out there:

  • The stamping shop completes one panel every 3 seconds on average. Byton claims it will be one of the fastest stamping production lines in China.
  • The welding shop incorporates 335 welding robots supplied by KUKA and boosts the automation rate to 99%, according to Byton.
  • The paint shop is equipped with a “3 Coating 2 Baking” system and thin film pre-treatment as well as the transverse “Eco-Incure” oven technology.
  • The battery shop will produce and assemble battery packs, designed independently by Byton. Battery maker CATL provides the battery cells and modules and aluminum maker Constellium supplies the aluminum battery tray.

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share. A little bird is where we pass along insider tips and what we’re hearing or finding from reliable, informed sources in the industry. This isn’t a place for unfounded gossip.

To get a “little bird” and the rest of the newsletter, please subscribe. Just go to our newsletters page and click on The Station.

What does systems engineering in AVs mean?

the station autonomous vehicles1

I recently spoke to Randol Aikin, the head of systems engineering at self-driving trucks startup Ike Robotics, about the company’s approach, which is based on a methodology developed at MIT called Systems Theoretic Process Analysis. STPA is the foundation for Ike’s product development.

The company also released a wickedly long safety report (it’s halfway down that landing page in the link provided).

The complete interview was included in the emailed newsletter. Yet another reason to subscribe to this free newsletter. Here’s one quote from the interview with Aikin:

We asked the question, what do we have to prove to ourselves and demonstrate in order to be on a public road safely? It’s the same question that we’re going to have to answer for the product as well, which is, what do we need to prove to assure that we’re safe to operate without a human in the cab?

It’s one of the huge unproven hypotheses. Anybody in this space that doesn’t consider that to be a huge technical challenges is ignoring a really thorny and important question.

Who will own the future of transportation?

Our mobility coverage extends to Extra Crunch. Check out my latest article on who will own the future of transportation based on insights from Zoox CEO Aicha Evans and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The idea here is to explore some of the nuances of this loaded question.

Extra Crunch requires a paid subscription and you can sign up here.

 

Why venture capital firms need culture experts

When Susan Fowler’s 2017 blog post shined a light on Uber’s raucous culture, outlining rampant harassment and sexism, a debate erupted. What role do the deep-pocketed investors behind the company, those who allowed it to scale to monstrous proportions, have in developing and nurturing its culture? Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists themselves wondered aloud, how involved should a venture fund be in early-stage recruiting processes and ensuring a safe environment for employees? If a culture is bad, unsafe, damaging, is it the VC’s fault?

Late-stage venture funds, for the most part, miss the opportunity to deeply impact their portfolio companies’ cultures. When they invest, typically large sums of capital in companies with hundreds of employees and multiple offices, the company’s culture is formed and, as Uber and others have proven, rebuilding culture a decade in is no easy challenge. Early-stage funds, however, the people that write the very first check in startups, have a front-row seat to decisions crucial to defining how a company operates and treats its employees in the long term. These people, if they care to, have the power to help determine key hires and establish company values, norms and behaviors from the get-go.

This week, San Francisco-based early-stage fund True Ventures hired its first-ever vice president of culture, a move that suggests VCs are taking concrete steps toward further involving themselves in the company-building process from a D&I and hiring perspective. Madeline Kolbe Saltzman joins the firm, which raised $635 million across two new funds last year, from Handshake, where she was the VP of people and talent.

“There’s a responsibility to guide the company and the founder to being the best they can be, and that involves paying attention to who you’re hiring and how people are being treated,” Saltzman tells TechCrunch. “If we can come in and establish inclusive norms, my hope is that our companies will scale inclusively as well.”

Most venture capitalists are in regular communication with active investments. Early-stage investors, particularly, are very involved with building businesses, facilitating hires and scaling. But as they seek to decrease cash-burn or find product-market fit, VCs are not often very concerned with issues of diversity and inclusion, something that’s became increasingly important as companies are finally being held accountable for the diversity of their workforces.

Electric moped startup Revel raises $27.6 million as it eyes new markets

In less than two years, Revel has gone from an idea to a shared electric vehicle startup with more than 1,400 mopeds across Washington D.C., and Brooklyn and Queens, New York. Now, it’s ready to grow up — and beyond these three cities — with a fresh injection of $27.6 million in capital raised in a Series A round led by Ibex Investors.

The equity round included newcomer Toyota AI Ventures and further investments from Blue Collective, Launch Capital and Maniv Mobility.

The capital will, as it often does with startups, allow Revel to scale up. CEO and co-founder Frank Reig said this growth will extend to its fleet of scooters within the cities it currently operates as well as expand into new markets. Reig wouldn’t name where the New York-based startup will launch next, although he provided some hints. Large U.S. cities with the right population density and more temperate weather are at the top of the list.

Revel is targeting about 10 cities by mid-2020, Reig added.

How that growth occurs, and who is behind its operations, is what Reig believes differentiates Revel from other shared electric vehicle providers such as scooter startups that have had a record of deploying in cities before getting approval from local authorities.

Many startups in the shared industry, including Revel, talk up their focus on safety and desire to be responsible partners with cities. Revel’s choice of vehicle — along with a few other decisions — helps it stick to those promises.

“These mopeds are motor vehicles,” Reig noted. “This means there’s no regulatory gray area: you have to have a license plate. To get that license plate you have register each vehicle with the Department of Motor Vehicles in each state and show third-party auto liability insurance. And then because it’s a motor vehicle, it’s clear that it rides in the street, so we’re completely off sidewalks.”

Revel caps the speed of its mopeds to 30 miles per hour. The company also provides two helmets — and single-use liners — on every ride and requires users to be licensed drivers aged, 21 or older who pass an initial safe driving history check. About one out of every 12 applicants does not make it past this screening, according to Revel.

Any concerns about users bypassing the protective headgear are largely erased because both New York and Washington D.C. have helmet laws, Reig said.

No giga workers

The company, unlike most on-demand mobility startups, does not have any gig economy workers either. Revel only has full-time employees, said Reig, adding that it’s decision he intends to stick with it even as his company grows.

“We don’t use gig economy in anything we do and I see a ton of value in that,” Reig said. “We need a well-trained workforce that is really committed and cares about the vehicles, because if not it’s something we’re going to be throwing out every 60 days.”

Revel’s shared mopeds have a 3-year asset life, Reig said based on their in-house estimates. To ensure the mopeds last, which has become a key factor in the unit economics of shared mobility businesses, they remain on street.

The mopeds are removed by employees for routine maintenance that occurs every four to six months. Otherwise, the mopeds aren’t loaded into vans by gig economy workers who make money by charging them up — a common practice with the small stand-up scooters that have inundated cities like San Diego and San Francisco. Instead, employees swap out the batteries on the mopeds, which have a range of about 50 miles.

20 months and 1,400 scooters

The idea for Revel was borne out of Reig’s travels to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he witnessed locals on every form of two-wheeled vehicle.

“A sort of light bulb went off my head, and I asked myself, ‘why is it not a thing in the U.S?,” Reig told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “I came back to New York, started studying the market more and saw all these electric moped operators had been popping up in Europe over the last few years and just realized that if I don’t do it, somebody else will.”

The company started with a small pilot of 68 mopeds in a few neighborhoods within Brooklyn. In May, after a nine-month pilot, Revel pulled the original mopeds it used in its limited pilot and has replaced them with 1,000 new models built for two riders and equipped with kickstands for parking. With more mopeds in its fleet, Revel expanded the service to more than 20 neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. In August, Revel launched its service in Washington D.C., where there are now more than 400 mopeds.

Revel rides cost $1 per person to start, followed by $0.25 per minute to ride and $0.10 per minute while parked. Revel says it will cut the cost by 40% for eligible riders — and give them a $25 credit — through its Revel Access program. Riders who use public assistance programs like SNAP or live in NYCHA housing are eligible for the program.

Via is launching an on-demand public transit network in the city of Cupertino

Shuttle startup Via and the city of Cupertino are launching an on-demand public transportation network, the latest example of municipalities trying out alternatives to traditional buses.

The aim is for these on-demand shuttles, which will start with six vans branded with the city of Cupertino logo, to provide more efficient connections to CalTrain and increase access to public transit across the city.

The on-demand shuttle service, which begins October 29, will eventually grow to 10 vehicles and include a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. Avis Budget Group, another partner in this service, is the fleet management service that will maintain the vehicles.

In Cupertino, residents and commuters can use the Via app or a phone reservation system to hail a shuttle. The network will span the entire 11-square-mile city with a satellite zone surrounding the Sunnyvale CalTrain station for commuters, Via said Monday. Cupertino Mayor Steven Scharf views the Via on-demand service as the next generation of “what public transportation can be, allowing us to increase mobility while taking a step toward our larger goal of reducing traffic congestion.”

The service, which will run from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, will cost $5 a ride. Users can buy weekly and monthly passes for $17 and $60, respectively.

Via Cupertino Service Zone 1

Via has two sides to its business. The company operates consumer-facing shuttles in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York.

Via also partners with cities and transportation authorities, giving clients access to their platform to deploy their own shuttles. The city of Cupertino, home to Apple, SeaGate Technologies and numerous other software and tech-related companies, is one example of this. Austin’s Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority also uses the Via platform to power the city’s Pickup service. And Via’s platform is used by Arriva Bus UK, a Deutsche Bahn Company, for a first- and last-mile service connecting commuters to a high-speed train station in Kent, U.K.

In January, Via announced it was partnering with Los Angeles as part of a pilot program that will give people rides to three busy public transit stations. Via claims it now has more than 80 launched and pending deployments in more than 20 countries, providing more than 60 million rides to date.

While city leaders appear increasingly open to experimenting with on-demand shuttles, success in this niche business isn’t guaranteed. For instance, Chariot, which was acquired by Ford, shut down its operations in San Francisco, New York and the U.K. in early 2019.

Why we’re still waiting on the Postmates S-1

In a wide-ranging conversation at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco last week, Postmates co-founder and chief executive officer Bastian Lehmann made light of the company’s lack of IPO documents.

The San Francisco-based on-demand delivery business was expected to publicly file its IPO prospectus in September in preparation for a fall exit, sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch this summer. September, however, has come and gone and we’re still waiting on Postmates to release the critical document.

“The reality is that we will IPO when we believe we find the right time for the business and the right time for the markets,” Lehmann told TechCrunch. “And if you look at the markets right now, I believe they are a little choppy. They are a little choppy when it comes to growth companies specifically … We are hopeful that we find a good window to get out there.”

Lehmann made reference to Uber and other companies to recently float, citing market conditions as an IPO deterrent. Uber, Lyft, Slack and other fast-growing unicorns have struggled since entering the public markets earlier this year despite sky-high private market valuations. WeWork, a money-losing endeavor, recently decided to delay its IPO after demand from Wall Street devalued the business by the billions. Whether Postmates will complete its debut by the end of the year is unclear.

Postmates confidentially filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for an IPO in February. Shortly after, Postmates held M&A talks with DoorDash, another food delivery unicorn, according to people familiar with the matter, but failed to come to mutually favorable terms. DoorDash has previously declined to comment on these reports. On stage last week, Lehmann declined to confirm the reports.

“I don’t think it does any good to speculate on M&A,” he said. “I think you have four well-funded players here in the U.S. in this space. I think everyone is well aware of the strengths and the weaknesses of each other and you know at some point down the line, if we take Europe for example, you will see consolidation in the market. People have conversations all the time but I wouldn’t read too much into it.”

Postmates operates its on-demand delivery platform, powered by a network of local gig economy workers, in more than 3,500 cities across all 50 states. The company does not yet operate in any international markets aside from Mexico City, however, Lehmann’s comments suggest the business could be plotting a foray into Europe, where Deliveroo, Just Eat and others dominate the market.

Postmates has raised about $900 million to date, including a $225 million round announced last month that valued the company at $2.4 billion. DoorDash, on the other hand, reached a $12.6 billion valuation in May with a $600 million Series G and has raised more than double that of Postmates. When asked why DoorDash, a similar and competing business, needed that much more capital, Lehmann joked “Maybe [DoorDash CEO Tony Xu] needs a jet, I don’t know.”

Postmates, founded in 2011 by Lehmann, is backed by Spark Capital, Founders Fund, Uncork Capital, Slow Ventures, Tiger Global, Blackrock and others. In our interview with Lehmann, the long-time CEO discussed the ‘choppy’ public markets, competitors, the company’s autonomous robotics delivery efforts and more.

The lack of cybersecurity talent is “a national security threat,” says DHS official

One of the most senior officials tasked with protecting U.S. critical infrastructure says that the lack of security professionals in the U.S. is one of the leading threats to national cyber security.

Speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt SF, Jeannette Manfra, the assistant director for cybersecurity for the Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), said that the agency was making training for new cybersecurity professionals a priority.

“It’s a national security risk that we don’t have the talent regardless of whether it’s in the government or the private sector,” said Manfra. “We have a massive shortage that is expected that will grow larger.”

Homeland Security is already responding, working on developing curriculum for potential developers as soon as they hit the school system. “We spend a lot of time invested in K-12 curriculum,” she said.

The agency is also looking to take a page from the the tech industry’s playbook and developing a new workforce training program that’s modeled after how recruit and retain individuals.

For Manfra, it’s important that the tech community and the government agencies tasked with protecting the nation’s critical assets work more closely together and the best way to do that is to encourage a revolving door between cybersecurity agencies and technology companies. That may raise the hackles of privacy experts and private companies given the friction between what private companies wish to protect and what governments wish were exposed — through things like backdoors — but Manfra says close collaboration is critical.

Manfra envisions that government will pay for scholarships for cybersecurity professionals who will spend three to five years in government before moving into the private sector. “It builds a community of people with shared experience [and] in security we’re all trying to do the same things,” she said.

Priorities for Homeland Security are driving down the cost of technologies so that the most vulnerable institutions like states, municipalities and townships or the private companies who are tasked with maintaining public infrastructure — who don’t have the same money to spend as the federal government — can protect themselves.

“When you think about a lot of these institutions that are the targets of nation sates… a lot of them have resources at their disposal and many of them do not,” said Manfra. “[So] how do we work with the market to build more secure solutions — particularly with industrial control systems.”

The public also has a role to play, she said. Because it’s not just the actual technological infrastructure that enemies of the U.S. are trying to target, but the overall faith in American institutions — as the Russian attempt to meddle in the 2016 election revealed.

“It’s also about building a more resilient and aware public,” said Manfra. “And adversaries have learned how they can manipulate the trust in these institutions.”

Blue Origin’s passengers will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a ticket on New Shepard

After committing to having a first crewed launch of its rocket ship in 2019, Blue Origin, the rocket manufacturer and launch services company backed by Jeff Bezos, is likely going to have to push that timeline back to 2020.

Speaking onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco, Blue Origin chief executive Bob Smith said that the window for getting the crewed flight done within the 2019 timeframe was narrowing. “We’re not going to be date driven,” Smith said.

But as commercial launches come to market, customers can expect to pay “hundreds of thousands of dollars” for a ticket on the New Shepard suborbital flight.

Blue Origin isn’t the only commercial space company looking to conduct a crewed launch before the end of the year. In June, NASA set a timeline to get crewed launches from Boeing and SpaceX in September and November, respectively.

In an August statement, SpaceX said it was still planning on getting astronauts to the International Space Station later this year.

Blue Origin is still moving ahead with its planned launches and the near-term setback is something that likely won’t make much of a dent in a company backed by the world’s richest man — and one who’s strategy and vision extends on a global timeframe.

For Blue Origin’s chief executive (and its financial backer) the company’s ultimate goal is to ensure that humanity is an extra-planetary species — something that will take decades to achieve.

What Smith and others are sure of is the commercial viability of the space industry.

“Launch volume is going up and has been going up for quite a while,” says Smith.  According to the Blue Origin founder, launch volumes in the space industry have been increasing at 3% per-year and some market analysts have predicted that number could rise to 50% to 80% per-year. 

And those numbers don’t include the mega-constellations that companies like Facebook, Alphabet, and Amazon are all hoping to bring to orbit.

“The launch volume is really looking very attractive over the next ten years,” Smith says. And that’s transforming the space industry, which for decades had been dominated by government customers. “It is fundamentally shifting to a more commercial model,” says Smith. 

 

Symantec’s Sheila Jordan named to Slack’s board of directors

Workplace collaboration software business Slack (NYSE: WORK) has added Sheila Jordan, a senior vice president and chief information officer of Symantec, as an independent member of its board of directors. The hiring comes three months after the business completed a direct listing on the New York Stock Exchange.

Jordan, responsible for driving information technology strategy and operations for Symantec, brings significant cybersecurity expertise to Slack’s board. Prior to joining Symantec in 2014, Jordan was a senior vice president of IT at Cisco and an executive at Disney Destination for nearly 15 years.

With the new appointment, Slack appears to be doubling down on security. In addition to the board announcement, Slack recently published a blog post outlining the company’s latest security strategy in what was likely part of a greater attempt to sway potential customers — particularly those in highly regulated industries — wary of the company’s security processes. The post introduced new features, including the ability to allow teams to work remotely while maintaining compliance to industry and company-specific requirements.

Jordan joins Slack co-founder and chief executive officer Stewart Butterfield, former Goldman Sachs executive Edith Cooper, Accel general partner Andrew Braccia, Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar, Andreessen Horowitz general partner John O’Farrell, Social Capital CEO Chamath Palihapitiya and former Salesforce chief financial officer Graham Smith on Slack’s board of directors.

“I believe there is nothing more critical than driving organizational alignment and agility within enterprises today,” Jordan said in a statement. “Slack has developed a new category of enterprise software to help unlock this potential and I’m thrilled to now be a part of their story.”

Slack closed up nearly 50% on its first day of trading in June but has since stumbled amid reports of increased competition from Microsoft, which operates a Slack-like product called Teams.

Slack co-founder and chief technology officer Cal Henderson will join us onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco next week to discuss the company’s founding, road to the public markets and path forward. Buy tickets here.

Google veteran Tony Wang joins 500 Startups as managing partner

San Francisco-based accelerator 500 Startups is expanding its executive team with the hiring of Tony Wang.

Wang is joining the early-stage firm from Color Genomics, a venture-backed developer of genetic testing kits where he had served as chief operating officer since 2014. Prior to Color, Wang was the vice president of global partnerships and development at Twitter and managing counsel for Google’s international operations.

“The venture capital world is undergoing a dramatic shift towards globalization where 500 Startups has been the leader and investing for the past decade,” Wang said in a statement. “There’s no question there are talented founders around the world, as proven by the number of unicorn companies in the 500 family.”

500 Startups, led by chief executive officer Christine Tsai, is an early investor in TalkDesk, Twilio, GitLab, Canva and several others.

Through its four-month seed program, the 500 Startups seed fund invests $150,000 in participating companies in exchange for 6% equity. Here’s a closer look at all the startups to finish 500 Startups’ latest program.

Google veteran Tony Wang joins 500 Startups as managing partner

San Francisco-based accelerator 500 Startups is expanding its executive team with the hiring of Tony Wang.

Wang is joining the early-stage firm from Color Genomics, a venture-backed developer of genetic testing kits where he had served as chief operating officer since 2014. Prior to Color, Wang was the vice president of global partnerships and development at Twitter and managing counsel for Google’s international operations.

“The venture capital world is undergoing a dramatic shift towards globalization where 500 Startups has been the leader and investing for the past decade,” Wang said in a statement. “There’s no question there are talented founders around the world, as proven by the number of unicorn companies in the 500 family.”

500 Startups, led by chief executive officer Christine Tsai, is an early investor in TalkDesk, Twilio, GitLab, Canva and several others.

Through its four-month seed program, the 500 Startups seed fund invests $150,000 in participating companies in exchange for 6% equity. Here’s a closer look at all the startups to finish 500 Startups’ latest program.