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Main article: Transportation

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NASA’s advanced vision system for its supersonic test jet is undergoing a key stress test

23:32 | 27 January

NASA is keeping things moving with its X-59 program – the one where it’s developing a modern supersonic aircraft that proves the viability of lessening the traditional supersonic ‘boom’ to a mere supersonic ‘thump,’ in order to show that supersonic commercial passenger flights over land could be a real thing. The agency has already developed and flight-tested an innovative ‘eXternal Vision System’ (XVS) which replaces a traditional transparent windshield to provide the X-59 pilot with a view as they fly, and now they’re subjecting that system to a high-frequency shake test to ensure it’s rigorous enough to work under the typical range of in-flight conditions.

The XVS has actually already flown – last August, it was loaded aboard a decidedly non-supersonic aircraft (the Beechcraft King Air UC-12B to be exact), which let the team working on the system show that it could do everything they needed it to in terms of providing pilots with real-time visibility of the air in front of them. Those tests showed that the XVS theory, technology and implementation all worked as intended, through use and feedback from real test pilots, but they didn’t show that the XVS hardware was able to withstand the kinds of stresses it might encounter when loaded in a fully built X-59 that’s flying faster than the speed of sound.

Obviously, NASA doesn’t want to wait until the X-59’s first flight to figure out if the XVS can handle said flight. That’s why things like the shake testing it’s doing now are so important. The shake test will expose the VS computer, displays and cameras to the kinds of vibrations it would experience during a typical flight. This is technically ‘pre-qualification’ testing, which just means that it’s not supposed to strain the equipment to any extremes just yet. Provided everything goes to plan with this round of vibration tests, the next step will be qualification testing – in which the equipment will indeed be tested to its failure point on purpose.

All of this is prelude to the XVS being installed on the X-59 itself (there will still be temperature and altitude testing before that happens, though) and eventually, flying the aircraft. That’s when NASA hopes to show that the technologies it has developed in building the X-59 could usher in an entirely new era of commercial air travel – one in which supersonic planes regularly zip across populated stretches of land without scaring the crap out of the people on the ground.

 


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Uber’s Shin-pei Tsay is coming to TC Sessions: Mobility

00:26 | 24 January

Government and policy experts are among the most important people in the future of transportation. Any company pursuing the shared scooters and bikes business, ride-hailing, on-demand shuttles and eventually autonomous vehicles has to have someone, or a team of people, who can work with cities.

Enter Shin-pein Tsay, the director of policy, cities and transportation at Uber . TechCrunch is excited to announce that Tsay will join us on stage at TC Sessions: Mobility, a one-day conference dedicated to the future of mobility and transportation.

If there’s one person who is at the center of this universe, it’s Tsay. In her current role at Uber, she leads a team of issues experts focused on what Uber calls a “sustainable multi-modal urban future.”

Tsay is also founder. Prior to Uber, she founded a social impact analysis company called Make Public. She was also the deputy executive director of TransitCenter, a national foundation focused on improving urban transportation. She also founded and directed the cities and transportation program under the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

For the past four years, Shinpei has served as a commissioner for the City of New York Public Design Commission. She is on the board of the national non-profit In Our Backyard.

Stay tuned, we’ll have more speaker announcements in the coming weeks. In case you missed it, TechCrunch has already announced Ike co-founder and chief engineer Nancy Sun, Waymo’s head of trucking Boris Sofman and Trucks VC’s Reilly Brennan will be participating in TC Sessions: Mobility.

Don’t forget that $250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9; book today.

Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.

 


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Waymo’s self-driving trucks and minivans are headed to New Mexico and Texas

22:55 | 23 January

Waymo said Thursday it will begin mapping and eventually testing its autonomous long-haul trucks in Texas and parts of New Mexico, the latest sign that the Alphabet company is expanding beyond its core focus of launching a robotaxi business.

Waymo said in a tweet posted early Thursday it had picked these areas because they are “interesting and promising commercial routes.” Waymo also said it would “explore how the Waymo Driver” — the company’s branded self-driving system — could be used to “create new transportation solutions.”

Waymo plans to mostly focus on interstates because Texas has a particularly high freight volume, the company said. The program will begin with mapping conducted by Waymo’s Chrysler Pacifica minivans.

The mapping and eventual testing will occur on highways around Dallas, Houston and El Paso. In New Mexico, Waymo will focus on the southern most part of the state.

Interstate 10 will be a critical stretch of highway in both states — and one that is already a testbed for TuSimple, a self-driving trucking startup that has operations in Tucson and San Diego. TuSimple tests and carries freight along the Tucson to Phoenix corridor on I-10. The company also tests on I-10 in New Mexico and Texas.

 

Waymo, which is best known for its pursuit of a robotaxi service, integrated its self-driving system into Class 8 trucks and began testing them in Arizona in August 2017. The company stopped testing its trucks on Arizona roads sometime later that year. The company brought back its truck testing to Arizona in May 2019.

Those early Arizona tests were aimed at gathering initial information about driving trucks in the region, while the new round of truck testing in Arizona marks a more advanced stage in the program’s development, Waymo said at the time.

Waymo has been testing its self-driving trucks in a handful of locations in the U.S., including Arizona, the San Francisco area and Atlanta. In 2018, the company announced plans to use its self-driving trucks to deliver freight bound for Google’s  data centers in Atlanta.

 


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Indian bike rental startup Bounce raises $105M

08:21 | 23 January

Bounce, a Bangalore-based startup that operates over 15,000 electric and gasoline docked bikes in nearly three dozen cities in India, said today it has raised $105 million in a new funding round as it explores sustainable ways to expand within the nation and build its own electric vehicles.

The new financing round, Series D, was co-led by existing investors Eduardo Saverin’s B Capital and Accel Partners India, said the startup. The new round valued Bounce at a little over $500 million, up from about $200 million in June last year, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

TechCrunch reported in late November that Bounce was in advanced stages of talks to raise $150 million at over $500 million valuation. The startup has raised $194 million to date.

Bounce, formerly known as Metro Bikes, allows customers to rent a scooter and pay 10.5 Indian rupees (15 cents) for each kilometer of the ride. The platform clocks 1.2 million rides each day.

Bounce earlier deployed its own operations team in each city and flooded the market with its scooters, but in recent quarters it has changed the strategy, said co-founder and chief executive Vivekananda Hallekere in an interview with TechCrunch.

“We realized that it was not the smartest move to expand Bounce’s network on our own,” he said. The startup now works with mom-and-pop stores and local merchants in each city and they run their own operations.

To date, Bounce has replicated this model in six cities in India and has partnered with over 250,000 shops and merchants. “We launch in the cities with our own vehicles, but overtime, these micro-entrepreneurs deploy their own scooters. They are still using our app, and are part of the Bounce platform, but they don’t have to be locked into our scooter ecosystem,” he explained.

The change in strategy comes as Bounce looks to cut expenses and find a sustainable way to expand. “Otherwise, I would need a billion dollar of debt to launch a million vehicles in India,” he said. “We wanted a model that is scalable and profitable, and helps us create the most impact.”

More to follow…

 


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Inside Skip’s plan to appeal San Francisco’s scooter permit decision

19:00 | 22 January

Electric scooter operator Skip is gearing up to appeal San Francisco’s decision to not grant it a permit to operate in the city. When the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) announced the permit grantees in September, it came as a surprise to Skip, which had previously received a permit to operate as part of the city’s pilot program.

Ahead of the appeal hearing last Thursday, TechCrunch caught up with Skip CEO Sanjay Dastoor to learn about the company’s game plan and why he thinks it can prevail in a battle that other electric scooter providers have lost.

Prior to the city’s decision last year to grant permits to Lime, Uber’s JUMP, Bird’s Scoot and Ford’s Spin, Skip was one of only two companies operating shared electric scooter services in San Francisco. Leading up to the new permitting application process, Skip said it had been working to ensure its electronic locks would be fully integrated by the beginning of the new permit period, Dastoor told TechCrunch. The company did this with guidance from the SFMTA, so when Skip was denied a permit, the team was caught off guard.

“It was a huge surprise,” Dastoor said. “We found out basically the same time as the press did that we didn’t get that permit, so it was pretty surprising to all of us.”

 


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Boom Supersonic partners with Flight Research to test its XB-1 supersonic aircraft

19:31 | 21 January

Supersonic aviation startup Boom is making progress on its XB-1 demonstrator aircraft, the airplane that will prove out its tech and pave the way for construction of its future production commercial supersonic passenger jets. The Denver-based startup has partnered with Flight Research, Inc., a company that specializes in flight testing and certification, as well as pilot training.

The XB-1 demonstrator aircraft will be tested with support from Flight Research, Inc., with Boom hoping to fly the aircraft over the Mojave desert in a stretch used for supersonic testing. As part of the deal, Flight Research will be providing Boom with a hanger at the Mojave Air and Space Port to fly from, and a T-38 talon supersonic trainer aircraft which will be used both to train the XB-1’s test pilots, and to trail the Boom aircraft for observation while it’s in flight.

Boom is in the process of building the XB-1, which will be used to test and refine the final design of Overture, the passenger commercial airliner it eventually hopes to build. Already, Boom says development of the subscale XB-1 has lead to improvements of the design elements it’s going to be using to construct Oveture. The flight controls system and engines on XB-1 are already fully complete, and the company is now working on finishing touches on the cockpit construction, with about half of the work still left to go on the fuselage, and a third of the construction of the wings still to be done. Its first flight is currently planned for sometime later this year.

 


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TechCrunch’s Top 10 investigative reports from 2019

17:30 | 19 January

Facebook spying on teens, Twitter accounts hijacked by terrorists, and sexual abuse imagery found on Bing and Giphy were amongst the ugly truths revealed by TechCrunch’s investigating reporting in 2019. The tech industry needs more watchdogs than ever as its size enlargens the impact of safety failures and the abuse of power. Whether through malice, naivety, or greed, there was plenty of wrongdoing to sniff out.

Led by our security expert Zack Whittaker, TechCrunch undertook more long-form investigations this year to tackle these growing issues. Our coverage of fundraises, product launches, and glamorous exits only tell half the story. As perhaps the biggest and longest running news outlet dedicated to startups (and the giants they become), we’re responsible for keeping these companies honest and pushing for a more ethical and transparent approach to technology.

If you have a tip potentially worthy of an investigation, contact TechCrunch at tips@techcrunch.com or by using our anonymous tip line’s form.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Here are our top 10 investigations from 2019, and their impact:

Facebook pays teens to spy on their data

Josh Constine’s landmark investigation discovered that Facebook was paying teens and adults $20 in gift cards per month to install a VPN that sent Facebook all their sensitive mobile data for market research purposes. The laundry list of problems with Facebook Research included not informing 187,000 users the data would go to Facebook until they signed up for “Project Atlas”, not receiving proper parental consent for over 4300 minors, and threatening legal action if a user spoke publicly about the program. The program also abused Apple’s enterprise certificate program designed only for distribution of employee-only apps within companies to avoid the App Store review process.

The fallout was enormous. Lawmakers wrote angry letters to Facebook. TechCrunch soon discovered a similar market research program from Google called Screenwise Meter that the company promptly shut down. Apple punished both Google and Facebook by shutting down all their employee-only apps for a day, causing office disruptions since Facebookers couldn’t access their shuttle schedule or lunch menu. Facebook tried to claim the program was above board, but finally succumbed to the backlash and shut down Facebook Research and all paid data collection programs for users under 18. Most importantly, the investigation led Facebook to shut down its Onavo app, which offered a VPN but in reality sucked in tons of mobile usage data to figure out which competitors to copy. Onavo helped Facebook realize it should acquire messaging rival WhatsApp for $19 billion, and it’s now at the center of anti-trust investigations into the company. TechCrunch’s reporting weakened Facebook’s exploitative market surveillance, pitted tech’s giants against each other, and raised the bar for transparency and ethics in data collection.

Protecting The WannaCry Kill Switch

Zack Whittaker’s profile of the heroes who helped save the internet from the fast-spreading WannaCry ransomware reveals the precarious nature of cybersecurity. The gripping tale documenting Marcus Hutchins’ benevolent work establishing the WannaCry kill switch may have contributed to a judge’s decision to sentence him to just one year of supervised release instead of 10 years in prison for an unrelated charge of creating malware as a teenager.

The dangers of Elon Musk’s tunnel

TechCrunch contributor Mark Harris’ investigation discovered inadequate emergency exits and more problems with Elon Musk’s plan for his Boring Company to build a Washington D.C.-to-Baltimore tunnel. Consulting fire safety and tunnel engineering experts, Harris build a strong case for why state and local governments should be suspicious of technology disrupters cutting corners in public infrastructure.

Bing image search is full of child abuse

Josh Constine’s investigation exposed how Bing’s image search results both showed child sexual abuse imagery, but also suggested search terms to innocent users that would surface this illegal material. A tip led Constine to commission a report by anti-abuse startup AntiToxin (now L1ght), forcing Microsoft to commit to UK regulators that it would make significant changes to stop this from happening. However, a follow-up investigation by the New York Times citing TechCrunch’s report revealed Bing had made little progress.

Expelled despite exculpatory data

Zack Whittaker’s investigation surfaced contradictory evidence in a case of alleged grade tampering by Tufts student Tiffany Filler who was questionably expelled. The article casts significant doubt on the accusations, and that could help the student get a fair shot at future academic or professional endeavors.

Burned by an educational laptop

Natasha Lomas’ chronicle of troubles at educational computer hardware startup pi-top, including a device malfunction that injured a U.S. student. An internal email revealed the student had suffered a “a very nasty finger burn” from a pi-top 3 laptop designed to be disassembled. Reliability issues swelled and layoffs ensued. The report highlights how startups operating in the physical world, especially around sensitive populations like students, must make safety a top priority.

Giphy fails to block child abuse imagery

Sarah Perez and Zack Whittaker teamed up with child protection startup L1ght to expose Giphy’s negligence in blocking sexual abuse imagery. The report revealed how criminals used the site to share illegal imagery, which was then accidentally indexed by search engines. TechCrunch’s investigation demonstrated that it’s not just public tech giants who need to be more vigilant about their content.

Airbnb’s weakness on anti-discrimination

Megan Rose Dickey explored a botched case of discrimination policy enforcement by Airbnb when a blind and deaf traveler’s reservation was cancelled because they have a guide dog. Airbnb tried to just “educate” the host who was accused of discrimination instead of levying any real punishment until Dickey’s reporting pushed it to suspend them for a month. The investigation reveals the lengths Airbnb goes to in order to protect its money-generating hosts, and how policy problems could mar its IPO.

Expired emails let terrorists tweet propaganda

Zack Whittaker discovered that Islamic State propaganda was being spread through hijacked Twitter accounts. His investigation revealed that if the email address associated with a Twitter account expired, attackers could re-register it to gain access and then receive password resets sent from Twitter. The article revealed the savvy but not necessarily sophisticated ways terrorist groups are exploiting big tech’s security shortcomings, and identified a dangerous loophole for all sites to close.

Porn & gambling apps slip past Apple

Josh Constine found dozens of pornography and real-money gambling apps had broken Apple’s rules but avoided App Store review by abusing its enterprise certificate program — many based in China. The report revealed the weak and easily defrauded requirements to receive an enterprise certificate. Seven months later, Apple revealed a spike in porn and gambling app takedown requests from China. The investigation could push Apple to tighten its enterprise certificate policies, and proved the company has plenty of its own problems to handle despite CEO Tim Cook’s frequent jabs at the policies of other tech giants.

Bonus: HQ Trivia employees fired for trying to remove CEO

This Game Of Thrones-worthy tale was too intriguing to leave out, even if the impact was more of a warning to all startup executives. Josh Constine’s look inside gaming startup HQ Trivia revealed a saga of employee revolt in response to its CEO’s ineptitude and inaction as the company nose-dived. Employees who organized a petition to the board to remove the CEO were fired, leading to further talent departures and stagnation. The investigation served to remind startup executives that they are responsible to their employees, who can exert power through collective action or their exodus.

If you have a tip for Josh Constine, you can reach him via encrypted Signal or text at (585)750-5674, joshc at TechCrunch dot com, or through Twitter DMs

 


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Delta Air Line’s startup partnerships are fueling innovation

21:58 | 14 January

For the first time, this year Delta Air Lines had a large presence at CES. The carrier used much of its space to highlight the “parallel reality” screens developed by Misapplied Sciences and Sarcos Robotics, which brought its latest Guardian exoskeleton. At the show, I sat down with COO Gil West, an industry veteran with years of experience at a number of airlines and airplane manufacturers, to talk about how the company works with these startups.

Like all large companies, Delta has gone through a bit of a digital transformation in recent years by rebuilding a lot of the technical infrastructure that powers its internal and external services (though like all airlines, it also still has plenty of legacy tech that is hard to replace). This work enabled the company to move faster, rethink a lot of its processes and heightened the reality that a lot of this innovation has to come from outside the company.

“If you think about where we are as a world right now, it’s a Renaissance period for transportation,” West said. “Now, fortunately, we’re right in the middle of it, but if you think about the different modes of transportation and autonomous and electrification — and the technologies like AI and ML — everything is converging. There’s truly, I think, a transportation revolution — and we’ll play in it.

 


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Wear your helmet, concludes new study showing electronic scooter injuries have nearly tripled in the last four years

21:27 | 13 January

Taking a ride on an electronic scooter soon? Wear your helmet! According to a recent study published in JAMA Surgery, not wearing headgear or taking other precautions while riding is increasingly sending young people to the hospital — leading to over 40,000 broken bones, head wounds and other injuries.

Unfortunately, less than 5% of riders in the study were found to be wearing their helmet, leading to nearly one-third of patients having a head injury. That’s more than double the rate of head injuries experienced by bicyclists.

The rise is likely due to the increasingly popular adoption of scooters among young people in urban areas. Electronic scooter injuries for those age 18-34 increased overall by 222% and injuries sending riders to the hospital rose by 365% from 2014-2018, with the most dramatic increase in the last year. Close to two-thirds of those with scooter injuries were young men and most were not wearing head protection.

“There was a high proportion of people with head injuries, which can be very dangerous,” said Breyer, an associate professor of urology and chief of urology at UCSF partner hospital Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. “Altogether, the near doubling of e-scooter trauma from 2017 to 2018 indicates that there should be better rider safety measures and regulation.”

Right now there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of requirements for head gear while scootering in California, thanks to a change in the law that went into effect at the beginning of last year. Those over the age of 18 who want to ride without a helmet are free and legal to do so in California. Several other states also don’t require helmet wearing while on a motorized scooter.

The laws may need an update after recent revelations, but in the meantime perhaps the scooter companies themselves can help ensure safety precautions. We reached out to several electronic scooter companies and only heard back from a few about this issue. Lime tells TechCrunch it is committed to safety by encouraging users to wear a helmet, offering discounts to buy one and giving over 250,000 away as part of a campaign. Bird and others also encourage helmet wearing on their site and some companies offer helmets for rent at another location. But the promise of scooters is their convenience. You don’t have to carry anything. You just click on the app and hop on your ride. It’s too easy to just hop on a scooter without prior planning or helmet in tow.

So what’s the solution? Rider responsibility at this point. You’re free to take your chances but, though inconvenient, wearing your helmet on that scooter ride could prevent a serious accident.

“It’s been shown that helmet use is associated with a lower risk of head injury,” said first author Nikan K. Namiri, medical student at the UCSF School of Medicine. “We strongly believe that helmets should be worn, and e-scooter manufacturers should encourage helmet use by making them more easily accessible.”

 

 


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AutoX and Fiat Chrysler are teaming up on a robotaxi for China

02:40 | 8 January

Autonomous vehicle startup AutoX, which is backed by Alibaba, said Tuesday that it is partnering with Fiat Chrysler partnership to roll out a fleet of robotaxis for China and other countries in Asia.

A fleet of Chrysler Pacifica is going to be in service to the public in China in early 2020, according to AutoX Passengers will be able to call a RoboTaxi using WeChat mini-program and other popular apps in China.

The partnership is an important step for AutoX, which is developing a full self-driving stack. While AutoX has been operating robotaxi pilots in California and China, its real aim is to license its technology to companies that want to operate robotaxi fleets of their own.

While the partnership might not be as critical to FCA, it would theorectically give the automaker access to a robotaxi platform that can operate in China, if it were to choose to make that move.

AutoX, which is based in Hong Kong and San Jose, Calif., already tests in California and China. The company began offering public rides in downtown Shenzhen in early 2019 and in September partnered with Shanghai to launch 100 of its robotaxis to pilot a fleet there.

AutoX CEO Jianxiong Xiao said the next challenge is to remove the safety driver and go truly driverless.

“Getting hardware ready is a crucial step towards this goal,” he said. The partnership with FCA will help it get there, according to the company.

“Achieving completely driverless operation needs a very reliable vehicle platform with full redundancy of the vehicle’s drive-by-wire system,” said Xiao. “This level of redundancy is still new and rare in the auto industry. The Chrysler Pacifica platform has proven trustworthy for driverless deployment.”

AutoX is exhibiting the Chrysler Pacifica minivan at CES 2020. The vehicle is outfitted with an array of sensors.The hybrid vehicle now has 360 degrees of solid state lidar sensors, along with numerous high-definition cameras, blind spot lidar sensors and radar sensors. AutoX has tapped Robosense and drone manufacturer DJI for its lidar sensors.

The vehicle is also equipped with a vehicle control unit, called the XCU, that AutoX developed. The XCU, pictured below, powers and integrates the self-driving stack, including sensors like lidar and radar, into the vehicle. AutoX says its XCU has faster processing speed and more computational capability, making it ideal for the complex scenarios found in China’s cities.AutoX XCU

“There are a lot more cars, pedestrians, bikers, scooters, and moving objects on the street, many of which are not following the traffic rules,” COO Zhuo Li said in a statement. “Due to the fast development speeds in China, construction and reconstruction can happen overnight. The streets can look completely different in the morning, afternoon, and at night. This requires our system to process faster and extremely accurate to recognize and track each object to guarantee safety.” 

 

Meanwhile, FCA’s autonomy strategy has largely hinged on partnering with AV developers. In May 2016, Waymo and FCA announced a collaboration to produce about 100 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans integrated with Waymo’s self-driving system. And last year, FCA struck a deal with Aurora to develop self-driving commercial vehicles.

Last year, AutoX announced a partnership with Swedish holding company and electric vehicle manufacturer NEVS to deploy a robotaxi pilot service in Europe by the end of 2020. It received permission from California regulators to transport passengers in its robotaxis (human safety driver required). AutoX is calling its California robotaxi service xTaxi.

 


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