Uber officially launches Uber Express POOL, a new twist on shared rides

Uber has launched Uber Express POOL officially after a lengthy trial period that kicked off in San Francisco last November, and has until now remained available only in that market. Starting today, it’s coming to DC, LA, Miami, Philadelphia, San Diego and Denver, and more cities will be added over the next few weeks and months across the U.S.

The Express POOL launch brings a change to the current Uber POOL model that’s designed to make for more direct routing, with easier pickups for drivers and fewer annoying deviations from the route for riders thanks to two key actions Uber is asking riders to help out with: Walking and waiting. Basically, when riders hail an Uber Express POOL, they’ll be asked to wait a few minutes prior to the trip’s start, and/or walk to a nearby pick up spot, or from a nearby drop off point, in order to help optimize the route in as straight a line as possible along a path that can work for a number of different riders.

The Express POOL option will live right alongside the standard, existing POOL option that’s there right now in the app, at least for the foreseeable future, and riders can have the choice. But ultimately, Uber thinks that many riders will prefer opting to walk a bit and wait a bit, since the goal is to ultimately save everyone involved time and frustration.

Some of the big challenges around making POOL work as designed to provide the lowest cost option of Uber’s various tiers to the most people possible have been around intelligent routing. The challenge of handling predictions of when and where people will be, along with building routes that not only work from an efficiency perspective, but also from the perspective of serving real humans in a way that doesn’t leave them frustrated or confused, proved to be a massive one.

Uber’s intent with POOL is to help lower the cost of entry to its product to make it the massive base of the ride hailing pyramid that can reach the most people thanks to affordability near on par with public transit. While it accounts for around 20 percent of rides in markets where it’s available, based on a rough average, that’s still not obviously the majority, and so it’s hoping that tweaks to the product that provide a better overall experience will help increase its general appeal.

Bosch acquires B2B rideshare startup SPLT and establishes mobility service arm

Bosch has acquired a ridesharing startup called SPLT that offered employers, universities and municipal authorities workforce-focused ridesharing services to help them offer shared commute as a means of increasing convenience and alleviating route congestion. Bosch, a leading global automotive industry supplier, is also establishing a new dedicated mobility services division, a sign of the changing times and nature of the automotive space.

The SPLT acquisition is a cornerstone piece of its new focus on mobility services, with the aim of offering everything from shared rides in cars to company buses on the same, easy to use platform with end user smartphone apps and easy ride booking. SPLT will continue to operate independently as a wholly owned subsidiary of Bosch post acquisition close.

Other mobility services offerings that Bosch has in market include e-scooter rental, via its subsidiary COUP, which began in Berlin in 2016, expanded to Paris last year and is expanding to Madrid later in 2018, bringing the total fleet size to 3,500 electric scooters. It also has system!e services it’s introducing today, which can offer up a true “extended range forecast” to help conquer range anxiety in potential EV buyers by offering a precise range based on the location and accessibility of charging spots along a route.

Basically, everyone wants a piece of the connectivity puzzle when it comes to the future of automotive and transportation, and mobility services is a good way to get there. Smart move by Bosch, but the transition is going to be interesting as more legacy players figure out where they sit in the coming post-ownership automotive world.

Poor cloud security let hackers mine cryptocurrency on Tesla’s dime

The strange new breed of malicious cryptocurrency miners spares no one, it seems: Tesla is the latest to be struck by this trendy form of hackery. A poorly secured cloud computing setup let them waltz right in.

It’s only the latest example of several detected by cloud security outfit RedLock, which has tracked a series of Kubernetes admin consoles wide open to anyone looking. Not even password-protected.

If RedLock could find them, so could hackers — and they did. By logging in and carefully disguising the cloud computing usage and associated traffic, they managed to quietly mine using Tesla’s AWS pod for… well, it’s anybody’s guess how long. And given the volatility of cryptocurrency markets these days, it’s also anybody’s guess how much and of what coin.

Obviously, the solution here is to have literally any kind of security on your infrastructure. But hackers are clever and companies should also be watching for unusual levels of traffic and other usage indicators, and also monitor for non-standard user behaviors. But seriously, at least a password.

Featured Image: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

Elon Musk’s Boring Company gets preliminary permit for NYC-D.C. Hyperloop

A 29-minute trip from D.C. to New York may seem too good to be true. And it very well may be. But that isn’t stopping Elon Musk from pushing forward with plans to build a Hyperloop along the eastern corridor.

And while it’s a very small, very vague step forward, Musk’s Boring Company has received a permit for preparation and preliminary excavation of a site in the nation’s capital. The exact location is 53 New York Avenue NE, next to a McDonald’s and near the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to the Washington Post.

In July, Elon Musk tweeted that he had received verbal government approval to build a multi-state underground Hyperloop on the East coast. While such approval doesn’t formally exist, Bloomberg confirmed that the White House had had positive conversations with The Boring Company over the proposed tunnel.

This latest permit is far from what’s required to actually begin building the tunnel — which would run from New York to Philadelphia to Baltimore to D.C. — but it’s a start. Musk recently received a conditional permit to start operations in Hawthorne Maryland for a 10.3 mile route. Maryland officials told WaPo that the tunnel would run under Maryland Route 295, with the D.C.-Baltimore leg being built first.

Stations for the Hyperloop would be relatively small and toned down compared to the stations we’re used to such as Union Station and Penn Station. There would be a main line running between the four aforementioned cities, with smaller lines spurring out from the city’s central station for other potential destinations.

Right now, the trip from NY to D.C. takes over three hours. It would certainly be nice to pop down for a meeting with just an hour of travel time, but this first permit is comparable to an athlete stretching before a race. We have not yet begun.

Ontario’s Provincial Police reveal a Tesla Model X pursuit vehicle prototype

Tesla’s Model X is arguably the best performing SUV you can buy, so it’s fitting that Canada’s Ontario Provincial Police would select it for a cruiser demonstration vehicle, revealed at this week’s Toronto international car show.

The Tesla Model X, a P90D model, features full OPP badging and black and white paint, as well as working lights and sirens, but it’s still just a demonstration vehicle at this point, meant to illustrate “the future of policing,” according to OPP Sergeant Kerry Schmidt, who revealed the car on a live stream.

The Model X used here is actually a “generous donation from a friend,” Schmidt explains, and “may be what the future of policing looks like down the road,” but it’s not going to be used in service “because right now this vehicle has not been tested at the proving grounds for a police-rated pursuit vehicle,” the Sergeant explains.

That doesn’t mean you should rule out being pulled over by this thing if you’re speeding down Ontario’s highways in the future, however. In fact, Schmidt hinted that the OPP might be opening a dialogue with Tesla to facilitate a potential future deployment.

“We gotta talk to Tesla to put this vehicles through the proving grounds and make sure that it is available,” Schmidt says before moving on to demo some of the Model X’s features. “We’ll see how that works out.”

Check out the full unveil and walkthrough below:

Yandex shows off the first tests of self-driving cars on Moscow roads

[embedded content]

Russian search and internet services giant Yandex has been working on its autonomous driving program, and its most recent achievement is a public self-driving pilot of its self-driving test car in Moscow, the first such test on public roads in the Russian capital.

Yandex had an additional degree of difficulty to contend with, too: Their recent testing, which kicked off in December of last year, included some days following heavy snowfalls, which are difficult conditions for any autonomous vehicle to navigate because of how they obscure road markers and other guiding indicators used by optical cameras systems, among other challenges.

[embedded content]

As you can see, the car handled snow, ice, parked cars, traffic and even pedestrians even amid the wintery conditions, which is a key use case that autonomous vehicle technology providers will need to solve before the tech can be broadly adopted.

Beyond the snow, Yandex notes that Moscow also provides a terrific test bed for its AVs because of factors including high traffic volume, as well as pedestrian density on top of the variable weather patterns that come to the city across seasons.

India’s Zoomcar raises $40M led by automotive giant Mahindra & Mahindra

India’s Zoomcar — which operates an on-demand car rental service — has raised a $40 million Series C round led by Mahindra & Mahindra, the 70-year-old Indian corporation that specializes in automotive.

Ford and other existing investors also took part in the round, Zoomcar confirmed. CEO and co-founder Greg Moran added that the round is still open and may be extended with other investors coming in.

As it stands, the new capital takes Zoomcar to around $100 million from investors to date, according to Crunchbase. Previous to today, its last round was its $24 million Series C led by Ford in 2016 with an undisclosed investment from China’s Cyber Carrier added later that year.

Other backers include Sequoia Capital, Nokia Growth Partners, FundersClub and a number of angels including former U.S. treasury secretary Larry Summers and ex-Infosys CFO T.V. Mohandas Pai.

Mahindra & Mahindra, for those who are not aware of it, is a $14 billion-valued company that operates a series of businesses focused on automotive, motorcycles, agricultural machines and more. The firm started out as a manufacturer for Jeep, but it has expanded its business considerably. The firm has worked with Zoomcar to distribute its electric vehicles.

Rumors of a potential investment in Zoomcar were first reported by Indian news site Mint in November.

Growing the fleet

Zoomcar was founded in 2013 by Americans Moran and David Back. Back is not directly involved in the business today, having returned to the U.S. for personal reasons in 2015, and Moran serves as CEO.

Plenty has happened in the past 18 months since we last wrote about Zoomcar. The service is currently present in 29 cities while it claims 2.7 million registered users and 3,500 cars. Its customers have completed over 1.1 million trips to date.

Its core business remains Zipcar-style rentals, allowing registered users to find and use cars in a city, but the company shifted its focus with ZAP (Zoomcar Associate Program) which allows new car buyers to lease their vehicles out when they aren’t being used. (India law prevents existing vehicles being used for commercial purposes.) That helps buyers recoup the cost, and it allows Zoomcar to grow its inventory without the high cost of purchase.

That approach helped grow Zoomcar’s fleet but not to the 25,000-car target Moran spoke of last year. Moran told TechCrunch while demand for ZAP purchases reached 25,000-30,000 people, a combination of India’s “byzantine” car financing landscape and state-level red tape, meant interested customers were forced to wait months for their car which most weren’t prepared to do.

In response, Zoomcar modified its package somewhat with a subscription service that effectively allows users to pay up in advance for access to a personal car for a 6-24-month period.

In other words, the process of buying the car is massively simplified with Zoomcar doing most of the work. It simply turns up at your house, in similar to fashion to how Silvercar delivers Audis in the U.S..

Their costs are lowered if car owner leaser, agrees to allow the vehicle to be pooled as part of ZAP. The deal is sweetened by free insurance, maintenance and other perks which Zoomcar hopes make it more attractive than buying.

Only a few months old, Moran said the move has strengthened ZAP which is close to representing one-third of its fleet. The Zoomcar CEO is optimistic that it can reach 15,000 cars by the end of the year and go from there.

“We exceeded [the 25,000 car target] number in terms of demand for ZAP, the challenge was the last mile and that’s where this program can transform it,” Moran said.

Moran said electric vehicles are another key driver, which is where Mahendra & Mahendra comes into the strategic picture. The companies are working together on selected pilots. Right now, just 50 of Zoomcar’s fleet are EVs, but Moran sees that figure growing to 500 in the coming few months ahead of a further push.

“We’re thinking that by 2020, EVs will be over 50 percent of the fleet,” he added.

Pedal power

Beyond electric — which also includes electric scooters — Zoomcar has gone further still.

Last year, the startup expanded into bike-sharing services with its Pedl offering which is rivaled by a new launch from taxi-hailing firm Ola and China’s Ofo, which recently moved into India. Pedl is available in half a dozen cities in India, including Chennai where it partnered with Mahindra World City.

The core service is 29 cities in India, with perhaps the potential to reach 35 in total, but the scope for Pedl is far more ambitious with the company aiming for 100-plus locations that would include tier-three cities (and beyond) where the car rental business is unlikely to enter.

“Pedl gives us a virtuous flywheel effect,” Moran explained. “It’s a way to give us a massive funnel for Zoomcar.”

That applies to the 30-35 cities where its rental cars as positioned, but in Pedl-only cities, Moran sees the potential to move into complementary services in the future.

Currently in ten cities since its launch three months ago, Pedl is clocking around 500,000 transactions per month, according to the company. Moran thinks that over one million transactions per month can happen before the end of the year if Pedl expands to 75 cities and 200,000-250,000 bikes as is planned.

As for global expansion, Moran said in 2016 than 2018 would be the year for moving overseas but challenging conditions in India and expansion into new verticals have pushed that timeframe back to “two to three years.” The target remains the same, and that is to explore neighboring markets in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Africa, where Moran sees similarities with India, is another region that Moran said Zoomcar is “continuously evaluating.”

At the end of 2017, Zoomcar announced it had turned EBITDA positive but it remains unprofitable overall. According to Mint, which accessed filings, the company lost 100.4 crore ($15.6 million) for the financial year ending March 2017, versus 101.4 crore ($15.8 million) in the previous year. Revenue for the period grew by 35 percent to reach 121.2 crore, or approximately $19 million.

The company’s newest financial results come after March — even private companies file financial returns annually in India. Moran didn’t comment on them, but he did say that if the company can hit its goal of 15,000 cars on the road it is looking at “north of $100 million in annualized revenue.”

“We’re not burning cash for operations,” said Moran. “We want to be the definitive leader within self-drive mobility in India.”