Fresh off a public spat between Uber investor Benchmark Capital and former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Benchmark general partner Bill Gurley took the stage in front of a large room of bankerfolk at the Goldman Sachs Internet and Technology Conference to talk about how startup boardrooms are now filled with a lot of cheerleaders that aren’t holding founders accountable.
“There’s a systematic problem in Silicon Valley, the venture capitalist board members are finding harder and harder to speak up and hold entrepreneurs responsible for financial performance,” Gurley said. “Our business has gotten super competitive. What the venture capitals is afraid of is losing the next big one. If they get a reputation — years ago [some of the best venture capitalists] were known for storming into board rooms [to demand fiduciary responsibility] — if you get a reputation like that you won’t win the next deal.”
He then went on to say that “Silicon Valley board rooms have mostly become,” and then clapped his hands a few times to imply it was largely people applauding founders and giving them a lot of leeway. This isn’t hugely surprising given a very big tiff between Benchmark and Uber that essentially led to the ouster of Kalanick. Following a wave of cultural problems, as well as a major lawsuit between Uber and Waymo over the acquisition of Otto (which settled last week, shortly after Kalanick gave his testimony), Benchmark sued Kalanick.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick attends the summer World Economic Forum in Tianjin, China, June 26, 2016. REUTERS/Shu Zhang
“What my firm and I went through in 2017 was probably the least enjoyable experience of my life and certainly the hardest work product we’ve ever done,” Gurley said. “It’s not the type of work that inspires us to come in every day. A lot came more from a sense of fiduciary duty and obligation, which carry a super heavy weight because of the size fo the co at the time. It wasn’t just a duty to our investors, but many people in the room had exposure because the list was so long. I take solace in the fact that if I look back from today to May or June, it would be hard pressed to bring forward an argument that the co is not in a much better position today.”
The FOMO — fear of missing out — argument is one that was wildly pervasive in Silicon Valley just a few short years ago. When on-demand was exploding and companies like Shyp and Luxe were fetching sizable valuations with large rounds of funding, there was a flurry of activity from investors that seemed to be jumping quickly to the next company with a lot of leeway for founders with ideas that made sense in theory. Of course, there’s been a big shakeout in the U.S., which has led to more mega-rounds in larger companies but fewer rounds in general.
Separately, when asked about cryptocurrency, Gurley said everyone in the room is probably sick of talking about crypto and asked to move on to the next subject. The moderator then moved on to the next subject.
Uber has launched a new, lower-cost service in Nairobi called Uber Chap Chap. Made possible by using a fleet of fuel-efficient budget sedans, Uber Chap Chap (Swahili slang for “hurry, hurry”) is currently available in several areas of the Kenyan capital, including its central business district.
Uber, which began testing the service at the end of January, may launch it throughout the rest of Nairobi and in the capital cities of Uganda and Tanzania if it proves successful, the company’s East Africa general manager Loic Amado told Reuters.
To make Uber Chap Chap possible, Uber worked out a deal with CMC Motors, a car importer based in Nairobi, to import 300 Suzuki Altos. An unglamorous but inexpensive and fuel-efficient hatchback sedan, the Suzuki Altos were offered to highly-rated Uber drivers with financing by Stanbic, a Kenyan bank, that allows them to own the vehicle in three years.
Since the Suzuki Alto can travel further on less fuel, Uber is able to offer Uber Chap Chap’s lower prices. The minimum cost for a ride on the service is 100 Kenyan shillings (about 99 cents), compared to 150 shillings ($1.48) for UberX.
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.”
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.
elf-driving and electric flying cars are coming. What this means for our cities in the future is unclear, so I chatted with Uber Head of Policy of Autonomous Vehicles and Urban Aviation Justin Erlich to learn more.
Erlich previously worked under Attorney General Kamala Harris, where he focused on emerging technology and the key policies that the government will want to have in place to ensure technology helps the people of California. During his time, autonomous vehicles were becoming more and more exciting, he said.
“And then there were things emerging with drones and the potential for air travel with people,” Erlich told me on this week’s episode of CTRL+T. “Then I came across this amazing role at Uber where it basically was looking to have someone lead policy for all advanced and emerging tech.”
As head of policy for that division, Erlich oversees essentially everything that’s not Uber’s main ride-hailing division. That includes self-driving cars, drones, freight and VTOL (vertical take off and landing).
The idea with Uber’s air travel, which may be referred to as UberAir, is to cover trips from one point of density to another, Erlich explained to me. The plan for now is to cover no more than 60 miles, which is due to the current limitations of batteries.
To get in your UberAir, you could enter in your destination and then the Uber app would tell you where the closest skyport is located. Then, you’d catch your UberAir to another place that is somewhat close to your final destination.
There are a couple of classic use cases, Erlich said. One is for super-commuting, like going from San Francisco to downtown San Jose. Instead of driving yourself, taking Caltrain or paying a bunch of money for an Uber car to take you all that way, you could hop in an UberAir, which would be a lot faster. Another use case is navigating in Los Angeles, which is a notoriously traffic-heavy city, from the airport to East Los Angeles.
Unlike Uber’s standard offering, UberAir will ideally be a totally shared experience. Part of that has to do with ensuring that the cost of UberAir will be affordable, Erlich said, and comparable to the prices Uber riders are already used to.
“Our hope and belief is that the time savings that you will get through air travel will incentivize people who might otherwise be used to the privacy of their own rides [being game] to share rides,” Erlich said. “If you ask about what’s the future of mobility — like when we have all these people wanting to move — we can think of these as packets of people and things moving in these really dense city areas. Everything will probably need to look like some form of fleets that are run by folks like Uber that are pooled with people sharing rides that are electric and eventually autonomous. I think that’s the sort of vision that we’re working towards both on the ground and in the air. And I think shared rides is a huge part of that.”
Part helicopter, part plane
Uber’s flying cars are a hybrid between a helicopter and an airplane, Erlich explained to me. I’m really pushing for the “flying car” terminology, but Erlich says it’s misleading and that we need to come up with a better way to describe them.
“It sounds awesome but it almost it conjures up an image of things taking off from the ground,” Erlich said. “And the technology there would be quite difficult and seems pretty far off, whereas I think a lot of these services will be moving from one rooftop to another.”
Instead of UberAir being a flying car, a helicopter or an airplane, you can think of it as a helicopter-airplane mashup, Erlich said. They will have fixed wings to help with gliding, similar to an airplane, to help it be more efficient and go faster. They will also have multiple rotors, while a helicopter has just one big fixed rotor and therefore one single point of failure, Erlich explained.
Those rotors, he added, will use distributed electric propulsion, which was invented by a NASA engineer, whom Uber has since hired. DEP helps to increase fuel efficiency, landing field length and performance handling while reducing emissions and noise. That means UberAir should theoretically be quieter and safer than a helicopter because of those multiple rotors and fixed wings.
“We can sort of imagine it is a much better, quieter, safer, more efficient helicopter. So part of the focus in that area is how do we make this seem more real and sort of capture what is actually the substance of the technology.”
Another part of the focus, Erlich says, is educating people around the benefits of urban air travel, how it’s potentially safer and how it’s not a new concept. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a helicopter service between San Francisco and Oakland, operated by SFO Helicopter Airlines. At that point, however, it was expensive and not safe enough, Erlich said.
“But this idea of urban air travel isn’t actually as foreign as we might think,” Erlich said. “It just hasn’t happened recently. So part of it is around creating a discussion with communities about what the benefits are, why we think this is safer and getting them excited about what this could be.”
The emergence of UberAir will likely result in a new market involving rooftop rentals. Similar to how ride-sharing services like Getaround and Maven have resulted in small businesses and private homes renting out their vacant parking spaces, we can imagine a world in which office buildings, parking lot structures and even private homes serving as UberAir landing pads.
“I think that the rooftop in the future can be an asset that we can really unlock by allowing new forms of travel,” Erlich said. “I think how that can look pretty different.”
Erlich noted how real estate developers might want to consider building airports and how cities with large parking structures may want to dedicate top floors to VTOLs, given there will be less of a need for parking.
“I think we’ll see a lot of flexibility and what it could look like and, in part, that has to do with our infrastructure needs over the next 10 years, [which] will probably change dramatically,” he said. “Our goal is we want to be as flexible as possible to make sure that we can basically be working with a whole host of partners who will be developing developing this potential infrastructure.”
The plan is to start with real pilots operating UberAir, Erlich said, but at some point, it’ll be autonomous.
“So I think integrating that into the core center of cities, I think will be a really exciting policy topic in the years to come,” Erlich said.
Uber expects to launch its first test run in 2020 in Dallas and Los Angeles. Uber will be flying it from one rooftop to another, ensuring it integrates well with the airspace. By 2023, Uber is looking to launch its first commercial flights.
Uber’s ultimate vision is to provide multi-modal transportation both within and between cities. Just last month, for example, Uber launched UberBike in partnership with bike-sharing startup JUMP.
“We’re definitely both looking at trying to meet short term needs and long term needs,” Erlich said. “And that’s one of the things that I think is exciting about the company is, you know, it’s breadth of what it’s trying to think about is certainly certainly big.”
An equitable future
Advances in transportation in cities isn’t always equitable and deployed with equity and accessibility in mind. Instead, transportation technology often gets deployed in ways that have “these wide systemic effects where we don’t totally realize them going in,” Erlich said.
“And so if we look at what happened with cars they completely reshaped our cities. We had suburban sprawl, we had certain neighborhoods being demolished in order to build freeways to build this road infrastructure, and that had obviously a huge impact on equity issues and sort of demographics and cities.”
In an ideal world, UberAir would be able to reach neighborhoods that are traditionally underserved by transit agencies. But in order to do that, Uber needs to remain conscious of the fact that it’s a goal it’s trying to achieve. That means ensuring the right policy infrastructure is in place and that’s where Erlich comes in.
“We’re thinking about what this looks like for making things wheelchair accessible and so we’re having ongoing conversations with folks in that community,” Erlich said. “We’ll really need to be thoughtful long-term about where the routings are to make sure that we’re serving underserved communities in transit, and to make sure that this technology is made available to everybody.”
The goal is to continue to bring down costs and move toward autonomous flying in order to offer low enough prices for people who want to travel far, Erlich said.
“And particularly if they’re not able to live in urban areas due to real estate prices that this will help them live further away but not need to rely on personal car ownership.”
You can listen to my full conversation with Erlich here.
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
Aurora, the self-driving startup founded by Google self-driving car project alum Chris Urmson, along with Tesla Autopilot developer Sterling Anderson, CMU robotics expert and Uber vet Drew Bagnell, and a team of industry experts, will be making the autonomous smarts for Byton’s forthcoming electric vehicle. Byton, a startup that had a splashy debut at CES earlier this year.
Byton’s Concept electric SUV is a car with a lot of interesting tech features, aside from its all-electric drive train. The vehicle has a massive, dashboard-covering display that incorporates information readouts, entertainment options and vehicle controls. It’s a screen that seems somewhat ill-suited for the task of paying attention to the road while driving, and the Byton car also has front seats that swivel towards the inside of the vehicle so that those in the front can better interact with those in the back.
Both of those features are more geared toward a future in which autonomous driving is a ready and viable option for Byton owners. The car is aiming for a 2019 starting ship date, by which time it’s possible self-driving features won’t seem such a distant dream. And now we know that Byton has a technology partners on the autonomous driving side of things with the technical know-how to make it an even more realistic expectation.
Aurora, despite officially breaking cover only just last year, is already working with a range of automakers on their autonomous driving technology, including Volkswagen and Hyundai. Aurora CEO Chris Urmson explained that its goals mean it’s happy to work with companies at all stages of development and maturity to help make self-driving a practical reality.
“Our mission is to deliver the benefits of self-driving technology safety, quickly and broadly,” he said in n interview. “So for us to have that broad part, it means we have to work with a nudger of great partners, and we’re very fortunate with the folks we have [as partners] to date… this is how we help the business, and we look forward to being able to engage with others in the future.”
For Byton and Aurora, this partnership will kick off with pilot test driving in California sometime soon, and Byton hopes to eventually tap Aurora with its goal of fielding premium electric consumer vehicles with SAE Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous capabilities.
Aurora as a company is excited about its progress during its first year in operation, and is ramping up staffing and attracting key talent in a very competitive industry thanks to its pedigree and founding team, Urmson tells me.
“It started with a handful of us, a couple in my living room here in California, and a couple in Pittsburgh. We’ve been growing the team, that’s been one of the core focuses of this last year,” he said. “In my previous gig I had the privilege of helping build that program from day one, to a massive organization certainly leading the space, and now with Sterling and Drew, we have the opportunity to build version two of that, and learn from our experience, and build an organization and build a technology that can have a huge impact on the world, and do that quickly and safely.”