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Hi and welcome back to The Station, a newsletter dedicated to all the present and future ways people and packages move from Point A to Point B. I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch.
The mobility world got busy this week. Really. busy. This is gonna be a long one, buckle up.
Take a look at the most recent survey we conducted with a bunch of venture capitalists about mobility and what areas interest them most. We talked to Ernestine Fu with Alsop Louie Partners, Stonly Baptiste and Shaun Abrahamson with Urban Us, Shahin Farshchi with Lux Capital, Kate Schox with Trucks VC and Jeff Peters of Autotech Ventures.
Alright, time to dig in. Vamos.
Uber tossed more than 20,000 JUMP bikes into a recycling yard following its deal to offload the JUMP brand to Lime. A photo below, courtesy of Cris Moffitt, shows a sliver of the thousands of bikes at the yard in North Carolina.
“The extent of waste is unfathomable,” the Bike Share Museum said in a tweet.
Since then, Tier Mobility CEO and co-founder Lawrence Leuschner said he wants to take some of those bikes, “repair them, and give them a second life – as we do for all of our vehicles,” he wrote on LinkedIn.
Keaks (Kirsten Korosec) has been working on a big(ish) story about JUMP for the last week. Stay tuned and/or holler at her if you have any tips.
Meanwhile, we noticed Superpedestrian, the startup that makes self-diagnosing electric scooters, has teamed up with Zagster. Superpedestrian quietly launched LINK, its shared electric scooter service in partnership with Zagster in Fort Pierce, Florida in late December.
As of at least February 2020, Zagster had an agreement with Superpedestrian’s LINK to manage the fleet of shared scooters in Kansas, according to city commission documents. In March, the city council in Manhattan, Kansas authorized the city to negotiate a permitting contract with Zagster to run a six-month electric scooter pilot in partnership with Superpedestrian’s LINK.
Over in Europe, long-distance ridesharing startup BlaBlaCar said it’s expanding to scooter sharing. The company doesn’t plan to operate its own fleet of scooters. Instead, BlaBlaCar is partnering with Voi, a European e-scooter service that has raised $136 million over multiple rounds. Voi scooters will feature three different brands — Voi, BlaBlaCar and BlaBla Ride.
— Megan Rose Dickey
It’s not a deal yet — well, as far as we know, but I’d be remiss not to highlight it here. I’m talking, of course, about the WSJ report that Amazon is in advanced talks to acquire self-driving vehicle startup Zoox.
Zoox is unlike any other autonomous vehicle startup I’ve encountered in the past five or so years. The company has taken on several capitally intensive and ambitious roles — electric vehicle designer and manufacturer, full stack autonomous vehicle developer and robotaxi operator. Zoox co-founder Jesse Levinson will disagree with me here — we’ve had this discussion before — but the company is essentially doing this alone. Yes, it has relationships and support from suppliers; it has investors. But it doesn’t have a meaningful OEM partner and backer like its competitors Argo AI and Cruise . And it has no where near the piggy bank that Waymo holds.
It’s a bold and risky strategy. It’s also expensive.
It’s a poorly kept secret that Zoox has had to do some belt tightening over the past 12 months. The company cut costs last year and tried to renegotiate some supplier contracts, sources told me at the time. In October, it raised $200 million in new convertible note funding, which was supposed to be folded into a Series C round and close by the end of 2019 or early 2020. As far as we know, that never happened. Sources have told me Zoox was in talks with OEMs about sealing a deal with a manufacturing partner that might also include financial backing. Daimler and FCA were name dropped in different conversations at the time, but I was never able to verify that the deals were close.
Then COVID-19 hit. Zoox tightened its belt further and cut nearly all of its contract drivers.
There’s no doubt that Zoox needs money to survive. But an Amazon-Zoox deal, if it happens, is bittersweet.
Zoox is the plucky startup — the stand-at-the-cliff’s edge pioneer that you want to succeed. Going it alone carries existential risk, but it has also given it the freedom to stick to its vision.
If acquired, Zoox will get sucked up into the Amazon ether and one wonders what it will become.
Other deals that got our attention:
Bolt, the Estonia-based company that provides on-demand ridesharing, scooters and other transportation services across some 150 cities in Europe and Africa, raised €100 million ($109 million) in a convertible note. Bolt also confirmed that is now valued at €1.7 billion (or nearly $1.9 billion at today’s rates). The money is coming from a single investor, Naya Capital Management, which was also a major backer of the company in its last round, a $67 million Series C announced in July 2019.
Ola Electric, the EV business that spun out of the ride-hailing giant Ola in 2019, acquired electric scooter startup Etergo. The Dutch startup built a scooter that uses a swappable, high energy battery that delivers a range of up to 240 km (149 miles). Ola Electric is aiming to produce and launch its own line of two wheelers as soon as this year.
Tesla’s board certified a financial milestone that unlocks the first tranche — worth more than $700 million — of an unprecedented multi-billion-dollar pay package for CEO Elon Musk, according a document filed Thursday with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The milestone allows Musk to purchase the first grouping or tranche of nearly 1.69 million shares at a steep discount. As far as we know (based on SEC filings) Musk has not exercised those options yet.
If you haven’t heard, there’s a battle over talent in the autonomous vehicle industry. One AV founder once described it to me as a “knife fight.”
It’s not just about hiring talent though. It’s about building the right culture to get the job done. In this case, it’s the not-so-small goal to develop and deploy autonomous vehicle technology at commercial scale.
Self-driving vehicle startup Aurora recently hit the 500-employee mark, an internal milestone capped by several new key hires, including Sagar Behere, as director of systems and safety engineering and Tara Green, who is leading human resources, recruiting and IT.
It wasn’t the 500-employee figure that I found interesting. It’s a new in-house program the company is calling Aurora Academy and Raul Rojas, a former professor of computer science and mathematics at the Free University of Berlin who was hired to lead it. The idea is to create a program where employees can build specific technical skills in the self-driving technology domain using its own experts. Rojas comes with deep background in robotics and autonomous vehicle technology. He met two of Aurora’s co-founders Chris Urmson and Drew Bagnell while participating in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. Rojas also co-founded in 2011 Autonomous GmbH, an autonomy startup acquired by TomTom in 2017.
Aurora has hired computer scientists, engineers, physicists, and mathematicians to help in the complex task of integrating different hardware and software modules into an AV system. And yet, Rojas noted there is still a need “to build bridges across the various disciplines so that we can propagate expertise across all levels of the company.” He said that’s where Aurora Academy comes in.
The program kicked off in mid-March with a six-week course entitled “Essential Skills for Poses, Transformations and Lie Groups.” (Light stuff, right?) These are the mathematical tools that give roboticists a uniform and powerful framework for localization and motion planning.
Other classes will cover software engineering, sensor development, mathematical foundations, visualization, planning, control and machine learning. The academy will also be open to non-technical employees who want to learn more diverse skills, including how to program in Python.
“The self-driving world is still a small community, so there’s a limited pool of candidates to begin with, and not many universities offer specialized programs on autonomous driving, so it’s unlikely you will find someone right out of school with all the skills needed,” Rojas said.
For instance, Aurora acquired last year Blackmore, one of the few companies developing Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW) lidar, which emits a low-power and continuous wave.
“It’s unlikely someone could have studied it in school, so in June we’re starting a course to teach the physics of Doppler lidar, how to process the data at the fastest possible rate, and how to profit from the measurements in perception tasks,” Rojas noted.
Is your AV company doing something interesting — you know, beyond bringing autonomous vehicles into the mainstream? Hit me up and tell me about it.
On demand mobility powered by electric and solar is coming to Africa.
Vaya Africa, a ride-hail mobility venture founded by Zimbabwean mogul Strive Masiyiwa, launched an electric taxi service and charging network in Zimbabwe this week with plans to expand across the continent.
The South Africa-headquartered company is using Nissan Leaf EVs and has developed its own solar-powered charging stations. Vaya is finalizing partnerships to take its electric taxi services on the road to countries that could include Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia, Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto told TechCrunch.
The initiative comes as Africa’s on-demand mobility market has been in full swing for several years, with startups, investors and the larger ride-hail players aiming to bring movement of people and goods to digital platforms.
Uber and Bolt have been operating in Africa’s major economies since 2015, where there are also a number of local app-based taxi startups. Over the last year, there’s been some movement on the continent toward developing EVs for ride-hail and delivery use, primarily around motorcycles.
Beyond environmental benefits, Vaya highlights economic gains for passengers and drivers of shifting to electric in Africa’s taxi markets, where fuel costs compared to personal income is generally high for drivers.
Using solar panels to power the charging station network also helps Vaya’s new EV program overcome some of challenges in Africa’s electricity grid.
Vaya is exploring EV options for other on-demand transit applications — from min-buses to Tuk Tuk taxis.
— Jake Bright
Let’s kick this section off this week by highlighting a new company hoping to disrupt van life.
Cabana is a new startup launched by a former Lime executive that’s bringing tricked-out vans with all the amenities of a Holiday Inn hotel room to cities on the West Coast, starting in Seattle. As TechCrunch reporter Jonathan Shieber noted, companies like Tentrr, HipCamp and even Airbnb have gotten in on the vanlife movement, and Cabana’s founder definitely thinks he can ride the wave.
Cabana has already raised $3.5 million from investors, led by Craft Ventures — the investment firm founded by David Sacks. Other investors include Goldcrest Capital, Travis VanderZanden (the chief executive and founder of Bird), and Sunny Madra, vice president of Ford X at Ford Motor Company.
Rivian appears to be planning to offer its own insurance to customers based on a new job posting for an insurance agency data manager first spotted by RivianForums, which passed along the tip.
The job is to lead Rivian’s property and casualty (P&C) insurance agency, a position that entails recruiting, training, coaching and managing employed licensed sales agents and an insurance customer care team, according to the posting on Rivian’s website. The employee will also sell insurance products and provide feedback to partners on opportunities, the posting said. It’s an unusual move, but not unprecedented. Last August, Tesla launched an insurance product.
Cruise has a new board member who comes with deep experience in tech and hardware. Regina Dugan has a lengthy resume that includes former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the current CEO of Wellcome Leap, a non-profit founded by Wellcome Trust to accelerate innovations that benefit global health. In between DARPA and Wellcome Leap, Dugan was head of Google’s Advanced Technology And Products (ATAP) Group and led Building 8, Facebook’s hardware skunkworks.
“In health care and in transportation, I believe in the power of science and technology to change our world. With this power comes the responsibility to deliver life-saving advances at scale — Cruise has the tech, the team, and the tenacity to get it done. I’m stoked to join,” Dugan said in a statement provided to TechCrunch.
Sweden-headquartered Voi Technology recruited Richard Corbett to head up its U.K., Ireland and Benelux operations. Corbett joins from rival Bird, where he spent two years as the U.S. company’s U.K. and Ireland chief, as well as helping to launch e-scooter rentals in Netherlands.
AirMap, an airspace services platform for unmanned aircraft, cut its staff. Layoffs.fyi reported that around 30% of the team was let go.
Aston Martin announced CEO Andy Palmer was leaving his post. His replacement is Tobias Moers, the current head of Mercedes-Benz’s AMG division, Car and Driver reported.
Welp … Audi fired Daniel Abt from its Formula E racing team after learning he had a professional sim driver race for him during a virtual competition called the “Race at Home Challenge” held last weekend. It appeared Abt was going to merely be suspended. Abt said in a video message published Tuesday on YouTube that Audi had dropped him from the team.
German auto supplier ZF Friedrichshafen plans to cut up to 15,000 jobs, or around 10% of its work force, by 2025 as a result of a slump in demand, according to a company memo that Automotive News reported. ZF said in an email to employees that half of the 12,000-15,000 job cuts would be in Germany.
Uber is cutting 600 jobs in India, or 25% of its workforce in the country. The job cuts, which affect teams across customer and driver support, business development, legal, policy, marketing, and finance, are part of the company’s global restructuring that eliminated 6,700 jobs this month.
Here are a few other items that caught my eye …
Deloitte Insights tackled a topic that many of us might be mulling as well. They looked at what mobility might look like after COVID-19. The report specifically explores four possible futures over the next three to five years. You can check out the full report here, which provides a high-level description of society, economy and geopolitics and then narrows in on transportation.
In one rosier scenario, dubbed “a passing storm,” the COVID-19 pandemic shakes society but, after a slow start, is met with an increasingly effective health system and political response, according to Deloitte. The pandemic causes long-term economic impact: e-commerce and last-mile delivery networks proliferate and are increasingly supported by autonomous vehicles and digitization of the logistics value chain. Vehicle sanitation becomes a priority, which leads to new self-cleaning materials, certification programs and form factors such as passenger partitions. The in-transit experience benefits from advances in digital entertainment and productivity prompted by the pandemic, including, potentially, AR and VR applications.
AV stuff …
I recommend reserving an hour or two to play around with this Global Autonomous Vehicles Index created by the autonomous vehicles group at law firm Dentons. It’s free and lets users compare the nuances of AV testing and deployment regulations across 18 countries and all 50 U.S. states. For instance, regulations in Canada don’t require a human driver in a vehicle when testing AVs. In China, rules require each organization to buy the compulsory liability insurance for traffic accidents for each vehicle. Yet in Germany, there are no special requirements for AVs which go beyond the motor vehicle liability insurance.
Baidu completed Apollo Park, an autonomous driving and vehicle-infrastructure testing base that houses more than 200 autonomous vehicles and is located in the Beijing Economic-Technological Development Area. The facility is used for vehicle storage, cloud control on remotely sensed big data, operational command, maintenance and calibration, as well as research and development.
Waymo will bring its autonomous vehicles back to public roads in the Bay Area starting June 8, The Verge reported. The plan, according to an email viewed by The Verge, is to use the self-driving vehicles to deliver packages for two Bay Area non-profits: illustrator Wendy McNaughton’s #DrawTogether, which provides art kits to Bay Area kids; and Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Autonomous robotics startup Nuro will test prescription delivery in Houston through a partnership with CVS Pharmacy. The pilot, which will use a fleet of the startup’s autonomous Toyota Prius vehicles and transition to using its custom-built R2 delivery bots, is slated to begin in June.
It’s electric …
Mercedes-Benz is now selling its EQV 300 all-electric premium van in Europe, the second EV to come out of the automaker’s initiative to produce a line of battery-powered models under its new EQ brand.
Rivian has resumed work at its factory in Normal, Ill. following a temporary shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Investor and customer Amazon provided an update this week stating that Rivian is still on track to supply it with electric delivery vans. Vans will begin delivering to customers in 2021, as previously planned. About 10,000 electric vehicles will be on the road as early as 2022 and all 100,000 vehicles will be on the road by 2030.
Audi created a new business unit called Artemis to bring electric vehicles equipped with highly automated driving systems and other tech to market faster.
Tesla slashed prices across its electric vehicle portfolio as the automaker aims to boost sales in an economy beaten down by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Model S and Model X saw base prices cut by $5,000, while the Model 3 standard range plus saw a $2,000 drop.
Ride-hailing and miscellaneous bits …
Uber is launching a book-by-the-hour feature in the U.S., starting Monday. The feature lets users book rides for $50 an hour and make multiple stops. The hourly booking feature, which is already available in a handful of international cities in Australia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, will initially launch in a dozen U.S. cities.
Core Investments, a Boston-based real estate development company, has proposed a last-mile delivery station for Amazon, Boston Business Journal reported.
I delayed my first road trippin’ review to make room for Matt Burns’ take on his recent weekend with the $100,000 2020 Lotus Evora GT.
As Burns’ explains:
The Lotus Evora GT is supersized go-kart with nary an advanced technical feature. And I love it. While most cars are coming equipped with supercomputers, the lack of technical wizardry makes the 2020 Evora GT interesting, and that’s why it’s on TechCrunch.
Join Burns on his ride.
As tech companies like Twitter and Facebook gear up for longer-term remote work solutions, the future of work is becoming one of the more exciting opportunities in venture capital, Charles River Ventures general partner Saar Gur told TechCrunch.
And as loneliness mounts with shelter-in-place orders implemented in various forms across the world, investors are looking for products and services that foster true connection among a distributed workforce, as well as a distributed society.
But the future of work doesn’t just entail spinning up home offices. It also involves gig workers, freelancers, hiring tools, tools for workplace organizing and automation. The last couple of years have particularly brought tech organizing to the forefront. Whether it was the Google walkout in 2018 or gig workers’ ongoing actions against companies like Uber, Lyft and Instacart for better pay and protections, there are many opportunities to help workers better organize and achieve their goals.
Below, we’ve gathered insights from:
What are you most excited about in the future of work?
Future of work is one of the most exciting opportunities in venture.
Pre-COVID, few tech companies were fully remote. While it seems obvious in retrospect, the building blocks for fully remote technology companies now exist (e.g. high-speed internet, SaaS and the cloud, reliable video streaming, real-time documents, etc.). And while SIP may be temporary, we feel the TAM of fully remote companies will grow significantly and produce a number of exciting investment opportunities.
I don’t think we have fully grokked what it means to run a company digitally. Today, most processes like interviewing, meetings and performance/activity tracking still live in the world of atoms versus bits. As an example, imagine every meeting is recorded, transcribed and searchable — how would that transform how we work?
There is an opportunity to re-imagine how we work. And we are excited about products that solve meaningful problems in the areas of productivity, brainstorming, communication tools, workflows and more. We also see a lot of potential in infrastructure required to facilitate remote and global teams.
We are also excited by companies that are enabling new types of work. Companies like Etsy (founded 2005), Shopify (2004), TaskTabbit (2008), Uber (2009), DoorDash (2013) and Patreon (2013) have helped create a new workforce of entrepreneurs. But many of these companies are over a decade old and we fully expect a new wave of companies that give more power to the individual.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon ‘Endeavor’ successfully docked with the International Space Station as planned on Sunday morning, marking another key milestone during this historic Commercial Crew demonstration mission it’s conducting with NASA. On board Crew Dragon were NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, the test pilots selected to be the first ever humans to fly on board SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, and the first people ever to make the trip to orbit aboard a spacecraft built by a private company.
The docking process was handled completely autonomously by Crew Dragon itself, which is designed by SpaceX to operate on autopilot from the moment of launch throughout the course of the entire mission. The spacecraft is able to dock with a newer automated international docking adapter installed on the ISS, unlike the original cargo version of Dragon, which required manual capture by the robotic Canadarm 2 controlled by astronauts on the station. The updated cargo Dragon and Crew Dragon are designed to work with the new automated system.
Hurley and Behnken launched at 3:22 PM EDT (12:22 PM PDT) on Saturday, taking off from Cape Canaveral in Florida as planned. It was the second launch attempt for this mission, after weather caused a delay last Wednesday. This mission is NASA and SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Demo-2, which is the second demonstration mission of the full flight and return of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, one of two vehicles commissioned by NASA from commercial partners to provide transportation serves for astronauts to and from the Space Station .
Crossing this milestone means that essentially the first half of the mission has been completed successfully – so far, SpaceX has demonstrated that the launch process works as designed, as does manual control (the astronauts took over and ran two tests of that system), and automated docking.
Next up, with the spacecraft connected to the ISS, the hatch will open and Hurley and Behnken will cross through to the Space Station, where they’ll be greeted by its three astronauts. Hurley and Behnken will then perform standard ISS crew activities, including conducing experiments and research, during the next several weeks before they climb back into Crew Dragon for the final portion of Demo-2 – the trip back to Earth.
Today at around 10:30 AM EDT (7:30 AM PDT), SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will dock with the International Space Station, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board. The two have been in flight on orbit since launching from Kennedy Space Center in Florida yesterday at 3:22 PM EDT, a historic launch that made SpaceX the first private space company to fly people to orbit.
You can watch the livestream above to see the approach and docking maneuver, as well as the transfer process once the hatch opens and Hurley and Behnken make the short trip over from their spacecraft to the ISS. The astronauts will then serve on board the orbital lab for a shortened tour of duty, but taking part in all the activities a regular ISS rotation astronaut would do, before eventually heading home to Earth back aboard Crew Dragon in a few weeks.
This milestone mission is the first crewed flight for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which will certify SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for regular operational missions carrying astronauts from the agency and its partners to and from the Space Station .
Ahead of the docking, the astronauts will be conducting manual tests of the spacecraft’s control system, their second test after an initial trial yesterday shortly after launch. Crew Dragon is designed to fly and dock entirely on its own, but part of this mission is ensuring that the manual controls work as designed in case astronauts ever need to make use of them in an emergency.
Ten years ago, the joke was: “It’s weird how, once everyone started carrying phones with cameras all the time, UFOs stopped visiting, and the cops started beating everyone up.” It was darkly funny, then. Now it feels something more like despairing.
Imagine pitching today as a setting for science fiction, back then:
“The year is 2020. A pandemic that will kill millions ravages the planet. America is masked: some because of the new virus, others as a ward against police surveillance. A global wave of implicit & explicit xenophobia and white supremacy has carried the UK out of Europe, and a narcissistic reality TV star to the presidency, where he fans the flames of America’s rampant police violence, and spars incoherently with the billionaires who control the tech megacorps that dominate the Internet and the economy. Meanwhile, America’s techno-militarized law enforcement agencies use drones, networked cameras, AI-powered facial recognition, and other police-state innovations to aid them in their running battles against an insurgent population which increasingly no longer sees them as legitimate.”
If you had pitched today only ten years ago, you would have been asked with genuine confusion whether it was intended as satire–and then, very possibly, more gently, if everything was OK at home. Yet here we are.
Six years ago I wrote a piece, “The techno-militarization of America” which concluded that “in juicing [the police] with the steroids of military technologies, rules, and attitudes, we have transformed them into a cure almost worse than the disease.” Looking back now, that ‘almost’ seems embarrassingly naïve.
I’ve seen multiple independent sources refer to the events of this week as a ‘legitimacy crisis,’ triggered by a common-knowledge collapse: a moment when everyone realizes that a belief they did not speak about, thinking it fringe and wild, is in fact also held by an enormous number of their peers. Nine years ago, when it was still possible to be optimistic about the effect Facebook would have on society, that sort of collapse is believed to have triggered the Arab Spring.
Here, the cultural collapse appears to be precipitating around the concept “all cops are bastards.” Once that catchphrase was something I only heard from my furthest of far-left punk and anticapitalist acquaintances. Let’s just say that the line of demarcation has moved in towards the mainstream a lot. As in the Arab Spring, this apparent common-knowledge collapse was catalyzed by a single awful death, then spread with remarkable speed, fueled in large part by social media.
Of course America is a huge and diverse place which includes many communities who have long–understandably–viewed the police as an illegitimate occupying army. (Often literally: “In about two-thirds of the U.S. cities with the largest police forces, the majority of police officers commute to work from another town.”)
What’s different is that this attitude seems to be accelerating nationwide. A few random examples from my own social media of late include — all white, since it matters — a battery researcher, a rocket technologist, and a middle-aged Minnesotan mother of teenagers describing the Minneapolis police as “a suburban occupying force.”
Those are anecdotes, so here’s some data: in 2007, Pew Research reported that 37% of black Americans, and a whopping 74% of white Americans, had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in police to “treat races equally.” If you add those who indicated “just some” confidence, those numbers go up to 51% and 82%.
Twelve years later, the numbers who said that Americans of all races are generally treated fairly equally by police had fallen by more than half, to 16% and 37% respectively. In 2017, a sizable majority of all Americans agreed that “the deaths of blacks during encounters with police during recent years are signs of a broader problem”–while 72% of white police officers disagreed.
What do you think those numbers would be today? Given the scale of the disagreement, and the rapid loss of faith, is the prospect of a sudden legitimacy collapse really so surprising?
You’ll note that the Arab Spring didn’t last long, and was ultimately followed by bitter winter (except arguably in Tunisia where it began.) I’m not especially optimistic that this will be a profound national turning point in America. But I am hopeful it may shake the attitude among county and city governments that police and police unions should be treated as a local Praetorian Guard, to whom is owed unquestioning gratitude, a blind eye when a body camera happens to wink off before a suspect suffers an injury or death, and zero or toothless civilian oversight.
I’ve been to a lot of countries whose police are not perceived as legitimate; where it’s widely understood, across disparate communities, that whatever the situation, you think twice before involving the cops, because they’ll very likely just make things worse. America feels increasingly like such a country. Let’s hope the de-techno-militarization, and de-white-supremacization, of law enforcement happens before the nation spins into that kind of vicious cycle … because once there, it’s terrifyingly hard to break free. After the events of last night, you have to at least wonder whether it’s already too late.
SpaceX on Saturday launched two NASA astronauts aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft, and the accomplishment is a tremendous one for both the company and the U.S. space agency. At a fundamental level, it means that the U.S. will have continued access to the International Space Station, without having to rely on continuing to buy tickets aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to do so. But it also means the beginning of a new era for the commercial space industry – one in which private companies and individual buying tickets for passenger trips to space is a consistent and active reality.
With this mission, SpaceX will complete the final step required by NASA to human-rate its Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon spacecraft, which means that it can begin operationally transporting people from Earth essentially as soon as this mission concludes (Crew Dragon still has to rendezvous with the space station tomorrow, and make its way back to Earth with astronauts on board in a few weeks). Already, SpaceX has signed an agreement with Space Adventures, a private space tourism booking company that has previously worked with Roscosmos on sending private astronauts to orbit.
SpaceX wants to start sending up paying tourists on orbital flights (without any ISS stops) starting as early as next year aboard Crew Dragon. The capsule actually supports up to seven passengers per flight, though only four seats will ever be used for official NASA crew delivery missions for the space station. SpaceX hasn’t released pricing on private trips aboard the aircraft, but you can bet they’ll be expensive since a Falcon 9 launch (without a human rated capsule) costs around $60 million, and so even dividing that by seven works out to a high price of entry.
So this isn’t the beginning of the era of accessible private spaceflight, but SpaceX is the first private company to actually put people into space, despite a lot of talk and preparatory work by competitors like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. And just like in the private launch business, crossing the gulf between having a private company that talks about doing something, and a company that actually does it, will absolutely transform the space industry all over again.
SpaceX is gearing up to launch tourists as early as next year, as mentioned, and while those tourists will have to be deep-pocketed, as eight everything that SpaceX does, the goal is to continue to find ways to make more aspects of the launch system reusable and reduce costs of launch in order to bring prices down.
Even without driving down costs, SpaceX will have a market, however niche, and one that hasn’t yet really had any inventory to satisfy demand. Space Adventures has flown a few individuals by buying tickets on Soyuz launches, but that hasn’t really been a consistent or sustainable source of commercial human spaceflight, and SpaceX’s system will likely have active support and participation from NASA.
That’s an entirely new revenue stream for SpaceX to add to its commercial cargo launches, along with its eventual launch of commercial internet service via Starlink. It’s hard to say yet what kind of impact that will actually have on their bottom line, but it could be big enough to have an impact – especially if they can figure out creative ways to defray costs over successive years, since each cut will likely considerably expand their small addressable audience.
SpaceX’s impact on the launch business was to effectively create a market for small satellites and more affordable orbital payloads that simply didn’t make any economic sense with larger existing launch craft, most of which were bankrolled almost entirely by and for defence and NASA use. Similarly, it’s hard to predict what the space tourism market will look like in five years, now that a company is actually offering it and flying a human-rated private spacecraft that can make it happen.
Private spacefarers won’t all be tourists – in fact, it could make a lot more financial sense for the majority of passengers to and from orbit to be private scientists and researchers. Basically, imagine a NASA astronaut, but working for a private company rather than a publicly-funded agency.
Astronauts are essentially multidisciplinary scientists, and the bulk of their job is conducing experiments on the ISS. NASA is very eager to expand commercial use of the ISS, and also to eventually replace the aging space station with a private one of which they’re just one of multiple customers. Already, the ISS hosts commercial experiments and cargo, but if companies and institutions can now also send their own researchers as well, that may change considerably how much interest their is in doing work on orbit, especially in areas like biotech where the advantages of low gravity can produce results not possible on Earth.
Cost is a gain a significant limiting factor here, since the price per seat will be – no pun intended – astronomical. But for big pharma and other large companies who already spend a considerable amount on R&D it might actually be within reach. Especially in industries like additive manufacturing, where orbit is an area of immense interest, private space-based labs with actual rotating staff might not be that farfetched an idea.
Commercial human spaceflight might actually be a great opportunity to make actual commercials – brands trying to outdo each other by shooting the first promo in space definitely seems like a likely outcome for a Superbowl spot. It’s probably not anyone’s priority just now, given the ongoing global pandemic, but companies have already discussed the potential of marketing partnerships as a key driver of real revenue, including lunar lander startup ispace, which has signed a number of brand partners to fund the build and flight of its hardware.
Single person rides to orbit are definitely within budget for the most extreme marketing efforts out there, and especially early on, there should be plenty of return on that investment just because of how audacious and unique the move is. The novelty will likely wear off, but access to space will remain rarified enough for the forseeable future that it could still be part of more than a few marketing campaigns.
As for entertainment, we’ve already seen the first evidence of interest there – Tom Cruise is working on a project to be filmed at least in part in space, apparently on board the International Space Station. SpaceX is said to be involved in those talks, and it would make a lot of sense for the company to consider a Crew Dragon flight with film crew and actors on board for both shooting, and for transportation to ‘on location’ shoots on the ISS.
Cruise probably isn’t the only one to consider the impact of a space-based motion picture project, and you can bet at least one reality show producer somewhere is already pitching ‘The Bachelor’ in space. Again, it’s not going to be within budget for every new sci-fi project that spins up, but it’s within blockbuster budget range, and that’s another market that grew by 100% just by virtue of the fact that it didn’t exist as a possibility before today.
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley took over manual control of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on Saturday, shortly after the vehicle’s historic first launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Crew Dragon is designed to fly entirely autonomous throughout the full duration of its missions, including automated docking, de-orbit and landing procedures, but it has manual control systems in case anything should go wrong and the astronauts have to take over. This test is the first time the manual controls have been used in space, and is a key part of certifying Crew Dragon for regularly operational human flight.
Astronaut Bob Behnken and Hurley removed their fashionable SpaceX space suits just before Hurley completed the manual maneuvers, which is also part of the plan. They’re able to go without the suits in the pressurized cabin during its transit to the ISS, only needing to put them back on for space station docking, and the interior of Crew Dragon actually provides them a fair amount of room to move around in. This also makes it easier for them to operate the spacecraft controls.
The manual maneuver testing including Hurley going through the process of using the spacecraft’s touchscreen controls to put the capsule into what’s called LVLH (local vertical local horizontal ) attitude, using Earth as a reference navigation point. That basically means putting Dragon in the same orientation as an airplane flying over Earth, with the planet located ‘underneath’ the Dragon as it flies. The test involves notifying the flight computer to not take over as Hurley conducts the maneuvers, but doesn’t involve actually finalizing the control orders by sending them to the flight computer, since it will be the one actually completing the automated flight and docking process.
Hurley will conduct two tests during the mission, the one he just did called a “far-field” flight test because it’s far away from the ISS, and one called the “near-field” test which will be conducted when they’re closer to the station.
You can actually try out the manual control system that Behnken and Hurley used yourself – no spaceship required. All you need is a browser, and this ISS Docking Simulator created and released by SpaceX. It’s a bit tricky, but not as hard as you might think thanks to an intuitive control interface design.
“A drone is a camera,” Ani Acopian begins simply. “And it can fly. It’s basically a flying super-camera! I’d love to see more film and TV productions embrace the nimble and magical nature of drones and use them for more than bird’s eye view establishing shots.”
The director’s video for London-based record label AWAL (Artists Without a Label) unfolds like a minute-long homage to the narrative potential of UAVs. It lifts off from a desk, flies out a sliding-glass window, up over the room, down a stairwell and through a car. There’s a restaurant, some skaters in an empty pool, a parking lot junk yard and a backyard pool party. It’s a bright, sun-shiny picture of Southern California in a time before social distancing turned us all into nocturnal weirdos.
The sequence is stitched together to give the appearance on long shot. That’s particularly the work of some editing magic, which pulled together a still-impressive five shots to create the final product. The result comes in no small part due to the flying of Robert McIntosh. The pilot, who had previously collaborated with director Spike Jonze on the 2012 skate video “Pretty Sweet,” custom built the drone.
Weighing in at 120 grams, it was built by removing the camera from a GoPro Hero 6. That, along with the associated wires, were transferred onto the body of a racing drone. The result was palm-sized and fragile, with a dismal battery life of around three to five minutes a go. But the tiny size also allowed for an extremely nimble flying camera capable of shooting 4K video. The drone was flown at a slow speed, with McIntosh piloting through a pair of FPV racing goggles, with radio guidance from director of photography, Eric Maloney.
Acopian says the nature of the shoot required a fair bit of improvisation on the part of the crew, particularly with some scene utilizing up to 60 extras. Each were given a specific action to perform, while the director sat far away, giving directions through a bullhorn, so as to not be picked up through the camera’s wide-angle lens.
“We weren’t able to rehearse with the cast or block out a flight path with the drone ahead of time,” she explains, “so the biggest challenge was showing up at a new location each morning and figuring out what the drone path, talent blocking and VFX markers would be, then rehearsing as much we could up until around two hours before sundown, at which point we had as many takes as we could fit into that two-hour window to nail the shot. If something wasn’t working, we changed it because otherwise we put the whole scene at risk of not happening.”
Each scene naturally required multiple takes — up to 15 in some cases. And yes, that fragile little drone did crash a few times — though it was mostly no worse for wear.
“There was one crash that gave us all a scare, which happened while filming the scene where a partygoer gets caked,” Acopian adds. “The actress took a step back, directly into the path of the flying drone, and the drone got caught in their hair and turned off. Luckily, she was chill with getting a little bit of her hair snipped off so we could get the drone out, and the guys were able to patch it up in about 20 minutes. Twenty minutes later we were shooting again and she took another cake to the face. A true hero.”
After the shoot, the video was processed through ReelSteady — stabilization software created by McIntosh, which was acquired by GoPro back in March. Then it was effects company Alpha Studios’ job to help stitch things together into one continuous shot.
“We originally wanted to make every transition completely seamless and hidden, but locations and logistics meant that we had to make most of our transitions stylized. We worked closely with Alpha Studios to plot out where one shot would end and where the preceding shot would begin,” producer Jeremiah Warren says. “Kaitlyn Yang, from Alpha Studios, was the on-set VFX supervisor and was key in helping us figure out these transition points that her team blended with VFX in post-production.”
The result is a lovely little glimpse into how drones can extend beyond the customary establishing shot and take a deeper storytelling role in the process.
“I know that the future for droning is very bright, and I anticipate that we’ll start to see drones used in ways that don’t immediately give away their ‘drone-ness,’ like to feign camera movements that would otherwise be difficult to achieve,” says Acopian. “You don’t have to be high to fly! Drones, especially FPV drones, have this fluidity to them that beautifully mirrors the way memories feel to me and I’m excited to see more people play with this to recreate the inner experience so many of us have in a new, relatable way.”
SpaceX made history today, flying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to space aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft using a Falcon 9 rocket. The launch, titled ‘Demo-2’, is for the final demonstration mission in the human rating process of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Falcon 9, meaning that once this mission is complete, the launch vehicle will finally be certified for operational use for regular transportation of people to space. This was the second attempt, after an initial launch try last Wednesday was scrubbed due to weather conditions.
This is the first time ever that humans have been aboard a SpaceX vehicle as it launched. To date, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have succeeded in delivering multiple cargo payloads to orbit, but Behnken and Hurley are the first people to make the trip with the private spaceflight company.
SpaceX also successfully landed its first stage booster from the Falcon 9 used today – which means it will recover the first private spacecraft booster that has ever delivered human astronauts to space.
NASA created the Commercial Crew space program to spur the development of private launch vehicles that would also be able to serve commercial customers in addition to the agency, in order to defray the cost of launch overall. Both SpaceX and Boeing ended up placing winning bids on the Commercial Crew contracts, and have subsequently developed human launch systems, though SpaceX is the first to actually fly people on their vehicle after Boeing encountered some unexpected issues in their last uncrewed demonstration flight.
It’s been multiple decades since a human took off from U.S. soil on a brand new launch vehicle, and this is also the first time anyone has flown to space from an American launch site since the Space Shuttle program was officially retired in 2011. Returning U.S. spaceflight capabilities also means NASA won’t have to rely on Russia’s Roscosmos and its Soyuz spacecraft exclusively to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) – could save more than $30 million per astronaut per trip as a result.
Today’s launch kicks off a multi-week mission for Behnken and Hurley, which next involves a rendezvous with the ISS around 19 hours from now. Crew Dragon will first take around 30 minutes to perform a manual control test, wherein Behnken and Hurley will take over and fly the spacecraft themselves. This isn’t what would normally happen on a normal Crew Dragon mission, since the spacecraft is designed to make the trip to ISS on its own operating entirely in an automated manner.
After that manual control test, Crew Dragon will once again take over and then fly the remainder of the way to the ISS, where it’ll dock itself with an entry hatch on the station. From there, Behnken and Hurley will transfer over to the station, where they’re set to stay for a period of between six and sixteen weeks, depending on NASA’s determination of how long the mission should last. This is somewhat dependent on staffing requirements on board the ISS, since currently there’s only one U.S. astronaut there in an operational capacity, and Hurley and Behnken will be tasked with assisting with experiments and maintenance on the station.
Once it’s determined when they’re coming back, they’ll climb back aboard the Crew Dragon, seal it up and then detach from the station. This return part of the program is also designed to be fully automated, with the spacecraft preforming the necessary boost-back engine firing to control its re-entry and descent. Once in atmosphere, it’ll release its parachutes to slow the fall back to Earth, and coast to a landing in the Atlantic Ocean, where SpaceX crews will recover the capsule and provide the astronauts their ride back to dry land.
SpaceX plans to begin flying astronauts to the ISS for fully, regular operational missions later this year if all goes well, and it has also signed agreements to begin offering berths to paying passengers for Crew Dragon space tourist trips (likely with an extremely high price tag) as early as next year.
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Most tech companies base compensation on an employee’s local cost of living, in addition to their skills and responsibilities. The pandemic-era push to remote work seems to be reinforcing that — if you only skim the headlines. For example, Facebook said last week that it would be readjusting salaries for employees who have relocated away from the Bay Area.
But Connie Loizos caught up with a few well-placed people who see something else happening. First, here’s Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic (WordPress), which has been almost entirely remote for its long and successful history.
“Long term, I think market forces and the mobility of talent will force employers to stop discriminating on the basis of geography for geographically agnostic roles,” he told Connie for TechCrunch.
Mullenweg went on to detail how the process was still complicated, and that his company did not yet have a universal approach. But ultimately, he thinks that for “moral and competitive reasons, companies will move toward globally fair compensation over time with roles that can be done from anywhere.”
Connie also talked to Jon Holman, a tech recruiter who is living and breathing the new world, in a separate article for Extra Crunch. The market forces will ultimately favor talent, he concurs, and companies that want talent will pay according to what they can afford. “If a good AI or machine learning engineer is working elsewhere and demand for those skills still exceeds supply,” Holman explained, “and his or her company pays less than for the same job in Palo Alto, then that person is just going to jump to another company in his or her own geography.”
Our weekly staff survey for Extra Crunch is about retail — will it exist? how? A few of our staffers who cover related topics weighed in:
Natasha Mascarenhas says retailers will need to find new ways to sell aspirational products — and what was once cringe-worthy might now be considered innovative.
Devin Coldewey sees businesses adopting a slew of creative digital services to prepare for the future and empower them without Amazon’s platform.
Greg Kumparak thinks the delivery and curbside pickup trends will move from pandemic-essentials to everyday occurrences. He thinks that retailers will need to find new ways to appeal to consumers in a “shopping-by-proxy” world.
Lucas Matney views a revitalized interest in technology around the checkout process, as retailers look for ways to make the purchasing experience more seamless (and less high-touch).
We also ran two investor surveys this week, with Matt Burns producing one on manufacturing and Megan Rose Dickey and Kirsten Korosec following up on their autonomous vehicles series.
Maybe you could use some more money, distribution and partnerships these days? Those are the eternal lures of corporate venture funding sources, but each strategic VC has a different mandate. Some are there to help the parent company, some are just there to make money… and some may be on thin ice themselves given the way that they get money to invest.
If you’re taking a fresh look at getting strategic funding now, check out this set of overview articles from Bill Growney, a partner at top tech law firm Goodwin, and Scott Orn of Kruze Consulting. The first, for TechCrunch, goes over how corporate funds are typically structured (and motivated). The second, for Extra Crunch, covers questions for startup founders to anticipate and other recommendations for dealing with this type of VC.
It is high times for meditation and “mindfulness” apps, as people look for ways to adjust to pandemic life. Sarah Perez, our resident app expert, took a look at a new app store analysis on TechCrunch, shredded some of the top-ranked companies for opportunistic marketing, and came away with a positive feeling about the global market leader.
Calm, meanwhile, took a different approach. It launched a page of free resources, but instead focused on partnerships to expand free access to more users, while also growing its business. Earlier this month, nonprofit health system Kaiser Permanente announced it was making the Calm app’s Premium subscription free for its members, for example — the first health system to do so.
The company’s decision to not pursue as many free giveaways meant it may have missed the easy boost from press coverage. However, it may be a better long-term strategy as it sets up Calm for distribution partnerships that could continue beyond the immediate COVID-19 crisis.
Mindfulness pays. On that note, subscribers can read her excellent This Week In Apps report every Saturday over on Extra Crunch.
Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines. This week’s show took a break from regularly scheduled programming. Our co-host Alex Wilhelm, who usually leads us through the show, was on some much-deserved vacation, so Danny Crichton and Natasha Mascarenhas took the reigns and invited Floodgate Capital’s Iris Choi to join in on the fun. It’s Choi’s fourth time being on the podcast, which officially makes her our most tenured guest yet (in case the accomplished investor needs another bullet point on her bio page).
This week’s docket features scrappiness, a seed round and a Startup Battlefield alumnus.
Here’s what we chewed through:
And that was the show! Thanks to our producer Chris Gates for helping us put this together, thanks to you all for listening in on this quirky episode and thanks to Iris Choi for always bringing a fresh, candid perspective. Talk next week.