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How Facebook wrote its rules to accommodate Trump

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To Facebook’s executives in Washington, the post didn’t appear to violate its policies, which allows leaders to post about government use of force if the message is intended to warn the public — but it came right up to the line. The deputies had already contacted the White House earlier in the day with an urgent plea to tweak the language of the post or simply delete it, the people said.

Eventually, Trump posted again, saying his comments were supposed to be a warning after all. Zuckerberg then went online to explain his rationale for keeping the post up, noting that Trump’s subsequent explanation helped him make his decision.

The frenzied push-pull was just the latest incident in a five-year struggle by Facebook to accommodate the boundary-busting ways of Trump. The president has not changed his rhetoric since he was a candidate, but the company has continually altered its policies and its products in ways certain to outlast his presidency.

Facebook has constrained its efforts against false and misleading news, adopted a policy explicitly allowing politicians to lie, and even altered its news feed algorithm to neutralize claims that it was biased against conservative publishers, according to more than a dozen former and current employees and previously unreported documents obtained by The Washington Post. One of the documents shows it began as far back as 2015, when as a candidate Trump posted a video calling for a ban of Muslims entering the United States. Facebook’s executives declined to remove it, setting in motion an exception for political discourse.

The concessions to Trump have led to a transformation of the world’s information battlefield. They paved the way for a growing list of digitally savvy politicians to repeatedly push out misinformation and incendiary political language to billions of people. It has complicated the public understanding of major events such as the pandemic and the protest movement, as well as contributed to polarization.

And as Trump grew in power, the fear of his wrath pushed Facebook into more deferential behavior toward its growing number of right-leaning users, tilting the balance of news people see on the network, according to the current and former employees.

Facebook is also facing a slow-burning crisis of morale, with more than 5,000 employees denouncing the company’s decision to leave Trump’s post that said, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” up.

Bowing to those pressures on Friday, Zuckerberg announced a rash of new policies aimed at better policing content on the site. That includes affixing labels on posts that violate hate speech or other policies — even on those from political leaders.

But the company said the post wouldn’t have qualified.

As the United States heads into another presidential election while facing a pandemic and civil unrest, the latitude given to Trump may afford him a potential advantage. In recent months, he has used Facebook and other platforms to tout misleading information about coronavirus cures, election fraud and the motives of protesters, frequently targeting a left-wing movement as a cause of violence without citing evidence.

It also places Facebook in growing conflict with its counterparts in Silicon Valley. Twitter has labeled several presidential tweets as abusive and misleading, and social media platform Snapchat curtailed the reach of the president’s account.

“The value of being in favor with people in power outweighs almost every other concern for Facebook,” said David Thiel, a Facebook security engineer who resigned in March after his colleagues refused to remove a post he believed constituted “dehumanizing speech” by Brazil’s president.

Facebook contends the use of incendiary populist language predates social media. Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs and communications, said in a statement that populism wasn’t invented in Silicon Valley, pointing to centuries of political history before social media companies’ existence.

“From the Arab Spring to local candidates challenging political incumbents, social media has also helped to open up politics, not favor one side over the other,” Clegg added. “Studies have shown the drivers of populism are complex and cannot be reduced to the use of social media, in fact political polarization has fallen in many countries with high internet use.”

Facebook declined to make Zuckerberg available for an interview, although it pointed out that Zuckerberg opposed Trump when his Muslim immigration ban went into effect. The White House declined to comment.

Zuckerberg talks frequently about making choices that stand the test of time, preserving the values of Facebook and subsidiaries WhatsApp and Instagram for all of its nearly 3 billion monthly users for many years into the future — even when those decisions are unpopular or controversial.

At one point, however, he wanted a different approach to Trump.

Setting the stage

Before the 2016 election, the company largely saw its role in politics as courting political leaders to buy ads and broadcast their views, according to people familiar with the company’s thinking.

But that started to change in 2015, as Trump’s candidacy picked up speed. In December of that year, he posted a video in which he said he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. The video went viral on Facebook and was an early indication of the tone of his candidacy.

Outrage over the video led to a companywide town hall, in which employees decried the video as hate speech, in violation of the company’s policies. And in meetings about the issue, senior leaders and policy experts overwhelmingly said they felt that the video was hate speech, according to three former employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Zuckerberg expressed in meetings that he was personally disgusted by it and wanted it removed, the people said. Some of these details were previously reported.

At one of the meetings, Monika Bickert, Facebook’s vice president for policy, drafted a document to address the video and shared it with leaders including Zuckerberg’s top deputy COO Sheryl Sandberg and Vice President of Global Policy Joel Kaplan, the company’s most prominent Republican.

The document, which is previously unreported and obtained by The Post, weighed four options. They included removing the post for hate speech violations, making a one-time exception for it, creating a broad exemption for political discourse and even weakening the company’s community guidelines for everyone, allowing comments such as “No blacks allowed” and “Get the gays out of San Francisco.”

Facebook spokesman Tucker Bounds said the latter option was never seriously considered.

The document also listed possible “PR Risks” for each. For example, lowering the standards overall would raise questions such as, “Would Facebook have provided a platform for Hitler?” Bickert wrote. A carveout for political speech across the board, on the other hand, risked opening the floodgates for even more hateful “copycat” comments.

Ultimately, Zuckerberg was talked out of his desire to remove the post in part by Kaplan, according to the people. Instead, the executives created an allowance that newsworthy political discourse would be taken into account when making decisions about whether posts violated community guidelines.

That allowance was not formally written into the policies, even though it informed ad hoc decision-making about political speech for the next several years, according to the people. When a formal newsworthiness policy was announced in October 2016, in a blog post by Kaplan, the company did not discuss Trump’s role in shaping it.

In an interview, Bickert said the company ultimately made a call to maintain Trump’s Muslim ban video because executives interpreted Trump’s comment to mean that the then-candidate was not speaking about all Muslims, but rather advocating for a policy position on immigration as part of a newsworthy political debate. She said she did not recall the document where the options were presented.

Facebook’s Bounds added that the “newsworthiness” policy was added in 2016 after content reviewers removed a photo of a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. “Our goal was to recognize the essential public benefit of preserving content that in other contexts wouldn’t be allowed,” Bounds said. “In the case of elected officials, it also ensures that they will be held to account for their words,” so that people can judge for themselves.

In spring of 2016, Zuckerberg was also talked out of his desire to write a post specifically condemning Trump for his calls to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, after advisers in Washington warned it could look like choosing sides, according to Dex Torricke-Barton, one of Zuckerberg’s former speechwriters.

The political speech carveout ended up setting the stage for how the company would handle not only Trump, but populist leaders around the world who have posted content that test these boundaries, such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Narendra Modi in India.

“Though [Facebook] has cracked down on misinformation, the most problematic influencers are politicians,” said Claire Wardle, U.S. director of First Draft, an organization dedicated to fighting misinformation that has a partnership with Facebook. “You can do all the fact checking in the world, but these influencers have a disproportionate impact.”

Trump presented a unique challenge, she added. “Until then, no one would have considered a president who would have said those things.”

Protecting the right

After the election, it became clear Russia had used social media to sow disinformation. Facebook soon after became a frequent target of the president’s ire. He tweeted that the social media giant was “anti-Trump” and trying to undermine his victory.

At the same time, GOP leaders stepped up criticism that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, with leadership ranks full of liberals, sought to limit the reach of right-leaning voices.

“There’s no credible research supporting Trump’s claim that social platforms suppress conservative content, but he still succeeded in getting them to revise their rules for him,” said former Facebook spokesman Nu Wexler, who left the company in 2018.

As Facebook scrambled to tackle foreign interference and misinformation, its executives in the nation’s capital argued that caution and deference was necessary to survive the new political environment, according to three people familiar with the company’s thinking.

Facebook’s security engineers in December 2016 presented findings from a broad internal investigation, known as Project P, to senior leadership on how false and misleading news reports spread so virally during the election. When Facebook’s security team highlighted dozens of pages that had peddled false news reports, senior leaders in Washington, including Kaplan, opposed shutting them down immediately, arguing that doing so would disproportionately impact conservatives, according to people familiar with the company’s thinking. Ultimately, the company shut down far fewer pages than were originally proposed while it began developing a policy to handle these issues.

A year later, Facebook considered how to overhaul its scrolling news feed, the homepage screen most users see when they open the site. As part of the change to help limit misinformation, it changed its news feed algorithm to focus more on posts by friends and family versus publishers.

In meetings about the change, Kaplan questioned whether the revamped algorithm would hurt right-leaning publishers more than others, according to three people familiar with the company’s thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. When the data showed it would — conservative leaning outlets were pushing more content that violated its policies, the company had found — he successfully pushed for changes to make the new algorithm to be what he considered more evenhanded in its impact, the people said.

Isolated and divided

With the 2020 election on the horizon, Facebook and Zuckerberg’s hands-off approach to free speech was leaving it increasingly isolated in Silicon Valley.

That summer, company leaders held a meeting to revisit its newsworthiness exception, which until then had been determined on a case-by-case basis, with the most controversial calls made by Zuckerberg. Internally, some were unclear how far that leeway extended, according to two people.

Clegg, the company’s new head of global affairs and communications and a former British deputy prime minister, announced the outcome of that meeting at a speech in Washington in September 2019. Aside from speech that causes violence or real-world harm, Facebook would allow politicians to express themselves virtually unchecked on social media. Facebook’s network of independent fact-checkers, which had been established as a key part of the company’s response to disinformation, would not evaluate their claims and the community guidelines would largely not apply to politicians.

Facebook did not want to be an arbiter of truth in political debate, he said, echoing Zuckerberg’s long-standing position.

The speech angered some employees, triggering more than 250 of them to sign a petition disagreeing with the decision because they thought it gave politicians a pass.

One former executive, Yael Eisenstat, who worked to improve the political ads process, wrote in The Post that the controversy was “the biggest test of whether [Facebook] will ever truly put society and democracy ahead of profit and ideology.”

She said that she routinely experienced how the company’s efforts at integrity were often undermined by “the few voices who ultimately decided the company’s overall direction.”

Meanwhile, in October, as Facebook faced more potential regulation and political troubles, Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan went to the White House for a private dinner with Trump, a part of the CEO’s effort to cultivate personal relationships in Washington.

Tweetstorm

As the pandemic and civil unrest dominated the first half of this year, Trump continued to turn to social media platforms to spread misinformation. He touted the unproven drug hydroxychloroquine as a possible cure for the coronavirus and claimed without evidence that the left-wing antifa movement was behind the violence at George Floyd protests.

Meanwhile, Facebook employees began challenging the company’s decisions.

Two months before Trump’s “looting, shooting” post, the Brazilian president posted about the country’s indigenous population, saying, “Indians are undoubtedly changing. They are increasingly becoming human beings just like us.”

Thiel, the security engineer, and other employees argued internally that it violated the company’s internal guidelines against “dehumanizing speech.” They were referring to Zuckerberg’s own words while testifying before Congress in October in which he said dehumanizing speech “is the first step toward inciting” violence. In internal correspondence, Thiel was told that it didn’t qualify as racism — and may have even been a positive reference to integration.

In May, following years of internal debate of its own, Twitter chose to go in the opposite direction. It labeled two misleading tweets by Trump about mail-in ballots with a fact-check label.

Trump responded two days later with an executive order that could hurt social media companies by removing a key exception that limits their liability for content posted on their sites.

The next day, Trump tweeted about the Minnesota protests. Twitter quickly labeled the tweet for violating rules about glorifying violence, and Snapchat stopped promoting Trump’s account the following week. YouTube told The Post that it holds politicians to the same standards as everyone else.

Facebook, on the other hand, chose to haggle with the White House, asking for a deletion or a change, said the people. Axios first reported the call, which Facebook’s Bounds confirmed to The Post.

As employees raged on internal message boards and externally on Twitter, Zuckerberg told workers that Facebook’s policies might change again in light of Trump’s post. The company had rules allowing for “state use of force,” he said, but they were vague and didn’t encompass the possibility that such pronouncements could signal harmful aggression. Bickert’s team planned a series of policy meetings for the weeks ahead.

In June, Facebook removed a swath of Trump campaign ads with Nazi symbolism, after an initial internal assessment that found the ads did not violate the company’s polices, according to documents viewed by The Post. In meetings, senior executives argued that not removing them would be perceived as pandering too much to the president, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

Last week, the advertiser boycott picked up steam. Hershey, Verizon, Unilever, Coca-Cola and others said they were temporarily pulling ads.

On Friday, Zuckerberg told employees in a live-streamed town hall that he was changing the company’s policy to label problematic newsworthy content that violated the company’s policies as Twitter does, a major concession amid the rising tide of criticism. He also said in the most explicit language ever that the company would remove posts by politicians that incite violence and suppress voting. Still, civil rights leaders said his assertions didn’t go far enough.

“There are no exceptions for politicians in any of the policies that I’m announcing today,” Zuckerberg said.

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Uber Buys Postmates for $2.65 Billion

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SAN FRANCISCO — Uber has agreed to acquire the food delivery start-up Postmates for $2.65 billion as it aims to grow its presence in on-demand food delivery while its core ride-hailing business struggles.

The companies announced the all-stock deal on Monday morning. Uber will combine Postmates with its own food delivery subsidiary, Uber Eats, which has been growing during the coronavirus pandemic. Postmates will continue to operate under its own name.

Food delivery apps, which connect drivers, restaurants and customers, have grown quickly in recent years, fueled by venture capital and armies of contract workers. But the apps offer very similar services, leading to heavy competition and pressure to keep fees low. While more people have been using delivery services during the pandemic, profits have been elusive.

As a result, delivery app companies have circled one another, aiming to make deals to gain scale. Postmates previously discussed possible deals with DoorDash, the largest service in the United States,and another rival, Grubhub, according to two people with knowledge of the talks.

In recent months, Uber also discussed buying Grubhub. But last month, Grubhub was instead sold to Just Eat Takeaway, a European delivery company, for $7.3 billion.

Together, Postmates and Uber Eats would have a 37 percent share of food delivery sales in the United States, according to Edison Trends, which tracks credit card spending. DoorDash would remain the largest player with 45 percent, while Grubhub would have 17 percent.

Uber is looking for growth as people stay home during the pandemic and its ride-hailing business struggles. In May, Uber posted a $2.9 billion loss for the first three months of the year and announced it was laying off 14 percent of its work force. But revenue for its Uber Eats division rose 53 percent. From April to June, Uber said bookings through Uber Eats more than doubled compared to the previous year.

Daniel Ives, an industry analyst with Wedbush Securities, said in a note to clients that the deal was a “defensive and offensive acquisition in the food delivery space for Uber at a time with its core ride-sharing business seeing massive headwinds in this COVID-19 pandemic.”

Postmates, last valued by investors at $2.4 billion, is smaller than the other players, with about 10 million customers. Founded in 2011, it was among the first start-ups to use part-time “gig workers” to deliver customers whatever they wanted at the tap of a smartphone button.

Uber said Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, Uber’s head of food delivery, would continue to run the global delivery business. Bastian Lehmann, chief executive of Postmates, will stay on during a regulatory review of the deal; longer-term integration plans are still being worked out, according to Uber.

  • Updated June 30, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


In announcing the deal, the companies shared a few financial details about Postmates. In the first quarter of 2020, Postmates had revenue of $107 million and more than 115,000 merchants who used the platform. Uber said Postmates has performed especially well in the Southwest, including Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, said Uber may integrate certain Postmates services, including its $9.99 per month subscription that provides no-fee delivery on any orders over $12.

“You can expect to see some of these tactics at Uber Eats,” he said on a conference call with Wall Street analysts. “We think it’s just a wonderful combination.”

Postmates has raised more than $900 million in funding from investors including Spark Capital and Tiger Global Management, according to PitchBook. It had filed to go public.

Adam Satariano contributed reported from London.

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Robotic scientists will ‘speed up discovery’

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Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionMeet the socially distant robot scientist

Scientists at the University of Liverpool have unveiled a robotic colleague that has been working non-stop in their lab throughout lockdown.

The £100,000 programmable researcher learns from its results to refine its experiments.

“It can work autonomously, so I can run experiments from home,” explained Benjamin Burger, one of the developers.

Such technology could make scientific discovery “a thousand times faster”, scientists say.

A new report by the Royal Society of Chemistry lays out a “post-Covid national research strategy”, using robotics, artificial intelligence and advanced computing as part of a suite of technologies that “must be urgently embraced” to help socially distancing scientists continue their search for solutions to global challenges.

Robo-chemist

Image caption

Robo-chemist at work in the Liverpool lab

The robotic scientist is currently embarking on a series of tests to find a catalyst that could speed up the reaction that takes place inside solar cells.

But it could, according to Prof Andy Cooper, the materials scientist who has put the robot to work in his lab, be used in the fight against Covid-19.

“We’ve had a lot of interest [in the robot] from labs that are doing Covid research,” he told BBC News.

“Covid, climate change – there are lots of problems that really need international co-operation. So our vision is we might have robots like this all across the world connected by a centralised brain which can be anywhere. We haven’t done that yet – this is the first example – but that’s absolutely what we’d like to do.”

Socially distant science

Today, in a world where scientists also need to limit their time in the lab and maintain social distance from each other, the robo-scientist has come into its own.

“It doesn’t get bored, doesn’t get tired, works around the clock and doesn’t need holidays,” Dr Burger joked.

On a more serious note, he said that the robot had transformed the speed at which he could carry out research. “It can easily go through thousands of samples,” he said, “so it frees up my time to focus on innovation and new solutions.”

Like robotics designed for research in Space, machines like this could also take on riskier experiments – in harsher laboratory environments or using more toxic substances.

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionNasa’s humanoid is designed for more hazardous environments

That, according to Deirdre Black, head of research and innovation at the Royal Society of Chemistry, is why UK science needs to build new technologies into its infrastructure.

“This is about human beings harnessing all of these digital technologies, so that they can go faster – discover and innovate faster and explore bigger and more complex problems, like decarbonisation, preventing and treating disease, and making our air cleaner,” she told BBC News.

So does this mean that while many scientists have been in lockdown, the machines have come to take their jobs?

“Absolutely not,” said Dr Black. “Science will always need people”.

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The startups edition

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The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every Saturday in your inbox.

Hello 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.

For all the U.S. readers here, I hope you are enjoying the holiday weekend.

I am mixing up the format this week because I am in charge here, it’s a holiday and I don’t want this newsletter to get too formulaic. So today, the newsletter will highlight a few mobility startups as well as some of their ideas that don’t typically get a lot of attention.

RVshare -rvs

Image Credits: RVshare

For those who plan to road trip this summer — or perhaps you already have — I would love to hear what it’s like out there. Figures from peer-to-peer RV rental marketplace RVshare suggest it’s crowded.

Folks over at RVshare, a peer-to-peer RV rental marketplace, told me that rental bookings are three times higher than last summer and report a 1,600% increase since early April.

“July 4th weekend is on pace to be the biggest booking period in the history of the business, by a wide margin,” CEO Jon Gray said.

Remember please reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Alrighty then, vamos.

Bikes!

The COVID-19 pandemic has crushed startups and established companies alike. Others, like Lectric eBikes have had a more fortuitous couple of quarters thanks to spiking demand for bikes during the pandemic.

The one-year-old startup based in Arizona has been swept up in the electric bike craze. The company, co-founded by 24-year-olds Levi Conlow and Robby Deziel, has generated more than $14 million in sales of its Lectric XP ebike.

Now the startup is launching a new ebike called the ‘Lectric XP Step-Thru’. Pre-orders began last week. The $899 step-thru bike folds to less than half of its size, has a top speed of 28 miles per hour, an LCD display and a 25- to 50-mile range.

Lectric eBikes - step thru

Image Credits: Lectric eBikes

Meanwhile, the better-known Rad Power Bikes has unveiled a single-speed electric bike that starts at $999. The new product, called RadMission Electric Motor Bike, comes with a 500-watt motor that provides 50 pound feet of torque, a twist grip throttle, an integrated brake light that is powered using the main battery pack, 48-volt battery pack that can travel between 25 to 45-mile range.

It’s under 50 pounds, making it 30% lighter than Rad Power’s other bikes. The bike also comes with an LED control panel where riders can control lights and pedal assistance as well as view battery and assist levels. Pre-orders are open and the company says the first Rad Mission bikes will be delivered in October.

Rad Power Bikes RadMission

Image Credits: Rad Power Bikes

Zoov, a French electric bike-sharing platform, unveiled this week a new charging station that it says improves upon traditional docking systems. The station is designed to fit four bikes within one meter compared to other systems that can only fit one bike in the same amount of space. It can also charge bikes with or without a connection to the grid. The stations that are not tied to the grid use batteries that can be swapped out and can and be set up quickly, the company says.

One of the more interesting innovations is that the bikes create a shared power connection. As bikes are parked at the station they become connected and can deliver or receive power. The transfer of energy between the bikes is controlled by an algorithm that optimizes the bikes’ charge levels – the maximum charge range is about 45 kilometers.

Each station has the capacity for up to 15 bikes. The company said it has already installed 40 of these stations.

zoov electric bike station

Image Credits: Zoov

COVID-19 inspired

I’ve been tracking the ideas and little inventions that have popped up in the past several months amid the COVID-19 pandemic. There are an abundance of little “solutions” out there, some better than others. I’ll call these out from time to time.

For instance, Nickelytics, a startup out of the latest TechStars Mobility cohort, has put a slightly modern spin on the old game of advertising on and in vehicles. The company puts ads on ride-share vehicles that travel at least 30 miles a day. It promises drivers can earn up to $500 a month. The startup’s pitch to companies is that it uses tracking technology to log each “impression,” meaning the passenger who hailed a ride. It takes that data and targets those consumers with digital ads.

The company has launched a new product that it calls “ad shield.” The idea is to protect ride-share drivers and passengers, while generating revenue. This isn’t a new idea. Anyone who has been in a taxicab in a dense urban area has certainly encountered the more permanent and robust shields set up between the front and back seats as a safety measure.

The Nickelytics ad shield is designed for ride-share, however. The plexiglass, which can be branded with a company logo or other marketing message, is flexible and can be quickly added or removed from a ride share vehicle.

nickelytics ad shield

Image Credits: Nickelytics

Apps!

A couple of transportation-related apps that are focused on safety caught my eye recently. The first is a company called !important that launched their safety app last month. The app markets itself as protection for pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchair users, and motorcyclists from collisions with nearby connected vehicles.

Here’s the basic premise, which the app’s inventor Bastien Beauchamp, explained to me recently: the app runs in the background and acts as another sensor that will communicate with a nearby “connected car” to provide the exact location of a pedestrian or cyclist. The driver receives an alert of the approaching person. The app may even trigger the vehicle’s brakes automatically. There are a couple of catches here. The vehicle has to have an advanced driver assistance systems and the accompanying !important software for it to work. And for this to be really meaningful, Beauchamp will have to convince automakers to integrate the software into their vehicles as well as get pedestrians, cyclists and other folks to download the app.

It’s early days for !important. But Beauchamp has already made some progress. The app will be implemented starting in January 2021 in human-driven and autonomous vehicles in Reno as part of the Intelligent Mobility initiative in collaboration with the Nevada Center for Applied Research at the University of Nevada.

!Important is also in collaboration with 12 universities

Now let’s turn to the drivers. Openroad is a free app, which launched in January 2020. that detects car crashes and sends emergency responders if they’re needed. The app is only available on iOS and is coming to Android soon.

The app grew out of True Motion, a company founded in 2012 that developed a smartphone telematics platform for insurance companies. Insurance companies can use the platform to capture driving data and then offer their customers incentives for good driving behavior.

Open Road was designed as a consumer app. The app uses machine learning to detect crashes in real time and will reach out to trained responders who can send a 911 call for ambulance or police if that is needed. The data can also be used to speed up the insurance claims process for the user.

Open Road recently added an emergency contacts feature that’ll notify a  couple of designated people in the event of a crash as well as a Siri Shortcut. If a user says “Hey Siri, Request Crash Assistance” one of the Open Road trained agents will call the user immediately. The app also audio alert feature where if the user is in a crash, audio alert is triggered from their phone to let them know agents are calling.

Holiday roundup

Normally, I would break each of these out into different sections and provide some analysis and even original reporting. This week, I’m providing a mini version of my typical newsletter. Keep on reading for an overview of what happened this past week.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

The big micromobility news this week comes from the UK, where the Department for Transport announced that it allow e-scooter rental companies to legally operate across the country. This will be a pilot program that will start no later than August. Councils and other authorities, including across London and other major cities, are working on putting together trials that could run for as long as 12 months under guidelines provided by the government.

The regulations come into force on July 4, the DfT said, with the first trials expected to begin a week later.

European micromobility company Dott reached out to let me know that it has earned approval from UK regulators to participate in the e-scooter trial. Tier Mobility is also prepped and ready. The two-year-old startup has more than 1,000 scooters in its UK warehouse. It has also hired a general manager for the UK and a head of public policy for Northern Europe. Fred Jones is the general manager for the UK and Benjamin Bell will lead public policy for Northern Europe. Both Jones and Bell formerly worked at Uber . Jones will oversee the roll-out of TIER e-scooters in UK towns and cities. While, Bell will spearhead the company’s collaboration with central and local government in the run-up to trials.

lime-jump

Image Credits: Lime

Meanwhile, Jump bikes returned to London through its new owner Lime. London is the first city in Europe to see Jump bikes return since Uber offloaded the company to Lime in a complex deal that unfolded in May. Lime raised $170 million in a funding round led by Uber, along with other existing investors Alphabet, Bain Capital Ventures and GV. As part of the deal, Lime acquired Jump, the electric bike and scooter division that Uber acquired in 2018 for around $200 million.

Earlier this year, thousands of Jump bikes were pulled off the streets in European cities such as Berlin, Brussels, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Malaga, Munich, Paris, Rome and Rotterdam. It’s unlikely that Lime will put Jump bikes back in all of these cities. Sources have said Lime plans to redeploy Jump scooters and bikes in London, Paris, Rome and Barcelona.

AVs and connectivity

the station autonomous vehicles1

BMW showed off what its new Operating System 7 software can do. Some of its ideas around deploying upgrades and features has been a bit controversial. The company said all cars equipped with its newest “Operating System 7” software will be able to receive over-the air updates and plans to charge customers who want to upgrade certain features like adding heated seats or advanced driver assistance systems.

Lyft’s self-driving vehicle division has restarted testing on public roads in California, several months after pausing operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of its autonomous vehicles are back on the road in Palo Alto and at its closed test track. The company has not resumed a pilot program that provided rides to Lyft employees in Palo Alto.

TuSimple laid out a plan to create a mapped network of shipping routes and terminals designed for autonomous trucking operations that will extend across the United States by 2024. UPS, which owns a minority stake in TuSimple, carrier U.S. Xpress, Penske Truck Leasing and Berkshire Hathaway’s grocery and food service supply chain company McLane Inc. are the inaugural partners in this so-called autonomous freight network (AFN).

Velodyne Lidar, the leading supplier of a sensor widely considered critical to the commercial deployment of autonomous vehicles, struck a deal to merge with special-purpose acquisition company Graf Industrial Corp., with a market value of $1.8 billion. Yup, another SPAC!

It’s electric

the station electric vehicles1

Daimler deepened a strategic partnership with Chinese battery cell manufacturer Farasis Energy, a deal that includes taking an equity stake of about 3%. Daimler Greater China will investing a multi-million euro amount as part of Farasis’ IPO, as part of the agreement.

EV startups in China haven’t fared so well, Automotive News reported. In June alone, at least three startups ceased operations, including Bordrin and Byton.

Lucid Motors announced that its upcoming the Air vehicle will boast a drag coefficient of 0.21, which measures the resistance of an object moving through a fluid environment, CNET’s Roadshow reported.

Rivian released a few photos of its electric truck. I put this question to the Twitterverse: what color is this? What do you think? I think the best answer might have been Werther’s Original.

Image Credits: Rivian

Tesla has opened up reservations for its all-electric Cybertruck to customers in China, a move that will test the market’s appetite for a massive, futuristic truck. The Cybertruck, which was unveiled in November at the Tesla Design Center in Hawthorne, Calif., isn’t expected to go into production until late 2022. But that hasn’t stopped thousands of U.S. consumers to plunk down a $100 refundable deposit for the truck. Now, Tesla is testing potential interest among Chinese consumers.

Tesla also reported its delivery and production numbers for the second quarter. Tesla delivered 90,650 vehicles in the second quarter, a 4.8% decline from the same period last year prompted by challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that included suspending production for weeks at its main U.S. factory. Tesla still managed to beat expectations despite the headwinds.

Chinese EV manufacturer Xpeng Motors has started nationwide delivery of its P7 electric sports sedan to customers. The automaker received its official production license May 19 from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology for its new factory, the Zhaoqing Xpeng Motors Intelligent Industrial Park, in Xpeng’s home Guangdong Province. Production of the P7 at Xpeng’s Zhaoqing plant has an annual capacity of 100,000 units.

Miscellaneous

Daimler is looking to sell its Smart car assembly plant in Hambach, France as part of a broad restructuring plan aimed at shoring up the company’s finances amid dampening demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The sale will cause negative one-time effect of about 500 million euros ($562 million) in the second quarter.

Jaguar Land Rover set up a subscription service called Pivotal, which is backed by the automaker’s venture capital and mobility services arm called InMotion. The subscription will give customers access to Jaguar and Land Rover models, including the All-electric Jaguar I-PACE and the latest plug-in hybrids Range Rover Evoque and Land Rover Discovery Sport.

Lincoln will end production of Continental at the end of the year.

“Lincoln is investing in growth segments and the brand will feature a full portfolio of SUVs, including a fully electric vehicle in the future,” the company said in a statement emailed to TechCrunch. “Lincoln will continue to keep its newest SUVs fresh and we will have more news to share later this year; however, as the full-size premium sedan segment continues to decline in the U.S., we plan to end production of the Lincoln Continental at the end of this year.”

To meet the needs of Chinese luxury customers, Lincoln China will offer a 2021 model year Continental next year, the company said.

Uber reportedly made an offer to buy food delivery service Postmates, reported The New York Times. Just a day after that news broke, other reports claimed that Postmates was reviving its IPO plans and possibly looking to go public with the help of a special purpose acquisition vehicle known as a SPAC.

For Postmates, a company caught somewhere between DoorDash’s cash-fueled rise and Uber’s ability to lose hundreds of millions on its Uber Eats delivery service every quarter, multiple options are likely welcome. Alex Wilhelm digs in.

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