Alphabet’s Wing begins making first commercial drone deliveries in the U.S.

Alphabet -owned drone delivery spin-out Wing is starting to service U.S. customers, after becoming the first drone delivery company to get the federal go-ahead to do so earlier this year. Wing is working with FedEx Express and Walgreens on this pilot, and their first customers are Michael and Kelly Collver, who will get a “cough and cold pack,” which includes Tylenol, cough drops, facial tissues, Emergen-C and bottled water (do people who have colds need bottled water?).

The Collvers are receiving their package in Christianburg, Virginia, which is where Wing and Walgreens will run this inaugural pilot fo the drone delivery service. Walgreens gets a noteworthy credit in the bargain, becoming the first U.S. retailer to do a store-to-customer doorstep delivery via drone, while FedEx will be the first logistics provider to delivery a e-commerce drone delivery with a separate shipment.

Wing is also working with Virginia’s Sugar Magnolia, a retailer local to the state, and that part of the equation is focused on proving out how Wing and drone delivery can service last-mile e-commerce customers at their homes. Sugar Magnolia customers can get small items, including chocolates and paper goods, delivered directly to them via drone through the new pilot.

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Wing was able to do this with a new Air Carrier Certificate from the FAA that clears it for expanded service, specifically allowing Wing’s pilots to manage multiple aircraft flying without any human pilot on board at the same time, while providing service to the public.

It’s a big milestone when it comes to U.S.-based drone delivery, and another sign that people should get ready for these services to start to be a more regular fixture. Earlier this month, UPS also secured FAA approval to operate a commercial drone delivery service, so the trials will probably come fast and furious at this point – though widespread service is probably still quite a ways off as both regulators and operators look to learn from their first limited deployments.

Volvo creates a dedicated business for autonomous industrial and commercial transport

Volvo Group has established a new dedicated business group focused on autonomous transportation, with a mandate that covers industry segments like mining, ports and moving goods between logistics hubs of all kinds. The vehicle maker has already been active in putting autonomous technology to work in these industries, with self-driving projects including at a few quarries and mines, and in the busy port located at Gothenburg, Sweden.

The company sees demand for this kind of autonomous technology use growing, and decided to establish an entire business unit to address it. The newly-formed group will be called Volvo Autonomous Solutions, and its official mission is to “accelerate the development, commercialization and sales of autonomous transport solutions,” focused on the kind of transportation “where there is a need to move large volumes of goods and material on pre-defeined routes, in receptive flows.”

Their anticipation of the growth of this sector comes in part from direct customer feedback, the automaker notes. It’s seen “significant increase in inquires from customers,” according to a statement from Martin Lundstedt, Volvo Group’s President and CEO.

Officially, Volvo Autonomous Solutions won’t be a formal new business area under its parent company until January 2020, but the company is looking for a new head of the unit already, and it’s clear they see a lot of potential in this bourgeoning market.

Unlike autonomous driving for consumer automobiles, this kind of self-driving for fixed route goods transportation is a nice match to the capabilities of technology as they exist today. These industrial applications eliminate a lot of the chaos and complexity of driving in, say, urban environments and with a lot of other human-driven vehicles on the road, and their routes are predictable and repeatable.

Bird’s chief legal & policy officer is leaving the company

Bird, the $2.5 billion electric scooter business, is losing its chief legal and policy officer. David Estrada, who was hired last year from Kitty Hawk, is joining another mobility company, SoftBank-backed Nuro.

A spokesperson for Bird tells TechCrunch Estrada is leaving the Santa Monica-based company to be closer to his family. Nuro, for its part, is based in Mountain View, CA.

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Bird’s former chief legal officer, David Estrada.

Estrada, who previously oversaw public policy at the electric aircraft company Kitty Hawk as its chief legal officer, has been responsible for Bird’s compliance and government relations efforts as the company scaled to over 100 global cities. Prior to joining Kitty Hawk, Estrada spent nearly two years as Lyft’s vice president of government relations and worked as the legal director for Google X, partnering with states on legislation around autonomous vehicles, Google Glass and drone delivery.

Nuro, founded in June 2016, has emerged as a key player in the rapidly-expanding autonomous delivery sector. The company has attracted a whopping $1.03 billion in venture capital funding to date, according to Pitchbook. SoftBank funneled an astounding $940 million into the business earlier this year at an undisclosed valuation. In addition to SoftBank, Nuro is backed by Greylock and the Chinese venture capital firm Gaorong Capital.

The company has been developing a self-driving stack and combining it with a custom unmanned vehicle designed for last-mile delivery of local goods and services. It began piloting grocery delivery in 2018 in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale.

Bird has overcome a number of unique hurdles with many more afoot, including pushback from local governments who were aggravated by the sudden appearance of hundreds of scooters. At Nuro, Estrada will have the opportunity to focus on the future of unmanned delivery, another sector faced with regulatory challenges and political barriers.

Amid security concerns, the European Union puts 5G — and Huawei — under the microscope

The European Union is putting under the microscope the rollout of new, high-speed mobile networking technologies known as 5G in a move that could affect the technology’s dominant company — Huawei.

Regulators focused on specific security threats linked to technology providers headquartered in countries with “no democratic and legal restrictions in place,” according to a report in The Wall Street Journal

The news follows the release of a public report from the European Union that enumerated a number of challenges with 5G technology.

Heightened scrutiny of 5G implementation on European shores actually began back in March as member states wrestled with how to address American pressure to block Huawei from building out new telecommunications infrastructure on the continent.

The report from earlier in the week identified three security concerns that relate to the reliance on vendors linked to technology coming from individual suppliers — especially if that supplier represents a high degree of risk given its relationship to the government in its native country.

The new, private assessment reviewed by the WSJ is raising particular concerns about Huawei, according to the latest report.

“These vulnerabilities are not ones which can be remedied by making small technical changes, but are strategic and lasting in nature,” a source familiar with the discussions told the WSJ.

According to the WSJ report, concerns raised by the new EU analysis include: the insertion of concealed hardware, software or flaws into the 5G network; or the risk of uncontrolled software updates, backdoors or undocumented testing features left in the production version of the networking products.

As trade talks resume between the U.S. and China in an effort to end the ongoing trade war between the two countries, the hard-line stance that the U.S. government has taken on China’s telecommunications and networking technology powerhouse may be changing.

Yesterday The New York Times reported that the U.S. government would allow some companies to resume selling to Huawei, reversing course on a ban on technology sales that had been imposed over the summer.

Now, with a preliminary trade deal apparently in place, the fate of Huawei’s 5G ambitions remain up in the air. Both the U.S. and the European Union have significant concerns, but China is likely to bring up Huawei’s ability to sell into foreign markets as part of any agreement.

Waymo to customers: “Completely driverless Waymo cars are on the way”

Waymo, the autonomous vehicle business under Alphabet, sent an email to customers of its ride-hailing app that their next trip might not have a human safety driver behind the wheel, according to a copy of the email that was posted on Reddit.

The email entitled “Completely driverless Waymo cars are on the way” was sent to customers that use its ride-hailing app in the suburbs of Phoenix. It isn’t clear if the email was sent to members of its early rider program or its broader Waymo One service.

Both the early rider program and Waymo One service use self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans to shuttle Phoenix residents in a geofenced area that covers several suburbs including Chandler and Tempe. All of these “self-driving rides” have a human safety driver behind the wheel.

A driverless ride is what it sounds like. No safety driver behind the wheel, although a Waymo employee would likely be present in the vehicle initially.

Waymo could not be reached for comment. TechCrunch will update the article if the company responds. The email is posted below.

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Waymo, formerly known as the Google self-driving project, first began testing its technology in 2009 in and around its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. It’s been a slow and steady roll ever since. The company has expanded its test area to other cities, spun out into its own business and iterated the vehicle design and the sensors around it,

 

Waymo opened a testing and operations center in Chandler, Arizona in 2016. Since then, the company has ramped up its testing in Chandler and other Phoenix suburbs, launched an early rider program and slowly crept toward commercial deployment. The early rider program, which required vetted applicants to sign non-disclosure agreements to participate, launched in April 2017.

In December, the company launched Waymo One, a commercial self-driving car service and accompanying app. Waymo One signaled that the company was starting to open up its service. Members of the early rider program were transferred to the Waymo One, which allowed them to bring guests and even talk publicly about their rides. More recently, Waymo opened another technical service center in the Phoenix area in preparation to double its capacity and grow its commercial fleet.

While driverless Waymo vehicles have been spotted periodically, they have never been used to shuttle the general public. The introduction of driverless vehicles would be milestone for the company.

And yet, there remains a number of questions. It’s unclear how many of these driverless rides there will be or the what constraints Waymo will place on them. It’s likely that these will operate in more simple, controlled environments for months before it expands to more complex situations.

 

Africa’s top mobile phone seller Transsion lists in Chinese IPO

Chinese mobile-phone and device maker Transsion has listed in an IPO on Shanghai’s STAR Market, a Transsion spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch. 

Headquartered in Shenzhen, Transsion is a top-seller of smartphones in Africa under its Tecno brand. The company has also started to support venture funding of African startups.

Transsion issued 80 million A-shares at an opening price of 35.15 yuan (≈ $5.00) to raise 2.8 billion yuan (or ≈ $394 million).

A-shares are the common shares issued by mainland Chinese companies and are normally available for purchases only by mainland citizens. 

Transsion’s IPO prospectus is downloadable (in Chinese) and its STAR Market listing application available on the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s website.

STAR is the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s new Nasdaq-style board for tech stocks that went live in July with some 25 companies going public.

Transsion plans to spend 1.6 billion yuan (or $227 million) of its STAR Market raise on building more phone assembly hubs and around 430 million yuan ($62 million) on research and development, including a mobile phone R&D center in Shanghai, a company spokesperson said.

To support its African sales network, Transsion maintains a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia.  The company recently announced plans to build an industrial park and R&D facility in India for manufacture of phones to Africa.

The IPO comes after Transsion announced its intent to go public and filed its first docs with the Shanghai Stock Exchange in April.

Listing on STAR Market puts Transsion on China’s new exchange — seen as an extension of Beijing’s ambition to become a hub for tech startups to raise public capital. Chinese regulators lowered profitability requirements for the STAR Market, which means pre-profit ventures can list.

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Transsion’s IPO comes when the company is actually in the black. The firm generated 22.6 billion yuan ($3.29 billion) in revenue in 2018, up from 20 billion yuan a year earlier. Net profit for the year slid to 654 million yuan, down from 677 million yuan in 2017, according to the firm’s prospectus.

Transsion sold 124 million phones globally in 2018, per company data. In Africa, Transsion holds 54% of the feature phone market — through its brands Tecno, Infinix and Itel — and in smartphone sales is second to Samsung and before Huawei, according to International Data Corporation stats.

Transsion has R&D centers in Nigeria and Kenya and its sales network in Africa includes retail shops in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Egypt. The company also attracted attention for being one of the first known device makers to optimize its camera phones for African complexions.

On a 2019 research trip to Addis Ababa, TechCrunch learned the top entry-level Tecno smartphone was the W3, which lists for 3,600 Ethiopian Birr, or roughly $125.

In Africa, Transsion’s ability to build market share and find a sweet spot with consumers on price and features gives it prominence in the continent’s booming tech scene.

Africa already has strong mobile-phone penetration, but continues to undergo a conversion from basic USSD phones, to feature phones, to smartphones.

Smartphone adoption on the continent is low, at 34%, but expected to grow to 67% by 2025, according to GSMA.

This, added to an improving internet profile, is key to Africa’s tech scene. In top markets for VC and startup origination — such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa — thousands of ventures are building business models around mobile-based products and digital applications.

If Transsion’s IPO enables higher smartphone conversion on the continent, that could enable more startups and startup opportunities — from fintech to VOD apps.

Another interesting facet to Transsion’s IPO is its potential to create greater influence from China in African tech, in particular as the Shenzhen company moves more definitely toward venture investing.

In August, Transsion funded Future Hub teamed up with Kenya’s Wapi Capital to source and fund early-stage African fintech startups.

China’s engagement with African startups has been light compared to China’s deal-making on infrastructure and commodities — further boosted in recent years as Beijing pushes its Belt and Road plan.

Transsion’s IPO is the second event this year — after Chinese owned Opera’s venture spending in Nigeria — to reflect greater Chinese influence and investment in the continent’s digital scene.

So in coming years, China could be less known for building roads and bridges in Africa and more for selling smartphones and providing VC for African startups.

To curb lobbying power, Elizabeth Warren wants to reinstate the Office of Technology Assessment

In a move to correct the imbalance of power between technologically sophisticated corporations and the lawmakers who regulate them, presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren is proposing that Congress reinstate the Office of Technology Assessment.

It’s a move that gets deep into the weeds of how policy making in Washington works, but it’s something that Warren sees as essential to leveling the playing field between well-paid corporate lobbyists who are experts in their fields and over-worked under-staffed congressional members who lack independent analysts to explain highly technical issues.

“Lobbyists are filling in the gaps in congressional resources and expertise by providing Congress information from the perspective of their paying corporate clients. So let’s fix it,” writes Warren.

It’s one of the key planks in Warren’s latest policy proposal and an attempt to tip the scales against corporations and their lobbyists. With the move Warren clearly has her eye on technology companies and their representatives, who often are the very people Congressional lawmakers rely on to explain how rule-making would impact their industries.

“[Members] of Congress aren’t just dependent on corporate lobbyist propaganda because they’re bought and paid for. It’s also because of a successful, decades-long campaign to starve Congress of the resources and expertise needed to independently evaluate complex public policy questions,” Warren writes.

“For every bad faith actor in Congress bought off by the big banks, there are others who are genuinely trying to grapple with the technical aspects of financial reform. But as the issues facing Congress have grown more complex, resources to objectively and independently analyze them have been slashed. Republicans eliminated an independent office of experts dedicated to advising Congress on technical and scientific information,” the Senator says.

The lack of independent analysis stymies Congressional oversight in areas from banking and finance reform, to the oversight of technology companies, to the potential to effectively pass laws that will respond to the threat of climate change. Committees that oversee science and technology have seen their staff levels fall by over 40 percent in the past decade, according to Warren and staff salaries have failed to keep up with inflation, meaning that policymakers in Washington can’t compete for the same level of talent that private companies and lobbyists can afford several times over.

Sen. Warren saw this firsthand when she worked at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau .

“Financial reform was complicated, and the bank lobbyists used a clever technique: They bombarded the members of Congress with complex arguments filled with obscure terms. Whenever a congressman pushed back on an idea, the lobbyists would explain that although the congressman seemed to be making a good point, he didn’t really understand the complex financial system,” she writes. “And keep in mind, the lobbyists would tell the congressman, that if you get this wrong, you will bring down the global economy.”

The inability of lawmakers to understand basic facts about the technologies they’re tasked with regulating was on full display during the Senate hearings into the role technology companies played in the Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Issues from net neutrality to end-to-end encryption, or online advertising to the reduction of carbon emissions all rely on Congress having a sound understanding of those issues and how regulation may change an industry.

Right now, it’s case of which multi-billion dollar company can buy the best lobbyists — as is the case with Alphabet and Yelp or Facebook and Snap.

Under the auspices of Warren’s anti-corruption plan, the Senator is calling for the reinstatement and modernization of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, a significant increase to salaries for congressional staffers and stronger funding for agencies that support congressional lawmaking.

The OTA was created in the seventies to help members of Congress understand science and technology issues that they’d be regulating. Over the tenure of the agency, it created over 750 reports — including two landmark studies on the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming in the 90s, which brought it to the attention of conservative lawmakers that defunded it in 1995.

At the time, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said the agency was “used by liberals to cover up political ideology.”

Under Warren’s plan the OTA would be lead by an independent director to avoid partisan manipulation. The newly re-formed agency would have the power to commission its own reports and respond to requests from lawmakers to weigh in on rule-making, help congressional legislators prepare for hearings, and write regulatory letters.

Warren also calls for funding to be increased for the other congressional support agencies — the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office. Combined these agencies have lost half of their staff.

Money for the increased activities of the agencies would come from a tax on “excessive lobbying”. The . goal would be “to reverse these cuts and further strengthen support agencies that members of Congress rely on for independent information,” according to the Warren plan.

“These reforms are vital parts of my plan to free our government from the grip of lobbyists – and restore the public’s trust in its government in the process,” Warren writes.

GoodRx is coming for subscription prescription services with the launch of GoodRx Care

Several months after discreetly acquiring the online prescription service HeyDoctor, GoodRx is launching a new service based on the acquisition, GoodRx Care and offering a direct challenge to online prescription services like Hims, Hers, Nurx, Ro and others.

Already a billion-dollar giant in the world of prescription fulfillment through its cost-comparison and discount medication fulfillment business, more than 10 million consumers use the company’s services already.

With GoodRx Care, customers can use the online medical service to get a consultation, treatment, prescriptions and lab tests from doctors. The array of services on offer, which covers conditions and ailments from urinary tract infection treatments and birth control pills to erectile dysfunction medication and hair replacement supplements, mirror those pitched by white-glove online prescription services like Ro, Hims, Hers, and Nurx .

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GoodRx Care services

“Over the years, we’ve helped millions of Americans find affordable solutions for their prescription medications, but have also learned that many people struggle to get to the doctor,” said Doug Hirsch, co-CEO and co-founder of GoodRx. “By introducing GoodRx Care, we aim to help fill in the gaps in care to improve access, adherence, and affordability of medical care for all Americans.”

For Hirsch and GoodRx, the expansion into these kinds of online consultations was a natural extension of the company’s services. “One third of people who come to GoodRx . are coming to GoodRx and they may not have the prescription that they don’t think they need,” he says. “For a long time now we’ve been  telling people you may need a prescription for the service and telemedicine options are available.” 

Now the company can keep those customers in-house by offering their own telemedicine consults.

Other technology companies are also pushing deeper into the healthcare industry with Amazon making a big splash with the launch of its employee-only healthcare service offering telemedicine and on-site consultations with staff doctors. Apple, too, has its own healthcare service for employees.

Even BestBuy is seeing big dollars in the healthcare industry. It expects healthcare services to become an increasingly important component to its bottom line as more technology hardware and software is developed to cater to both the aging population, remote health solutions, and infant and childcare.

Demand for more healthcare alternatives is only increasing even as the cost of care rises and the value of healthcare services declines.

As GoodRx notes, access to primary care physicians is hard for most Americans. Some patients can wait up to three weeks to see a doctor and there’s the potential that the country could see a shortfall of up to 120,000 doctors coming within the next 15 years. Add that to the fact that over 27.5 million Americans don’t even have health insurance and the demand for low cost access to care seems obvious.

What’s less obvious is that the care Americans need is access to physicians which will prescribe hair-loss or erectile dysfunction treatments, acne treatments, eyelash growth, or metabolic assessments.

Hirsch says more services will be coming in later months. “We’re at the very early stages of telemedicine,” he says. “We want to continue to expand into more primary services as is safe and affordable and as we can.”

For now, the focus was on bringing the price point down and having more control over where to refer customers. “A lot of these services are tied to mail-order clinics and that could be hundreds of dollars [for a consultation or prescription],” Hirsch says. “We’re going to say it’s $20 for a visit. You can do it today… and you can have a pricing options… we’re saying you’ve had your doctor visit… here’s a list of prices and coupons if you want them.”

Since its launch in 2017, HeyDoctor has had over 100,000 consultations and had already been working with GoodRx, according to Hirsch. The terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.

The acquisition of HeyDoctor is the first big strategic gambit from the company in the year since it raised money from the private equity firm, Silverlake, in a transaction which valued the discount pharmaceutical provider at roughly $2.8 billion, according to a CNBC report.

“In an increasingly fragmented and confusing healthcare system, our goal is to provide a one-stop shop for services that address most basic healthcare needs,” said Hirsch.

 

Amazon Sidewalk is a new long-range wireless network for your stuff

At its annual hardware event in Seattle, Amazon today announced Sidewalk, a new low-bandwidth, long-distance wireless protocol the company is developing to connect all of the IoT devices in and around your house.

Amazon argues that Bluetooth and WiFi don’t have enough range, while 5F takes too much power and is too complex.

“We came up with something that we call Amazon Sidewalk,” Amazon’s device chief Dave Limp said at the event today. “Amazon Sidewalk is a brand new low bandwidth network that uses the already existing free over the air 900 megahertz spectrum. We think it will be great for keeping track of things, keeping things up to date — but first and foremost, it will extend in the distance at which you can control these kinds of simple, low-cost, easy-to-use devices.

The details here remain a bit vague, but Amazon says that you may be able to use Sidewalk to connect to devices that can be up to a mile away, depending on how the base station and devices are positioned.

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Amazon already sent out 700 test devices to households in L.A. to test the access points — and once you have a lot of access points, you create a network with some pretty broad coverage.

Amazon says it’ll publish the protocol so that other device makers can also integrate it into their devices.

The first product that uses Sidewalk? A dog tag, so that you’ll hopefully see fewer lost dogs on your local Nextdoor in the near future because if your dog now leaves the perimeter, you’ll get an alert. This new tag, the Ring Fetch, will launch next year.

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Alexa gets an improved voice and can now sound like Samuel L. Jackson, too

At its hardware event in Seattle, Amazon today announced that it is launching a new Neural Text to Speech model for its Alexa personal assistant. This new model, which isn’t unlike what some of Amazon’s competitors like Google and Microsoft have launched in the past, uses the latest machine learning techniques to allow the company to build this new model which is meant to be more “emotive and expressive.”

In addition, the company today announced that your Echo can soon sound like Samuel L. Jackson, too. Using the same technology (instead of pre-recorded phrases), Alexa can now mimic celebrity voices, with Jackson’s being the first of them. That Samuel L. Jackson mode also comes in an explicit version.

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Additional voices will roll out next year, but they won’t be available for free. Instead, they’ll cost $0.99 each (at least at first). It’s a fun gimmick, I guess, but it’s really not much more than that and harkens back to the days of stand-alone GPS units that often had a similar feature.

The pace of innovation is incredible and what we can do with machine learning really never ceases to amaze me,” Amazon’s Dave Limp said in today’s keynote.This same neural network technology though gives us a lot more flexibility now in and around what we can do with the Alexa voice.”