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.

Tumblr also lousy with Russia-backed US election trolls: Report


The meme-laden Tumblr platform is the latest social media and blogging outlet to be unmasked as a distribution channel for Russian agents to rip at America’s societal fault lines and seek to influence citizens’ voting habits, according to a report by BuzzFeed News.

Facebook and Twitter have been firmly in the spotlight on this issue since the shock result of the 2016 US presidential election. Google has also self-reported on Russian disinformation on its platforms. But the role of other social platforms in spreading Kremlin propaganda has faced less scrutiny thus far.

BuzzFeed worked with researcher, Jonathan Albright, from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, to identify Russian-backed account activity on Tumblr. It says the analysis reveals “a powerful, largely unrevealed network of Russian trolls focused on black issues and activism” and which dates back to early 2015.

Some of the Russian-linked blogging activity on Tumblr was apparently aimed at boosting support for Bernie Sanders at the expense of eventual Democratic candidate nominee Hillary Clinton. The Democratic nominee process concluded in July 2016. While the US presidential election itself was held on November 8, 2016.

“The evidence we’ve collected shows a highly engaged and far-reaching Tumblr propaganda-op targeting mostly teenage and twenty-something African Americans,” Albright is quoted as saying.

“This appears to have been part of an ongoing campaign since early 2015,” he added.

We’ve reached out to Tumblr owner Oath‘s press office with questions about the research — at the time of writing the company has not replied. (For the record Tumblr owner Oath is also TechCrunch’s parent company.)

Oath did not respond to BuzzFeed’s requests for comment on its research.

The methodology it used for unmasking Russian agents on Tumblr appears to be a pretty simple one: The researchers cross-referenced Tumblr accounts that used “the same, or very similar” usernames from a list of known Internet Research Agency (IRA) accounts, previously submitted by Twitter to congressional investigators. (The IRA being one of the confirmed Russian trollfarms; others are also known to exist.)

Incidentally, last month Twitter updated this Russian bot list — saying it had now identified an additional 13k Russian-linked bots that had made election-related tweets, pushing the total number to more than 50,000. (Of those it said about 3,800 were linked to the IRA.)

In January it also said it now thought that 1.4M people had engaged with Russian trolls during the US election.

The most successful of the Russian-linked Tumblr accounts identified by BuzzFeed’s analysis had apparently created multiple posts generating hundreds of thousands of “notes” on Tumblr (aka totaled likes, reblogs, replies etc).

The research also found Russian-linked Tumblr accounts cross-posting content from other social platforms — including Twitter and Instagram.

According to BuzzFeed, most of the accounts linked to the IRA are no longer active on Tumblr, although it specifies that two are still sharing content on the platform (though it describes the content as “completely unrelated”, and speculates it’s possible that account ownership has since changed).

In terms of the types of socially divisive content being shared via these Russian-linked Tumblrs, BuzzFeed cites examples that sought to link Clinton to a former KKK leader; complained about unfair media coverage of a Sanders rally; and decried racial injustice and police violence in the US.

After Clinton won the Democratic nomination, some of the Russian-linked Tumblrs that had been backing Sanders apparently started pushing pro-Trump content.

The research also unearthed a network of links out from Tumblr to “thousands of still-remaining Twitter posts, black culture blogs, at least several hundred still-remaining Facebook posts, sign-ups for online petitions, and a number of Reddit threads related to pro-Bernie news, Hillary conspiracies, and in-classroom racial matters”.

Given the cross-referencing method used to ID Russian activity it’s entirely possible other Russian-backed Tumblr accounts existed on the platform (and/or still exist) which have yet to be identified.

Embark’s self-driving truck completes 2,400 mile cross-U.S. trip


Embark’s autonomous trucking solution just demonstrated what it could be capable of in a big way: It make a coast-to-coast trip from L.A. to Jacksonville, Florida, driving 2,400 miles and delivering refrigerators for Electrolux from one end of the U.S. to the other.

This follows Embark‘s prior test route, which ran from L.A. to El Paso, and covers more than four times the distance of that initial path. Embark did the new cross-country trip in five days, but it included a safety driver on board behind the wheel, and because said driver has to be ready to take over control, the route involved scheduled rest brakes. Once Embark’s tech is ready and cleared to run on its own, Embark expects the trip to take only two days in total.

Embark’s goal isn’t t replace the driver entirely, however: It just wants to make it possible for long-haul trips to be managed by fewer drivers, eliminating the need for team driving, for instance, and helping to address a lack of available qualified human drivers for this kind of shipping. Drivers are still expected to help with the parts of the route that don’t involve freeway and driving, but still the efficiency gains and trip time benefits would be huge once their technology is in service.

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This demonstration also helps Embark prove out some of the aspects of its business that depart from what its competitors are doing. The startup doesn’t use high-resolution, detailed maps of its route to inform its autonomous system, for instance; instead, it relies entirely on sensor data and its onboard machine learning. This cuts down on cost and time needed in terms of preparation before establishing new routes, and Embark says its new 2,400 mile trip down the I-10 shows it can handle major thoroughfares without issue.

Embark’s truck has just arrive back on the West Coast, and the team is still pulling all the data regarding disengagements and human intervention, but according to subjective reports from the drivers on board “the vast majority of the driving was autonomous,” with “hours at a time with no disengagements, and when they did occur they were usually only a few seconds” long, per Rodrigues.

San Francisco-based Embark is also building out its fleet of test vehicles, growing from two to five trucks in just four months, and CEO Alex Rodrigues says that by the end of 2018, Embark hopes to have 40 trucks purchased for its fleet.

Stressing aptitude over achievement, Strive Talent pitches a new way to hire


While unemployment in the U.S. hit a 17 year low and the stock market keeps humming along, there’s a lingering sense that all is still not well in U.S. labor markets.

Most jobs require a college degree these days, a proposition that’s becoming increasingly unaffordable even if it is attainable. Many students who graduate are saddled with so much debt that not even a decent salaried job can guarantee payback in a reasonable amount of time.

And the effects of this debt overhang ripple through the entire economy.

Against this backdrop a number of startups are rethinking how hiring should work, because while many employers require a college degree for a job, the fact is that most of the skills needed to perform those jobs aren’t taught in college.

Enter Strive Talent. A new startup that’s trying to come up with (arguably) better criteria to determine an applicants’ suitability for a job.

For founder and chief executive Will Houghteling (Ivy Speaker 2009), the issue is hardly academic. The son of two educators, Houghteling spent his professional career at the center of some of Silicon Valley’s experiments with the democratization of education.

Will Houghteling, founder and chief executive, Strive Talent

First at YouTube working with massive online open courses from Udacity and Coursera for four years, and then at Minerva University (Silicon Valley’s experiment with a university education without the college campus infrastructure), Houghteling was exposed to the latest and greatest models for making education more accessible.

With Strive, the model is to make the job market more accessible without the need for a college education.

“I asked myself; what is the future of college and what is the future of college for these populations that college is not serving well?” Houghteling tells me. “There are faster, better, cheaper ways for people to get those great jobs they desire.”

So he developed one that he thought would work. Strive is a competency based platform based on ability and potential rather than pedigrees, says Houghteling. Strive has outsourced the cognitive assessment component to an undisclosed, Los Angeles-based company, but the interview and other assessments are performed in-house.

The goal is to help people get what Houghteling calls “middle-skilled” jobs in sales and customer service. The model, he says, is similar to Triplebyte, except it’s for middle-skilled jobs rather than engineering roles.

The inspiration came from Houghteling’s time at Google and Minerva, where the model for hiring  talent and admitting students was very data driven.

“In both of those instances I thought abut evidence-based scientific candidate evaluation,” says Houghteling.

Candidates for jobs using Strive Talent take a cognitive assessment and a work sample test, and then have a structured interview. Selection is then based on scores and evaluations rather than a candidate’s education and pedigree.

There are no educational requirements for candidates through Strive and the company has encouraged employers to relax their own requirements. “None of the companies we work with now require a college degree,” for the positions Strive hopes to fill.

The company launched in January with an extensive pilot project at Uber to help them hire entry level sales people and continued with some large undisclosed national retail bank, Houghteling said.

“The focus that we have is helping candidates get access to jobs that are family supporting and have a professional pathway,”says Houghteling. “We try to work with companies that are, at a minimum, paying $40,000 per year.”

Once a candidate goes through the Strive assessment process and is placed in a role, the employer pays a percentage of the first year salary to Strive. The range of payments is from 10% to 20%, depending on the volume of hires that the company is hiring through Strive. The traditional fees of a staffing agency comes in at 20% to 25%, Houghteling says.

So far, 70% of Strive’s applicants didn’t have a college degree and 70% were also minorities, Houghteling said, but takes pains to stress that the company isn’t intended to be a diversity strategy. “Data-driven, objective hiring will lead to higher performing teams and more diverse teams because it overcomes a lot of the existing bias when you’re looking at a resume.”

Looking out at the new reality of a tighter job market, Houghteling sees even more of a reason for companies to work with Strive. “I’m thinking about how the macroeconomic climate impacts our effectiveness. The tighter the job environment, the more companies need to work to find great candidates… and they may need to dip into pools that they haven’t previously considered.”

Beyond that, Houghteling stresses that underemployment hasn’t been addressed despite the increasing strength of the employment market. “We have this decreasing economic mobility and a shrinking middle class and we have this large pool of open, middle-skilled roles,” he says. “That’s about 40% of the American economy.”

To expand the companies sales and marketing efforts and its services offering, the company has raised $3.8 million in seed financing.  Los Angeles-based Upfront Ventures led the round, with participation from Kapor Capital, Webb Investment Network, NextView Ventures, University Ventures and Graph Ventures.

“We have been evaluating many opportunities in the area of skills development outside of traditional educational channels to drive a double bottom line,” said Kara Nortman, the investor at Upfront Ventures who led the round, in a statement. “Will’s demonstrated success working within innovative organizations like Google, YouTube, and Minerva brings needed expertise to bear on this critical issue. He   has the rare combination of domain experience, functional ability, and lifelong passion to build the skills marketplace of the future.”

Houghteling sees a lack of vocational training in the U.S. these days and thinks that Strive can also play a role there. “One third of Americans have this college degree and this path to the knowledge economy, and family supporting, AI-proof jobs,” he tells me. “There’s not a great vocational training option to get people prepared for middle-skilled jobs.”

Indeed, Strive will also offer training around interview prep and industry specific toolkits to get applicants up to speed before they’re placed in their roles. “Thesee are short, targeted employer in course that would be of especially high value to candidates,” Houghteling said.

The company said the seed funding will be used to further develop the hiring platform and assessment toolkits.

“For decades, we’ve asked young people to pay tuition – increasingly unsustainable tuition – for postsecondary education without any guaranteed employment outcome. New faster and cheaper models like Strive are poised to upend the ‘college for all’ consensus — providing guaranteed pathways to good first jobs at no cost,” said Ryan Craig, co-founder of University Ventures in a statement.

Featured Image: GrafVishenka/Getty Images

While the U.S. waits, China has been CRISPRing human cancer patients since 2015


While the U.S. is just gearing up to the idea of CRISPRing its first humans, China seems to be benefitting from the “move fast and break things”…or cut them with the CRISPR scissors motto.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, China has already gene-edited 86 people using CRISPR-Cas9 since 2015. Unhindered by rules and regulations like the ones we have in America to prevent science experiments gone wrong, Shanghai doctor Wu Shixiu has been using the technique on cancer patients.

In fact, it only took a half hour one afternoon, according to the Journal, for hospital administrators to sign off on Dr. Wu’s plans.

It’s not clear if these experiments worked — though some preliminary reports suggest some of the various trials have had some success. However, this is not the first time China’s used CRISPR on humans — often with disastrous results. Chinese scientists tried unsuccessfully to genetically modify human embryos using CRISPR in 2016 but found at least two-thirds to have genetic mutations and only a fraction of the 28 surviving embryos (out of 86 total tested) contained the replacement genetic material.

At least nine other CRISPR trials have been conducted on humans in China, according to listings in the U.S. National Library of Medicine database. The Journal found at least two other trials had been conducted on humans in China using the technique since 2015.

While some worry this gives China the edge in pioneering CRISPR medical techniques, others urge caution and patience with such a new technology. Both the U.S. and Europe, where the technique was first jointly discovered by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, have implemented conservative regulatory measures and have yet to start human trials.

“It is hard to know what the ideal is between moving quickly and making sure patients are safe,” Dr Carl June, the lead scientist for the CRISPR research team at the University of Pennsylvania, where the first human trials are slated to take place once researchers there can get through several regulatory hurdles, told the Journal.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin

While the U.S. waits, China has been CRISPRing human cancer patients since 2015


While the U.S. is just gearing up to the idea of CRISPRing its first humans, China seems to be benefitting from the “move fast and break things”…or cut them with the CRISPR scissors motto.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, China has already gene-edited 86 people using CRISPR-Cas9 since 2015. Unhindered by rules and regulations like the ones we have in America to prevent science experiments gone wrong, Shanghai doctor Wu Shixiu has been using the technique on cancer patients.

In fact, it only took a half hour one afternoon, according to the Journal, for hospital administrators to sign off on Dr. Wu’s plans.

It’s not clear if these experiments worked — though some preliminary reports suggest some of the various trials have had some success. However, this is not the first time China’s used CRISPR on humans — often with disastrous results. Chinese scientists tried unsuccessfully to genetically modify human embryos using CRISPR in 2016 but found at least two-thirds to have genetic mutations and only a fraction of the 28 surviving embryos (out of 86 total tested) contained the replacement genetic material.

At least nine other CRISPR trials have been conducted on humans in China, according to listings in the U.S. National Library of Medicine database. The Journal found at least two other trials had been conducted on humans in China using the technique since 2015.

While some worry this gives China the edge in pioneering CRISPR medical techniques, others urge caution and patience with such a new technology. Both the U.S. and Europe, where the technique was first jointly discovered by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, have implemented conservative regulatory measures and have yet to start human trials.

“It is hard to know what the ideal is between moving quickly and making sure patients are safe,” Dr Carl June, the lead scientist for the CRISPR research team at the University of Pennsylvania, where the first human trials are slated to take place once researchers there can get through several regulatory hurdles, told the Journal.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin

Investing in tech for hospitality and food, Almanac Investments raises $30 million


David Barber, the storied owner of the Blue Hill restaurant, farm, and hospitality consulting mecca (a favorite of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama), has long been an angel investor in startup companies.

Individually, he’s backed companies like Sweetgreen, the fast casual farm-to-table restaurant chain, that share Blue Hill’s focus on sustainable products and socially responsible businesses, and now he’s institutionalized that investment approach with Almanac Investments.

The new $30 million investment fund will look to back companies that are developing products and services that improve the food and hospitality industries — a thesis that could include everything from a WeWork for food preparation, to enterprise software for the restaurant industry, to new consumer food companies.

Indeed, Almanac has already made investments in all three areas. The firm’s first investments are Pilotworks (the WeWork idea), Nona Lim (a new, organic food brand), and Bluecart (an enterprise software tool for resource planning).

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For the past several years there’s been a steady push of venture investment into the consumer packaged goods industry and more broadly into food and agriculture. The results have been as mixed as a hand-squeezed bag of Juicero fruit blend.

While Juicero has become a punching bag for everything wrong about Silicon Valley’s forays into food, the industry is facing real pressures that technology can help to fix.

For restaurants the cost of labor keeps rising and that will continue to squeeze margins for businesses that are already on a razor’s edge between profits and losses. Barber says that technology has to be adopted to keep operational costs down as everything else rises.

And food production is also being stretched to its limits as an increasing global population becomes increasingly wealthy, moving to diets that include more meat. Climate change is increasing the scarcity of arable land which will force farmers to do more with less, while responding to increasing demand for more, and better, kinds of foods.

Finally, consumers tastes are changing, which presents an opportunity for new brands to come to market with products that cater to the new needs of more health conscious consumers.

“There’s no brand today that has the same trust that my parents had in Quaker Oats,” Barber tells me. The relationship between the consumer and marquee brands of the 20th century has been eroded to the point where new entrants can come in and create that old brand magic with a new audience, he says.

Joining Barber in the hunt for transformative technologies for the food industry is Zoe Feldman, a former Blue Hill intern, who went on to jobs at PepsiCo (where she worked on launching a venture investment strategy), and Cleveland Avenue, an early stage investor in consumer packaged goods companies based in Chicago.

Barber’s firm isn’t the only one to recognize these changing market needs. Indeed, Barber serves as an advisor to Acre Investments and S2G Ventures, which both look to invest in companies that are tackling these issues.

Indeed, the investor ecosystem for these types of firms continues to expand. Late last year, CircleUp announced a $125 million fund to focus on the area as well.

“We do see a lot more capital coming into consumer today than we did five years ago. That both excites me and scares me,” says Ryan Caldbeck, CircleUp’s founder and chief executive. “Our mission is to help entrepreneurs to thrive. Having more capital come into the sector is a wonderful thing when it’ s done in an appropriate and prudent way.”

As competition increases, it’ll be interesting to see whether the market can bear the infusion of so much capital, or whether it will create unreasonable exit expectations for young companies.

So far, there’ve been a few successes coming from consumer investments. Blue Bottle Coffee, a silicon valley darling, was acquired by Nestle for more than $700 million. And many investors point to the instructional story of RXBAR, which raised no outside capital since its 2013 launch and was sold to Kellogg for $600 million.

Perhaps there is always money in the banana stand.