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.

SpaceX to use a net boat called ‘Mr. Steven’ to recover next rocket fairing


SpaceX is all about reducing the cost of launching things into space, and right now one of those costs it think it can eliminate is having to use a new fairing every time it launches a rocket. The fairing is basically the shell at the top of the rocket that protects whatever cargo’s being launched (for instance, it housed the Tesla Roadster and SpaceX’s Starman mannequin during the recent Falcon Heavy test launch).

The fairing costs $6 million to produce, and so re-using it for multiple costs could lead to a significantly reduction in how much each launch individually costs SpaceX. SpaceX recovered a nose cone last year during a launch, but it has a new plan for fairing retrieval that should make it more repeatable and reliable to get these things back.

Enter “Mr. Steven,” essentially a large navigable platform ship, with extended ‘arms’ and a net strung between them. Teslarati’s Pauline Acalin snapped a photo of Mr. Steven docked on the California coast near Vandenberg Air Force base, preparing to head out to sea to support the next Falcon 9 mission, PAZ, which includes imaging satellites for Spain as well as SpaceX’s own test satellites for its forthcoming broadband internet service.

That mission is currently set for February 21 (Wednesday this week) after a couple of delays, and the goal will be to have the fairing return to Earth gently, assisted by geotagged parachutes that help guide it down to the Pacific Ocean, where Mr. Steven will navigate into its path, hopefully recovering the fairing as it gently touches down.

If SpaceX can make a habit of recovering and re-flying even half of its two-piece rocket fairing, it has a good chance of substantially reducing the per-launch cost of its missions. The estimated cost of Falcon 9 launch is currently at around $63 million, assuming total expendable configuration, so cutting a potential $6 million from that total, on top of reusable booster benefits, could be significant.

London sets out safety-first plan for regulating ride-sharing


After London sent ripple’s of shock through Silicon Valley last year, by denying Uber a renewal of its private hire vehicle license, the city’s transport regulator is doubling down on its scrutiny of the impact of app-based ride operators.

Today it’s published a policy statement setting out its intentions for adapting transport regulations to fit the fast-changing sector. And chief among its stated priorities is the safety and welfare of passengers and drivers.

“Safety will be a particular focus in new or novel areas where there is little existing evidence of what happens in practice,” TfL writes in its policy document. “Maintaining high standards of safety is the top priority and operators should clearly demonstrate this.

“That means setting out clear policies and action for the prevention and reporting of offences and for clear, named accountability at senior management level for safety, reporting and protection of personal data.”

TfL also flags up “broad support” in a recent consultation on private hire vehicle regulations for ensuring clear controls exist to “protect the safety of passengers and drivers”.

“To ensure that these services provide a safe, secure, accessible and sustainable contribution to London’s transport system, we will consider making use of provisions in the Transport Act 1985 and the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998 to set regulations,” it writes. “We will consult on proposals to make changes to private hire legislation as appropriate. Views will be sought from stakeholders, other taxi and private hire regulators and the public in 2018.”

TfL says operators “should ensure that drivers are treated fairly, ensure drivers have appropriate and reasonable working hours including appropriate breaks throughout their shift and have clear policies and procedures to keep drivers safe”.

Gig economy working conditions is also an area of focus for the UK government, following growing concern about safety and welfare in the sector — and earlier this month it announced a package of labor market reforms aimed at responding to changes driven by the rise of app platforms which it billed as a major expansion of workers rights.

Concerns over public safety and a lack of corporate responsibility were the key reasons TfL listed for denying Uber’s license renewal in September.

And while Uber is appealing that decision, and is continuing to operate in London during the appeals process, TfL’s policy statement suggests that whatever the eventual outcome in court its intent is to tighten regulation on the sector, with the aim of enforcing a more responsible approach from all service providers.

Though it also notes that any regulation changes will be subject to a full public consultation.

Among recent regulatory tweaks made by TfL is a formal English language requirement for drivers — a move that Uber opposed. But it’s considering lots more changes for regulating the sector, including an advanced driving test; PHV operator fleet insurance; private hire vehicle signage; and even mechanisms to allow passengers to choose who they share vehicles with.

It’s also conducting an impact assessment of removing London’s Congestion Charge exemption for private hire vehicles — which would clearly have a knock-on impact on fares — and says, depending on the outcome of that work, the measure could be put up for a public consultation too.

Expanding accessibility by requiring a minimum percentage of private hire vehicles to be wheelchair accessible is another change it’s looking at.

The policy statement also advocates for operators to share “travel pattern data” with TfL — “so that travel patterns in London and the overall impact of the services can be understood”. Which perhaps offers a route for service providers that have lots of data to build better relations with the regulator — by providing insights that city planners can benefit from. (We’ve asked Uber if it’s currently sharing any data with TfL and will update this article with any response.)

“The private hire market is unrecognisable from when current legislation was introduced,” said Helen Chapman, interim director of licensing, regulation and charging for TfL, in a statement. “The growth of ride-sharing and other advances mean that regulation has to be fit for the next decade and not the last.

“Our vision sets out clearly how we will manage these new developments that improve convenience for customers, while ensuring safety remains our top priority. The document also makes clear that any new developments in the sector have to fit with the objectives of the mayor’s Transport Strategy.”

Among London mayor Sadiq Khan’s wider transport objectives are reducing Londoner’s dependence on private cars generally, including in order to promote healthier mobility options such as cycling and walking, and also to make more efficient use of the city’s street space. Which makes Uber’s emerging interest in bike-sharing look like a prudent diversification of its urban mobility offering.

Another stated priority for Khan is improving London’s air quality — and the strategy document specifically anticipates dedicating more areas in central London to being entirely “traffic free”. (Last year, for example, the mayor announced that the highly congested and polluted Oxford Street shopping district would transition to being traffic free — with a goal to complete this by the end of 2018.)

Asked whether the transport strategy requires a reduction in the overall number of private hire vehicles on London’s roads to deliver its objectives, a TfL spokesman would not provide a direct answer to our question — saying only that the aim is to “make sure that whatever developments happen in the industry they complement the goals in the mayor’s transport strategy”.

But he also noted those goals do include a principle to “support mode shift away from car travel”.

He reiterated, too, that the regulator continues to support the idea of having a cap on the total number of private hire licenses — but said this would require primary legislation, adding that TfL continues to lobby government on that front. “To date they haven’t been minded to do so but that’s still our position,” he added.

For now there’s no firm timeline for TfL reworking London’s private hire vehicle regulatory framework. The spokesman said only that it will be giving more details on specific timelines for consultations cited in the documents “in the coming months”.

Asked whether Uber’s behavior as a company has fed into formulating the policy document, the spokesman said no one ride-sharing company is driving its thinking. “This is us at TfL saying what we think for the industry as a whole is required,” he told TechCrunch. “We want the regulation to be fit for the next decade, not the last decade.

“This is talking about the industry as a whole. We’ve seen it change a lot in the last few years — we’re expecting it to change a lot again in the next few years, so it’s making sure that we’re setting out our store.”

At the time of writing Uber had not responded to a request for its thoughts on TfL’s policy statement.

Volkswagen’s I.D. line of electric cars to begin production from November 2019


Volkswagen has been showing off its I.D. line of concept electric vehicles for a couple of years now, but we won’t have to wait long for them to actually enter production according to a new report. VW will enter production with the I.D., starting with the I.D. Crozz in the U.S. and the I.D. Golf-sized hatchback for the rest of the world.

We don’t know much about the specifics of the cars yet, beyond that they should offer all-electric driving ranges of around 300 miles, and autonomous features with at least a path towards full self-driving in the future. The I.D. and I.D. Crozz likely both have a street date of around 2020 with that production kick-off timeline, and VW has also committed to producing its I.D. Buzz all-electric microbus, with a target shipping date of 2022.

We’ll probably hear more about VW and its electrification plans at the Geneva Motor Show, which is coming up in just a few weeks.

Volkswagen’s I.D. line of electric cars to begin production from November 2019


Volkswagen has been showing off its I.D. line of concept electric vehicles for a couple of years now, but we won’t have to wait long for them to actually enter production according to a new report. VW will enter production with the I.D., starting with the I.D. Crozz in the U.S. and the I.D. Golf-sized hatchback for the rest of the world.

We don’t know much about the specifics of the cars yet, beyond that they should offer all-electric driving ranges of around 300 miles, and autonomous features with at least a path towards full self-driving in the future. The I.D. and I.D. Crozz likely both have a street date of around 2020 with that production kick-off timeline, and VW has also committed to producing its I.D. Buzz all-electric microbus, with a target shipping date of 2022.

We’ll probably hear more about VW and its electrification plans at the Geneva Motor Show, which is coming up in just a few weeks.

Uber to require a 6-hour break for every 12 hours of driving in the U.S.


Uber has added a feature that will force a six-hour offline break whenever a driver on its platform reaches 12 hours of driving time. The feature is similar to one that Uber has in place in a few markets already around the U.S., which differs depending on local regulations, but this will apply across the U.S., and fully block use of the driver app for accepting trips during the six-hour period when it becomes active.

Uber’s decision to roll this out was made as a response to the problem of drowsy driving and driver fatigue, both of which are issues that continue to affect people on the road, even if driving while using mobile devices and intoxicated driving get more press and scrutiny.

The Uber feature implementation will trigger when a driver has driven 12 hours without taking a continual, six-hour break at any point between. Drivers will have full visibility into how much driving they’ve done according to Uber, which measures based on a number of factors, and will count things like when you’re stopped at a stoplight (your brain is still engaged in the driving activity, even if you’re temporarily stopped), but won’t count time spent waiting in an airport parking lot to be called for a pickup, for instance, since many drivers use these as napping and rest opportunities.

Uber’s Head of Safety Product Sachin Kansal explained that the company relied on its ample experience with drivers and working with road safety organizations in determining what does and doesn’t count towards a user’s total driving time.

“There’s definitely a lot of third-party expertise that has gone into our thinking,” Kansal said in an interview. “But it’s also that we know how our drivers drive, we know road conditions, so we have baked all that into it as well.”

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This limit likely won’t impact the majority of drivers on its platform, the company notes, because around 60 percent of its drivers don’t even use Uber over 10 hours per week, but Kansal tells me that a relatively small number do tip the scales as heavy users. The company wants to do its part to address this safety issue, however, Kansal tells me, and to do so proactively, even where it’s not specifically required by local bylaws.

Uber has studied the feature where implemented in other markets (including Australia, where it launched previously) and built this U.S.-facing version with a lot of feedback in mind. That’s why the app will provide notifications when you’re nearing that 12 hour limit, effectively counting down so that it’s fully transparent and not surprising to a driver when they max out. When the six-hour break is over, the app will once again unlock itself for bookings. Also, where different rules are required by local law, those will apply instead of this new cross-U.S. limit.

Rival Lyft has a driver limit in place, too, which mandates a six-hour break for every 14 hours spent in driver mode, but it’s not as granular as Uber’s. Uber says it also plans to evaluate continued international rollout on an ongoing basis, and to expect this change to be introduced gradually across the driver app in the U.S. one the next few weeks.

Uber’s new CEO could probably win at 10 dimensional chess


The courtroom has been cleared, the lights are off in the spillover room on the 19th floor and the initial takes are in on the Uber vs. Waymo trial.

Uber will give Alphabet, the parent company of both Waymo and the search giant Google, some $244 million worth of stock, and agree to ensure that no Waymo intellectual property will make its way into Uber autonomous vehicles.

While Uber has settled, this is hardly a Waymo victory. Indeed, the only person who comes out of this looking like a winner is Uber’s new chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi.

For some reporters, Khosrowshahi’s decision to settle was a foregone conclusion, but that was before the trial began and the strategies (such as they were) of the opposing sides became clear.

Once the trial was underway, Waymo’s victory began to look less and less like a foregone conclusion.

Uber’s former chief executive Travis Kalanick and Anthony Levandowski, the incredibly talented and incredibly ambitious technologist whose decision to leave Google’s self-driving car program for Uber set off the lawsuit in the first place, both came out of the proceedings looking appropriately terrible (they acted terribly).

But Waymo did not appear to be making headway with its actual charge that any of the (very likely) allegedly misappropriated technology wound up in Uber’s autonomous vehicle systems.

Beyond the facts of the case, there was the potential for Alphabet’s own executive team to come off looking less-than-stellar when Uber presented its defense.

By settling the case now, Khosrowshahi looks nothing short of magnanimous. His predecessor has been publicly humiliated, along with the former employee whose hiring triggered the case, executives at Alphabet are spared from having to take the stand and answer for whatever mistakes they may have made in handling Levandowski (and his departure), and Uber is only paying $244 million to get out from under the lawsuit. (I know $244 million isn’t chump change, but compared to how bad things were potentially looking at the outset of the trial, the payout is a bargain).

With the settlement Khosrowshahi takes another long stride in moving past the mistakes that have bedeviled Uber almost since its inception — and certainly since it became the ride-sharing juggernaut that wanted to be uber alles under Kalanick’s increasingly tone deaf leadership.

Read the last lines of Khosrowshahi’s statement and you’ll see what I mean.

While I cannot erase the past, I can commit, on behalf of every Uber employee, that we will learn from it, and it will inform our actions going forward. I’ve told Alphabet that the incredible people at Uber ATG are focused on ensuring that our development represents the very best of Uber’s innovation and experience in self-driving technology.

As we change the way we operate and put integrity at the core of every decision we make, we look forward to the great race to build the future. We believe that race should be fair—and one whose ultimate winners are people, cities and our environment.

And the rapprochement between the two firms makes good business sense as well. Uber had a longer way to go with its autonomous vehicle program than it wanted to admit (something that trial documents make very clear) if it was going to catch up with Waymo. Now, there’s at least the potential partnership down the road. And as both companies see Amazon in their rearview mirror, a decision to be best frenemies makes even more sense.

Featured Image: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg via Getty Images