E-bike startup VanMoof, has raised a $40 million investment from Norwest Venture Partners, Felix Capital and Balderton Capital. The Series B financing comes after a $13.5 million investment in May. The funding brings VanMoof’s total raised to $73 million and furthers the e-bike brand’s ultimate mission of getting the next billion on bikes.
The Series B funding will be used to meet the increased demand, shorten delivery times and build a suite of rider service solutions. It also aims to boost its share of the e-bike market in North America, Europe and Japan.
Partly driven by the switch of commuters away from public transport because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the e-bike craze is taking off.
Governments are now investing in cycling infrastructure and the e-bike market is set to surpass $46 billion in the next six years, according to reports.
Ties Carlier, co-founder VanMoof commented: “E-bike adoption was an inevitable global shift that was already taking place for many years now but COVID-19 put an absolute turbo on it to the point that we’re approaching a critical mass to transform cities for the better.”
VanMoof says it realized a 220% global revenue growth during the worldwide lockdown and sold more bikes in the first four months of 2020 than the previous two years combined.
Stew Campbell, Principal at Norwest said: “Taco, Ties and the VanMoof team have not only built an unparalleled brand and best-selling product, but they’re reshaping city mobility all over the world.”
Colin Hanna, Principal at Balderton: “As the COVID-19 crisis hit supply chains worldwide, VanMoof’s unique control over design and production was a key advantage that allowed the company to react nimbly and effectively. Moreover, VanMoof’s direct to consumer approach allows the company to build a close relationship to their riders, one that will be strengthened by new products and services in the years to come.”
Zwift, a 350-person, Long Beach, Calif.-based online fitness platform that immerses cyclists and runners in 3D generated worlds, just raised a hefty $450 million in funding led by the investment firm KKR in exchange for a minority stake in its business.
Permira and Specialized Bicycle’s venture capital fund, Zone 5 Ventures, also joined the round alongside earlier backers True, Highland Europe, Novator and Causeway Media.
Zwift has now raised $620 million altogether and is valued at north of $1 billion.
Why such a big round? Right now, the company just makes an app, albeit a popular one.
Since its 2015 founding, 2.5 million people have signed up to enter a world that, as Outside magazine once described it, is “part social-media platform, part personal trainer, part computer game.” That particular combination makes Zwift’s app appealing to both recreational riders and pros looking to train no matter the conditions outside.
The company declined to share its active subscriber numbers with us — Zwift charges $15 per month for its service — but it seemingly has a loyal base of users. For example, 117,000 of them competed in a virtual version of the Tour de France that Zwift hosted in July after it was chosen by the official race organizer of the real tour as its partner on the event.
Which leads us back to this giant round and what it will be used for. Today, in order to use the app, Zwift’s biking adherents need to buy their own smart trainers, which can cost anywhere from $300 to $700 and are made by brands like Elite and Wahoo. Meanwhile, runners use Zwift’s app with their own treadmills.
Now, Zwift is jumping headfirst into the hardware business itself. Though a spokesman for the company said it can’t discuss any particulars — “It takes time to develop hardware properly, and COVID has placed increased pressure on production” — it is hoping to bring its first product to market “as soon as possible.”
He added that the hardware will make Zwift a “more immersive and seamless experience for users.”
Either way, the direction isn’t a surprising one for the company, and we don’t say that merely because Specialized participated in this round as a strategic backer. Cofounder and CEO Eric Min has told us in the past that the company hoped to produce its own trainers some day.
Given the runaway success of the in-home fitness company Peloton, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a treadmill follow, or even a different product entirely. Said the Zwift spokesman, “In the future, it’s possible that we could bring in other disciplines or a more gamified experience.” (It will have expert advice in this area if it does, given that Swift just brought aboard Ilkka Paananen, the co-founder and CEO of Finnish gaming company Supercell, as an investor and board member.)
In the meantime, the company tells us not to expect the kind of classes that have proven so successful for Peloton, tempting as it may be to draw parallels.
While Zwift prides itself on users’ ability to organize group rides and runs and workouts, classes, says its spokesman, are “not in the offing.”
Formlabs was one of a few desktop 3D printing companies to weather the massive tech bubble a few years back. The Somerville, Massachusetts-based company set itself apart by bringing advanced industrial 3D-printing technologies to the consumer space. In recent years, the tech has also positioned the startup ahead of the competition when it comes to expanding into different manufacturing aspects.
Medical and dental have been two key targets. Products like prosthetics and retainers are two prime exemplars of products that can benefit from both customization and speedy manufacturing. Today, the company announced the Form 3BL, a medical and dental-focused take on the recently announced Form 3L, its $10,000 large-format stereolithography printer.
The Form 3BL shares most of the 3L’s specs, including a build volume that’s roughly five times larger than the standard Form 3 printer. The biggest differentiator is optimization for biocompatible materials. The system is designed to be used in-office for healthcare providers and dental providers to produce models and dental needs quickly in-house.
Also new today is the Wash L + Cure L, for treating large-scale objects after initial printing. That’s set to ship at some point in 2021. The Form 3L actually starts shipping today, meanwhile, and the 3BL is up for pre-order today and will ship at some point next month.
While SpaceX and its ilk in the commercial rocket launch market have changed the economics of space and ushered in an era of small satellite entrepreneurship, the actual rocket engine technology they use isn’t that different from what was in use 50 years ago when NASA was making its first forays into outer space.
Firehawk Aerospace, a new startup founded by CEO Will Edwards and Chairman and Chief Scientists Ron Jones, wants to change that with a stable, cost-effective hybrid rocket fuel that employs additive manufacturing (industrial-scale 3D printing) to overcome the hurdles and limitations of previous hybrid fuel engine designs.
Hybrid rockets themselves – ones that use a combination of solid fuel and liquid oxidizer – aren’t new, but they have always faced significant limitations in terms of their performance metrics and maximum thrust power. Jones, a longtime rocket propulsion researcher and aerospace structures and advanced composite engineer, has been fascinated with engine technology and how to overcome the limits of past hybrid engine designs, while also retaining the benefits – including safety and cost.
Jones had been very interested in physics and engineering through high school and college, but ultimately joined the Navy and became an aviator before later coming back around to working in the aerospace industry. Meanwhile, he took advantage of the advent of the internet in its early days to begin diving deeper into his early love of rocketry, specifically researching hybrid engine technology and trading notes with experts all around the world.
“Ultimately, I came up with two concepts together,” Jones told me in an interview. “One is that they were using the wrong fuel – the fuel they were using was too elastic. Once you put it under pressure, it’s going to reverberate, and it’s not very strong so as it gets thinner, it will essentially break off chunks, and you lose a lot of fuel. So I switched that to a structurally very hard polymer. And second, I could see that they’re molding in casting just wasn’t a good idea. I switched that out to additive manufacturing.”
With additive manufacturing, which builds up a structure over time by extruding material, instead of pouring a liquid into a form and allowing it to harden, you can do things that are impossible with molding, including building up intentional, very structured internals. If you’ve ever seen at-home consumer 3D printing, it’s like the criss-cross patter you see in larger solids to provide rigidity or support to the external surfaces. That turned out to unlock a lot of potential for solid rocket fuel pellets.
“With additive manufacturing, I was able to do something no one else had done before. And that is to create a highly engineered internal structure that you can’t do with molding,” he said. “With those internal structures, we’ve been able to greatly improve the performance of the rocket engine, making it very reliable and also very safe, and these were the primary attributes that I was going after.”
Firehawk now holds five patents related to its 3D printing of rocket fuel, and it has already conducted 32 engine hot fire tests at both 200 lbs and 500 lbs of thrust to verify that its design actually works. The startup is also working on an engine capable of 5,000 lbs of thrust (roughly equivalent to Rocket Lab Electron’s second stage), which it plans to begin testing later this year at a new facility it’s building for the purpose.
As mentioned, current launch companies are already operating using much older, but still effective, rocket technology. So why bother with a new type of hybrid engine design? For a number of reasons, but efficiency and safety are chief among them.
Firehawk’s fuel can be stored, transported and handled much more safely, since it’s not susceptible to accidental detonation when the fuel and oxidizer are separate. It’s also non-toxic, and only produces exhaust that Firehawk says is “environmentally benign.” Safe handling of existing rocket fuel options for large launch vehicles requires a lot of special care and safety, as well as training, all of which adds up to time and expense.
Firehawk can also provide custom engine designs in between 4 to 6 months, it says, whereas typical new rocket engine development based on existing technology usually takes between 5 to 7 years. That time savings also adds up to significant budget savings – on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars – meaning new and better rockets can be iterated more quickly, without long useful lifetimes required between generations to recoup initial R&D costs.
The fuel can also be stored and transported over long durations, and even potentially stopped and restarted mid-flight, all of which means that longer and more complex missions can be accomplished at far lower costs than ever before. Obviously, the potential has sparked a lot of interest from both potential commercial and government customers, according to CEO Edwards.
Earlier this year, Firehawk Aerospace closed a $2 million seed round, from investors including Victorum Capital, Achieve Capital, and Harlow Capital Management, and they’re currently looking to grow the team, particular with driven engineers looking to work on the future of rocket propulsion. It’s also in process with a number of potential partners and letters of intent for commercialization of its technology.
Brooklyn-based EV startup Tarform unveiled its Luna electric motorcycle in New York last week—a model designed for an audience that may not actually like motorcycles.
Tarform’s first street legal entrant, the Luna, starts at $24,000, does 0-60 mph in 3.8 seconds, has a city range of 120 miles, top-speed of 120 mph, and charges to 80% in 50 minutes—according to company specs.
The model was hatched out of the company’s mission to meld aesthetic design and craftsmanship to environmental sustainability in two-wheeled electric vehicles.
To that end, the Luna incorporates a number of unique, eco-design features. The bodywork is made from a flax seed weave and the overall motorcycle engineering avoids use of plastics. The Luna’s seat upholstery is made out of biodegradable vegan leather. Tarform is also testing methods to avoid paints and primers on its motorcycles, instead using a mono-material infused with algae and iron based metallic pigments.
The company was founded by Swede Taras Kravtchouk—an industrial design specialist, former startup head, and passionate motorcyclist. The Luna launch follows the debut of two concept e-motos in 2018.
Image Credits: Jake Bright
On Tarform’s target market, he explained the startup hopes to attract those who may be turned off by the very things that have turned people on to motorcycling over the last 50 years — namely gas, chrome, noise, and fumes.
“It’s more for people who want a custom bike and the techies: people who wanted to have a motorcycle but didn’t want to be associated with the whole stigmatized motorcycle lifestyle,” Kravtchouk told TechCrunch.
Tarform enters the EV arena with competition from several e-moto startups — and on OEM — that are attempting to convert gas riders to electric and attract a younger generation to motorcycling.
One of the leaders is California company Zero Motorcycles, with 200 dealers worldwide. Zero introduced a its $19,000 SR/F in 2019, with a 161-mile city range, one-hour charge capability and a top speed of 124 mph. Italy’s Energica is expanding distribution of its high-performance e-motos in the U.S.
In 2020, Harley Davidson became the first of the big gas manufacturers to offer a street-legal e-motorcycle for sale in the U.S., the $29,000 LiveWire.
And Canadian startup Damon Motors debuted its 200 mph, $24,000 Hypersport this year, which offers proprietary safety and ergonomics tech for adjustable riding positions and blind-spot detection.
On how Tarform plans to compete with these e-motorcycle players, Kravtchouk explained that’s not the company’s priority. “We’re not even close in production to Zero or the other big guys, but that’s not our intention. Think of the [Luna] as a custom production bike,” he said.
“We did not set out to build a bike that is fastest or has the longest range,” Kravtchouk added. “We set out to build a bike that completely revises the manufacturing and supply chain of e-motorcycles in a way where we ethically source our materials and create an ethical supply-chain.”
For this mission, Tarform has obtained funding from several family offices and angel investors, including LA based M13. The Brooklyn based e-motorcycle company is taking pre-orders on its new Luna and pursuing a Series-A funding round for 2021, according to CEO Taras Kravtchouk.
The flagship Xbox Series X is arriving on November 10, and will carry a retail price tag of $499, Microsoft confirmed on Wednesday. The console will also be available for pre-orders beginning on September 22. Alongside the Xbox Series X console, Microsoft is also going to be selling a less powerful, but still next-gen, Xbox Series S console, which will have a $299 price tag, and also release on November 10 with pre-orders on September 22.
Apple and Google are continuing to make good on their planned roll-out of exposure notification technology for helping with COVID-19 contact-tracing efforts. The two partners are introducing new tools that make it much easier for public health authorities to implement digital exposure notification, without the need for developing and maintaining their own individual apps. Apple makes this possible via the iOS 13.7 system update, out today, while Google is implementing it with an automatically generated application on Android 6.0, upcoming later this month, a workaround required because of the very different method through which it manages system services and OS updates.
This change in the way the technology works means that users won’t have to actually download and install a dedicated app created by the public health authority (PHA) in their jurisdiction to participate. Instead, you’ll receive a notification that provides information supplied by your local health authority about the exposure notification system and what it does, from which you can choose to opt-in. On iOS, that’ll mean installing a provisioning profile, while on Android, it’ll result in an auto-generated app for your local PHA, which is installed via the Google Play store. Apple and Google clarified that Exposure Notification Express co-exists with, rather than replacing, existing dedicated PHA apps.
PHAs using Exposure Notifications Express can provide Apple and Google with contact information, guidance about care and precautions and recommendations on next steps. PHAs provide their name, logo, criteria for triggering an exposure notification and info to be offered to an indictable in case of exposure using a system that’s easy for non-technical people to use.
Local health authorities will still have to elect to participate and customize the text and messaging delivered to users in their regions when they receive this notification and onboarding info, but they’ll no longer have to develop and distribute their own applications in order to set up a digital exposure notification system based on the combined Apple/Google tech to supplement their contact-tracing efforts. The health authority will also be responsible for determining how they calculate exposure risk, which is what they were able to do with dedicated apps, too. That’s huge, as Apple and Google note that 20 countries globally have already introduced apps based on their API, and 25 U.S. states are “exploring” use of the system, with six states having launched apps so far, making this a system-level feature with a lower technical barrier to entry on the developer/health agency side that should help expedite roll-out.
To start, Apple and Google say they expect DC, Maryland, Nevada and Virginia will be the first to implement Exposure Notification Express sometime soon, with others likely to follow. The companies also said they’re working with the U.S. Association of Public Health Laboratories on a national key server that will effectively allow users to have exposure tracking work across state lines when they’re traveling out of their home health agency district.
There has been a lot of misinformation circulating about contact tracing requiring a threshold of 60% or higher adoption to be effective; that’s based on a misinterpretation of an Oxford study published earlier this year. The researchers behind the study subsequently clarified that in fact, any level of contact tracing, as aided by apps that support digital contact tracing, has a positive effect on reducing the spread of COVID-19, as well as resulting deaths.
The system includes the same privacy protections that Apple and Google have provided throughout, which means your location information is not collected or connected to any exposure notifications. Instead, the tech uses a randomly generated key to track when and where a device has come into Bluetooth range with other devices also using the software. It maintains a log of these random identifiers, and checks against reported confirmed diagnoses (also fully anonymized) to see if there has been any exposure risk — as determined by the definition of exposure in terms of duration and distance as established by each region’s governing public health authority.
One doesn’t have to dig too deep into legal organizations to find people who are skeptical about artificial intelligence.
AI is getting tremendous attention and significant venture capital, but AI tools frequently underwhelm in the trenches. Here are a few reasons why that is and why I believe GPT-3, a beta version of which was recently released by the OpenAI Foundation, might be a game changer in legal and other knowledge-focused organizations.
GPT-3 is getting a lot of oxygen lately because of its size, scope and capabilities. However, it should be recognized that a significant amount of that attention is due to its association with Elon Musk. The OpenAI Foundation that created GPT-3 was founded by heavy hitters Musk and Sam Altman and is supported by Mark Benioff, Peter Thiel and Microsoft, among others. Arthur C. Clarke once observed that great innovations happen after everyone stops laughing.
Musk has made the world stop laughing in so many ambitious areas that the world is inclined to give a project in which he’s had a hand a second look. GPT-3 is getting the benefit of that spotlight. I suggest, however, that the attention might be warranted on its merits.
Why have some AI-based tools struggled in the legal profession, and how might GPT-3 be different?
It is said that when you’re a hammer, every problem is a nail. The networks and algorithms that power AI are quite good at drawing correlations across enormous datasets that would not be obvious to humans. One of my favorite examples of this is a loan-underwriting AI that determined that the charge level of the battery on your phone at the time of application is correlated to your underwriting risk. Who knows why that is? A human would not have surmised that connection. Those things are not rationally related, just statistically related.
OpenAI’s latest language generation model, GPT-3, has made quite the splash within AI circles, astounding reporters to the point where even Sam Altman, OpenAI’s leader, mentioned on Twitter that it may be overhyped. Still, there is no doubt that GPT-3 is powerful. Those with early-stage access to OpenAI’s GPT-3 API have shown how to translate natural language into code for websites, solve complex medical question-and-answer problems, create basic tabular financial reports, and even write code to train machine learning models — all with just a few well-crafted examples as input (i.e., via “few-shot learning”).
Soon, anyone will be able to purchase GPT-3’s generative power to make use of the language model, opening doors to build tools that will quietly (but significantly) shape our world. Enterprises aiming to take advantage of GPT-3, and the increasingly powerful iterations that will surely follow, must take great care to ensure that they install extensive guardrails when using the model, because of the many ways that it can expose a company to legal and reputational risk. Before we discuss some examples of how the model can potentially do wrong in practice, let’s first look at how GPT-3 was made.
Machine learning models are only as good, or as bad, as the data fed into them during training. In the case of GPT-3, that data is massive. GPT-3 was trained on the Common Crawl dataset, a broad scrape of the 60 million domains on the internet along with a large subset of the sites to which they link. This means that GPT-3 ingested many of the internet’s more reputable outlets — think the BBC or The New York Times — along with the less reputable ones — think Reddit. Yet, Common Crawl makes up just 60% of GPT-3’s training data; OpenAI researchers also fed in other curated sources such as Wikipedia and the full text of historically relevant books.
Language models learn which succeeding words, phrases and sentences are likely to come next for any given input word or phrase. By “reading” text during training that is largely written by us, language models such as GPT-3 also learn how to “write” like us, complete with all of humanity’s best and worst qualities. Tucked away in the GPT-3 paper’s supplemental material, the researchers give us some insight into a small fraction of the problematic bias that lurks within. Just as you’d expect from any model trained on a largely unfiltered snapshot of the internet, the findings can be fairly toxic.
Because there is so much content on the web sexualizing women, the researchers note that GPT-3 will be much more likely to place words like “naughty” or “sucked” near female pronouns, where male pronouns receive stereotypical adjectives like “lazy” or “jolly” at the worst. When it comes to religion, “Islam” is more commonly placed near words like “terrorism” while a prompt of the word “Atheism” will be more likely to produce text containing words like “cool” or “correct.” And, perhaps most dangerously, when exposed to a text seed that involves racial content involving Blackness, the output GPT-3 gives tends to be more negative than corresponding white- or Asian-sounding prompts.
Image Credits: Arthur (opens in a new window)
How might this play out in a real-world use case of GPT-3? Let’s say you run a media company, processing huge amounts of data from sources all over the world. You might want to use a language model like GPT-3 to summarize this information, which many news organizations already do today. Some even go so far as to automate story creation, meaning that the outputs from GPT-3 could land directly on your homepage without any human oversight. If the model carries a negative sentiment skew against Blackness — as is the case with GPT-3 — the headlines on your site will also receive that negative slant. An AI-generated summary of a neutral news feed about Black Lives Matter would be very likely to take one side in the debate. It’s pretty likely to condemn the movement, given the negatively charged language that the model will associate with racial terms like “Black.” This, in turn, could alienate parts of your audience and deepen racial tensions around the country. At best, you’ll lose a lot of readers. At worst, the headline could spark more protest and police violence, furthering this cycle of national unrest.
OpenAI’s website also details an application in medicine, where issues of bias can be enough to prompt federal inquiries, even when the modelers’ intentions are good. Attempts to proactively detect mental illness or rare underlying conditions worthy of intervention are already at work in hospitals around the country. It’s easy to imagine a healthcare company using GPT-3 to power a chatbot — or even something as “simple” as a search engine — that takes in symptoms from patients and outputs a recommendation for care. Imagine, if you will, a female patient suffering from a gynecological issue. The model’s interpretation of your patient’s intent might be married to other, less medical associations, prompting the AI to make offensive or dismissive comments, while putting her health at risk. The paper makes no mention of how the model treats at-risk minorities such as those who identify as transgender or nonbinary, but if the Reddit comments section is any indication of the responses we will soon see, the cause for worry is real.
But because algorithmic bias is rarely straightforward, many GPT-3 applications will act as canaries in the growing coal mine that is AI-driven applications. As COVID-19 ravages our nation, schools are searching for new ways to manage remote grading requirements, and the private sector has supplied solutions to take in schoolwork and output teaching suggestions. An algorithm tasked with grading essays or student reports is very likely to treat language from various cultures differently. Writing styles and word choice can vary significantly between cultures and genders. A GPT-3-powered paper-grader without guardrails might think that white-written reports are more worthy of praise, or it may penalize students based on subtle cues that indicate English as a second language, which are in turn, largely correlated to race. As a result, children of immigrants and from racial minorities will be less likely to graduate from high school, through no fault of their own.
The creators of GPT-3 plan to continue their research into the model’s biases, but for now, they simply surface these concerns, passing along the risk to any company or individual who’s willing to take the chance. All models are biased, as we know, and this should not be a reason to outlaw all AI, because its benefits can surely outweigh the risks in the long term. But in order to enjoy these benefits, we must ensure that as we rush to deploy powerful AI like GPT-3 to the enterprise, that we take sufficient precautions to understand, monitor for and act quickly to mitigate its points of failure. It’s only through a responsible combination of human and automated oversight that AI applications can be trusted to deliver societal value while protecting the common good.
This article was written by humans.
Few could ever forget back in 2015 when security researchers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek remotely killed a Jeep’s engine on a highway with a Wired reporter at the wheel.
Since then, the car hacking world has bustled with security researchers looking to find new bugs — and ways to exploit them — in a new wave of internet-connected cars that have only existed the past decade.
This year’s Black Hat security conference — albeit virtual, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic — is no different.
Security researchers at the Sky-Go Team, the car hacking unit at Qihoo 360, found more than a dozen vulnerabilities in a Mercedes-Benz E-Class car that allowed them to remotely open its doors and start the engine.
Most modern cars are equipped with an internet connection, giving passengers access to in-car entertainment, navigation and directions, and more radio stations than you can choose from. But hooking up a car to the internet puts it at greater risk of remote attacks — precisely how Miller and Valasek hijacked that Jeep, which ended up in a ditch.
Although vehicle security has gotten better over the past half-decade, Sky-Go’s researchers showed that not even one of the most recent Mercedes-Benz models are impervious to attacks.
In a talk this week, Minrui Yan, head of Sky-Go’s security research team, said the 19 security vulnerabilities were now fixed, but could have affected as many as two million Mercedes-Benz connected cars in China.
Katharina Becker, a spokesperson for Mercedes’ parent company Daimler, pointed to a company statement published late last year after it patched the security issues. The spokesperson said Daimler could not corroborate the estimated number of affected vehicles.
“We addressed all findings and fixed all vulnerabilities that could be exploited before any vehicle in the market was affected,” said the spokesperson.
After more than a year of research, the end result was a series of vulnerabilities that formed an attack chain that could remotely control the vehicle.
To start, the researchers built a testbench to reverse-engineer the car’s components to look for vulnerabilities, dumping the car’s software and analyzing the car’s internals for vulnerabilities.
The researchers then obtained a Series-E car to verify their findings.
At the heart of the research is the E-Series’ telematics control unit, or TCU, which Yan said is the “most crucial” component of the car, as it allows the vehicle to communicate with the internet.
By tampering with the TCU’s file system, the researchers got access to a root shell — a way to run commands with the highest level of access to the vehicle’s internals. With root shell access, the researchers could remotely open the car’s doors.
The TCU file system also stores the car’s secrets, like passwords and certificates, which protect the vehicle from being accessed or modified without proper authorization. But the researchers were able to extract the passwords of several certificates for several different regions, including Europe and China. By obtaining the vehicle’s certificates and their passwords, the researchers could gain deep access to the vehicle’s internal network. The car’s certificate for the China region had a weak password, Yan said, making it easier to hijack a vulnerable car in the country.
Yan said the goal was to get access to the car’s back end, the core of the vehicle’s internal network. As long as the car’s back-end services can be accessed externally, the car is at risk of attacks, the researchers said.
The way the researchers did this was by tearing down the vehicle’s embedded SIM card, which allows the car to talk to the cell networks. A security feature meant the researchers couldn’t plug the SIM into a router without freezing access to the cell network. The researchers modified their router to spoof the vehicle, effectively making the cell network think it was the car.
With the vehicle’s firmware dumped, the networking protocols understood and its certificates obtained and cracked, the researchers say they could remotely control an affected vehicle.
The researchers said the car’s security design was tough and able to withstand a number of attacks, but it was not impervious.
“Making every back-end component secure all the time is hard,” the researchers said. “No company can make this perfect.”
But at least in the case of Mercedes-Benz, its cars are a lot more secure than they were a year ago.
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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has decided to ask the public for its thoughts on an attempt initiated in Trump in May to water down certain protections that arguably led to the creation of the modern internet economy. The nakedly retaliatory order seems to be, legally speaking, laughable, and could be resolved without public input — but the FCC wants your opinion, so you may as well give it to them.
Section 230 essentially prevents companies like Facebook and Google from being liable for content they merely host, as long as they work to take down illegal content quickly. Some feel these protections has given the companies the opportunity to manipulate speech on their platforms — Trump felt targeted by a fact-check warning placed by Twitter on his unsupported claims of fraud in mail-in warning.
To understand the order itself and see commentary from the companies that would be affected, as well as Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who co-authored the law in the first place, read our story from the day Trump signed the order. (Wyden called it “plainly illegal.”)
For a bipartisan legislative approach that actually addresses shortcomings in Section 230, check out the PACT Act announced in June. (Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) says they’re approaching the law “with a scalpel rather than a jackhammer.”)
More relevant to the FCC’s proceedings, however, are the comments of sitting commissioner Brendan Starks, who questioned the order’s legality and ethics, likening it to a personal vendetta intended to intimidate certain companies. As he explained:
The broader debate about Section 230 long predates President Trump’s conflict with Twitter in particular, and there are so many smart people who believe the law here should be updated. But ultimately that debate belongs to Congress. That the president may find it more expedient to influence a five-member commission than a 538-member Congress is not a sufficient reason, much less a good one, to circumvent the constitutional function of our democratically elected representatives.
Incidentally, Starks may be who Pai is referring to in a memo announcing the commentary period. “I strongly disagree with those who demand that we ignore the law and deny the public and all stakeholders the opportunity to weigh in on this important issue. We should welcome vigorous debate—not foreclose it,” Pai wrote.
This may be a reference to Commissioner Starks’s suggestion that the FCC address the order quickly and authoritatively: “If, as I suspect it ultimately will, the petition fails at a legal question of authority, I think we should say it loud and clear, and close the book on this unfortunate detour,” he said. After all, public opinion doesn’t count for much if the order has no legal effect to begin with and the FCC doesn’t even have to consider how it might revisit Section 230.
Whatever the case, the proposal is ready for you to comment on it. To do so, visit this page and click, in the box on the left, “+New Filing” or “+Express” — the first is if you would like to submit a document or evidence in support of your opinion, and the second is if you just want to explain your position in plain text. Remember, this information will be filed publicly, so anything you put in those fields — name, address and everything — will be visible online.
To be clear, you’re commenting on the NTIA proposal that the FCC draw up new rules regarding Section 230, which the executive order compelled that organization to send, not the executive order itself.
As with the net neutrality debacle, the FCC does not have to take your opinion into account, or reality for that matter. The comment period lasts 45 days, after which the item will likely go to internal deliberations at the Commission.
The past week, I’ve spent ample time looking to revamp my home audio setup. I think my only qualification is that my next setup is as dumb as possible.
In the past five years, my setup has gone from a fairly middling wired 2.1 speaker setup to a confusing menagerie of connected smart speakers. I’ve likely gone through at least five Google Assistant-laden speakers including the Google Home Max, a couple connected Sonos speakers, three HomePods, a Facebook Portal+, non-smart speakers connected via Chromecast Audio and god knows how many Alexa-integrated speakers. All in all, I can firmly say I have made some very bad audio decisions in my recent life.
I’ve had a lot of frustrations with my current setup, but they’re really issues with the entire smart speaker market:
All in all, it’s time for me to move on and invest some cash in a setup that will sound good for decades.
Now, many of you will say that my true error was a lack of commitment to one ecosystem, which is undoubtedly spot-on and yet I don’t think any of the players had precisely what I wanted hence the wildly piecemeal approach. Dumping more funds into a robust Sonos setup probably would have been the wisest commitment, but I have commitment issues and I think part of it was a desire to see what was out there.
In quarantine, I’ve gotten ample time to spend with my home audio system and the destructive weave on non-compatible hardware is all too much. I don’t want my speakers to have their own operating systems or for one speaker to play nice with my music streaming platform of choice, but not the other. I want something that can last.
After doing half-commits to several ecosystems, I feel I’ve seen and heard it all and now I’m shopping for some good old-fashioned dumb wired surround sound speakers to integrate with a slightly smarter AV receiver. God willing, I will have strength to not buy whatever cool audio gadgets come out next year and can stay strong. If you have some good tips on a nice setup, please help me out.
Workplace instant messaging platform Slack has filed an antitrust complaint against Microsoft in the European Union accusing the tech giant of unfairly bundling its rival Teams product with its cloud-based productivity suite.
A spokeswoman for the Commission’s competition division confirmed receipt of a complaint, telling us via email: “We confirm that we received a complaint by Slack against Microsoft. We will assess it under our standard procedures.”
We’ve also reached out to Microsoft and Slack for comment.
Per the FT, which has a statement from Slack, the company is accusing Microsoft of illegally abusing its market power by tying its competing product, Teams, to its dominant enterprise suite, Microsoft 365.
“Microsoft has illegally tied its Teams product into its market-dominant Office productivity suite, force installing it for millions, blocking its removal, and hiding the true cost to enterprise customers,” Slack said in the statement.
In further comments to the newspaper, Slack executives said they’re asking EU regulators to move quickly to “to ensure Microsoft cannot continue to illegally leverage its power from one market to another by bundling or tying products”.
Slack told the newspaper it wants the Windows maker to be forced to sell Teams separately to Microsoft 365 at a separate price, rather than bundling it with the existing suite and absorbing the cost.
The complaint is not a surprise given Microsoft and Slack have been at odds for years, ever since the Redmond-based software giant announced its Teams product back in 2016. At the time Slack took out a newspaper advertisement sardonically mocking Microsoft and welcoming the competition. In the ensuing years, Microsoft’s Teams product has also grown from also-ran to legitimate competitor.
Teams most recently announced that it had reached 75 million daily active users (DAU) in April of this year, a gain of 70% from a March number of 44 million DAUs. Like many remote-work friendly products and services, Slack and Teams have seen usage gains in the wake of COVID-19 and its economic disruptions. (Both services are also rolling out new features, combating for media attention, user mindshare, and new customer accounts).
Slack’s last shared DAU number that TechCrunch could find came from March, when Slack’s CEO reported 12.5 million daily actives.
Microsoft’s competing Teams product has managed to transition from dismissed upstart, to rival, to perhaps leading competitor in the space of a few years — but with the advantage of being bundled with a dominant office suite product. Slack’s business is still growing nicely, but with the power of Microsoft’s enterprise sales channel stapled to its growing Microsoft 365 product suite, it’s not surprising to see Slack seek regulatory relief against the larger company.
Whether you agree with Slack’s antitrust take, the move is likely good business. Slack’s shares dropped after its most recent earnings report after its growth and future guidance failed to meet investor expectations (in fairness, Slack did grow 50% on a year-over-year basis, even if Wall Street was unimpressed). If Microsoft’s Teams product is eating into its famed business expansion, Slack could see its share price suffer further. So, heading off Microsoft in a region famed for active government intervention into business appears savvy.
EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager is famed for her relative alacrity in grappling with complex digital cases. Though her record when judged by outcomes remains contested.
Also noteworthy: EU lawmakers are consulting on whether to give regional antitrust regulators greater powers to intervene in digital markets when they suspect a market might be being tipped unfairly in favor of one player.
For long time tech watchers, Microsoft being accused of unfairly bundling in the EU will of course bring back plenty of memories. Although, most recently, the tech giant has been making hay out of Apple being put under formal antitrust probe in the region — with president Brad Smith claiming in a Politico video interview last month that Cupertino’s app store walls are “higher” and “more formidable” than anything it threw up in years past.
Reminder: All the way back in 2004 EU antitrust regulators slapped Microsoft with the (then) biggest ever fine — around a half billion euros — for abusing a near monopoly position with its desktop OS, Windows, to try to crush competitors in the digital media player and low end server market. So, er…
At Microsoft Inspire today, the company made several Dynamics 365 announcements, including Dynamics 365 Customer Voice, a real-time customer feedback tool that could compete with Qualtrics, the company SAP bought in 2018 for a cool $8 billion.
Microsoft General Manager Brenda Bown says that as more customers move online during the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to capture real-time customer feedback that you can combine with other data to build a more complete picture of the customer that could lead to more successful interactions in the future.
“Customer Voice is a feedback management solution, and it’s designed to empower businesses and organizations to build better products, deliver better experiences to customers and really build the relationships for the customers with that feedback management tool,” Bown told TechCrunch.
The data gets shared with Microsoft’s customer data platform (CDP), and is built on top of Dynamics 365 and the Power Platform. The latter provides a way to customize the Customer Voice tool to meet the needs of an individual company.
Brent Leary, partner and co-founder at CRM Essentials, says this solves the problem of getting feedback as the interaction is happening. He adds that being able to share that data directly with the CDP makes it even more valuable.
“Customer feedback has to be done as close to the interaction/transaction as possible and as frictionless as possible for it to really work, or else customers won’t give it to you. And then the data has to be integrated into the CDP with all the other data automatically to really be of use. And having a platform to handle both the feedback capture and the data integration optimizes the likelihood of this happening,” Leary said.
The company also announced Dynamics 365 Connected Store, a set of tools designed to help stores manage in-store and curbside traffic, among other things. As the pandemic limits the number of people in a store at one time, using sensors and cameras, Connected Store can help managers understand and manage the number of people inside the store at any given time to help aid in social distancing.
It can also help add a level of automation to curbside pickup, letting an employee know when the customer has pulled up. “It alerts the employee and they can bring out the order for a more seamless and quick pickup. And obviously this scenario is super important today because of [more people wanting] contactless pickup,” Bown said.
Finally, the company announced a fraud protection component. She says that Dynamics 365 Fraud Protection helps protect businesses online or in physical stores from fraudulent activities, which she says is even more important as more transactions are conducted digitally. New capabilities include account protection and loss prevention tooling.
Inspire is the company’s annual partner conference, which is being held virtually this year. Bown says by running it virtually, the company can involve even more partners than a typical in-person conference because companies that couldn’t previously attend because of cost and distance are able to participate this year.
What happens when startups look to build on the trendiness of podcasting and social audio platforms while injecting them with some of virtual reality’s weirdness? Turns out, plenty of founders are already experimenting with that strange question.
As audio-centric platforms garner investor interest, virtual reality founders of old are trying to push 3D audio as the next evolution, presenting the tech in a way that looks entirely different from today’s voice chat platforms. Though some of these efforts have been in the works for a while, the fledgling platforms are a lot more interesting, as social efforts like Clubhouse take flight and investors continue to eat up audio startups.
They also build on Apple’s recent announcement that it’s bringing 3D audio support to the AirPods Pro, a feature which could allow immersive audio platforms to push even further toward realism.
3D audio is a technology that manipulates the sounds a user is hearing to correspond with where their ears (or an avatar’s) are positioned relative to those noise-making objects. The tech gives users a greater sense of spatial presence and has, to date, been primarily used to improve AR/VR experiences with Google, Facebook and Valve among the companies that have shipped their own 3D audio toolkits.
As more startups look to leverage the tech, they’re finding that adjusting audio based on how close you’re getting to another user onscreen can make it pretty easy to leave and join groups, clustering in apps like people would in real-world conversations.
Wall Street darling Tesla is holding onto its recent gains today on the back of a bullish analyst report, despite some weakness in tech shares.
Tesla has seen its value skyrocket in recent quarters, rising from a 52-week low share price of $211 to $1,548.81 today. That figure, however, is low in the eyes of some. Enter Piper Sandler.
The Piper analyst report, which was first released late Monday, gives Tesla a new price target of $2,322, up from the group’s prior price target of a little over $900 per share. The stock still has room to run, some believe, perhaps explaining some of the mania that related companies have seen in recent weeks, including fellow electric car manufacturers Nikola, Nio, and others.
It was enough to prompt a “wow” from Tesla CEO Elon Musk via a tweet Monday evening.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 14, 2020
The Piper report cites two key factors for its new Tesla price target: The company’s edge in manufacturing and resulting unit volume, and the possibility that software will allow the company to eventually generate operating margins in the mid-20s.
On the manufacturing front, Piper increased its 2020 delivery estimates based on Tesla’s recent second-quarter numbers. The firm believes Tesla can hit its original 2020 delivery guidance of 500,000 units, which it notes is impressive given factory closures due to COVID-19.
Piper suggested Tesla can scale rapidly in the coming years. The constraint isn’t customer demand, but instead capacity, the analyst suggested. Of course, building out production capacity is no small and cheap feat. Still, with customer demand wide open, Piper sees big revenue gains moving forward.
The latter argument feels more speculative. A 25% operating margin implies that the automotive company’s gross margins would need to be far higher, a seeming stretch for a company that sells molded metal and plastic in a competitive market.
The basis of Piper’s argument centers on Tesla’s software, specifically its FSD, or “full self-driving” feature, an $8,000 add-on that provides advanced driver assistance over its standard Autopilot system.
Let us provide some quick backstory so that everyone understands: Today, Tesla vehicles come standard with Autopilot, an advanced driver assistance system that offers a combination of adaptive cruise control and lane steering. Tesla once charged for this feature as well, but made it standard in April 2019.
The more robust and higher-functioning version of Autopilot is called full self-driving. FSD includes the parking feature Summon as well as Navigate on Autopilot, an active guidance system that navigates a car from a highway on-ramp to off-ramp, including interchanges and making lane changes. The system now recognizes and respond to traffic lights as well.
Still, Tesla vehicles are not self-driving cars. The system requires a human driver to remain engaged at all times.
Piper believes the FSD price will continue to rise, driving up margins. The firm predicted that the cost of FSD could rise as high as $40,000.
“Thanks to the high-margin nature of the FSD package, we think that by the 2030s, Tesla could conceivably be selling vehicles at cost — or even below cost — while still achieving higher operating margins,” Piper wrote.
There is a very material catch to all of this. Tesla is able to recognize FSD revenue on its balance sheet as it rolls out more features. In other words, Tesla has to keep improving the product to be able to capture that entire line item.
In the first-quarter earnings call, Tesla CFO Zachary Kirkhorn explained that the company takes “roughly half” of the FSD as revenue. The other half of it goes into deferred revenue.
“Our deferred revenue balance is continuing to grow,” he said at the time. “It’s a little bit over $600 million. And so as we release features with time, at the end of every quarter, we take a look at what features have been released, associated value and then we can release that from the deferred revenue into our financials for that quarter. And then cars going forward, once the feature is released, we can recognize that revenue.”
For Tesla shareholders, institutional and retail alike, Piper’s report is welcome. Now Tesla has to live up to raised expectations. The company reports earnings on July 22nd. TechCrunch will be tuned in.
A heavyweight partnership between industry and academic sciences is throwing their considerable weight into an important task: Creating a new low-cost, rapid diagnostic test for COVID-19. Chemical industry leader 3M has partnered with MIT to create a diagnostic tool for COVID-19 that’s easy-to-use, and that can be manufactured cheaply and in large volume for mass distribution and use.
The test is currently the research phase, with a team led by MIT’s Professor Hadley Sikes of the school’s Department of Chemical Engineering. Sikes’ laboratory has a specific focus on creating and developing tech to enhance the performance of protein tests that are meant to provide rapid, accurate results.
3M is contributing its biomaterials and bioprocessing expertise, along with its experience in creating products designed to be manufactured at scale. The end goal is to create a test that detects viral antigens, a type of test first cleared for use in COVID-19 detection at the beginning of May by the FDA. These tests provide results much faster than the molecular PCR-based test – but do have a higher change of fall negatives. Still, their ability to be administered at point-of-care, and return results within just minutes, could help considerably in ramping up testing efforts, especially in cases where individuals aren’t necessarily presenting symptoms but are in situations where they could pose a risk to others if carrying the virus while asymptomatic.
The new 3M and MIT projects is part of the RADx Tech program created by the National Institute of Health (NIH) specifically to fund the development of tests that can expand U.S. testing deployment. An initial $500,000 of funding was provided to MIT and 3M from the program, and it can potentially receive further funding after achieving other development milestones.
Today, the U.S. exceeded three million COVID-19 cases and 132,000 deaths. In several states, new hotspots have rolled back plans to reopen businesses. The novel coronavirus has — and will continue — to profoundly impact the way we live and work.
For the moment, that includes a shift in the employment status of many Americans. More than 50 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March. And while many states have made efforts to reopen businesses and return some sense of normality, these moves have led to a spike in cases and may prolong the pandemic and its ongoing economic impact.
Technology has been a lifeline for many, from food delivery to the 3D printing I highlighted last week, which has worked to address a nation suffering from personal protective equipment shortages. Automation and robotics have also been a constant in conversations around tech’s battle against COVID-19.
Robots don’t get sick, tired or emotionally burnt out, and unlike us, they aren’t walking, talking disease vectors. Automation advocates like to point to the “three Ds” of dull, dirty and dangerous jobs that will eventually be replaced by a robotic workforce, but in the age of COVID-19, nearly any essential job qualifies.
The robotic invasion has already begun in earnest. The service, delivery, health care and sanitation industries in particular have all opened a massive gap over the past several months that automation has been more than happy to roll right through. A recent report from The Brookings Institute notes that automation arrives in the workforce in fits and starts — most notably, during times of economic downturn.
“Robots’ infiltration of the workforce doesn’t occur at a steady, gradual pace. Instead, automation happens in bursts, concentrated especially in bad times such as in the wake of economic shocks, when humans become relatively more expensive as firms’ revenues rapidly decline,” the study found. “At these moments, employers shed less-skilled workers and replace them with technology and higher-skilled workers, which increases labor productivity as a recession tapers off.”
COVID-19 will be remembered for many things — most undoubtedly negative. There are, however, some silver linings among the horrors of the deadliest pandemic in recent memory. Among them, if the sort of human ingenuity that shines whenever the world is faced with a similar crisis.
The simple truth of the matter is the world wasn’t prepared for a virus of this magnitude. It’s something that’s played out in country after country, as the novel coronavirus has continued to devastate communities across borders.
In spite of early warning signs, many nations — the U.S. certainly included — were caught off-guard, lacking the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and other necessities required to battle the virus for a prolonged stretch. For many, taking on COVID-19 has required improvisation and resourcefulness — both, thankfully, qualities found in good volumes among the maker community that helped give rise to 3D printing technology.
If you’ve followed the technology even in passing over the last decade, you’re no doubt aware how much time evangelists spend justifying the usefulness of 3D printing beyond the the confines of desktop hobbyists. The defensiveness is certainly understandable. Consumer 3D printing has all of the trapping of an overhyped boom and bust. The truth of the matter is that it simply wasn’t ready for the mainstream moment many investors and members of the press were ready to thrust upon it.
But even as desktop 3D printing companies begun to scale back or shutter at an alarming rate, the industry has continued to have success stories among those who have further innovated and targeted the right market. Formlabs jumps out amongst the desktop market, with Carbon presenting a success story on the industrial side of the fence. What unites both beyond innovation is a focus on real-world case uses.
Tesla said Thursday that it 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.
The vast majority of deliveries — some 80,050 — were Model 3 and Model Y vehicles. The remaining 10,600 were its more expensive Model S and Model X vehicles. Tesla doesn’t provide breakdowns of each model separately nor does it give information about regional deliveries.
Analysts, who had anticipated lower numbers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, had varying forecasts with some predicting as few as 39,000 deliveries and as many as 83,000. A consensus of analysts surveyed by FactSet expected Tesla to deliver 72,000 vehicles in the second quarter.
The results pushed shares up nearly 9% in pre-market trading $1,218.21 Thursday morning.
Here’s a quick breakdown:
In the weeks leading up to the end of the second quarter, new sales goals were placed on employees, according to several sources who work for the company. Tesla also reduced the prices of its vehicles in China and North America. Both strategies aimed to spur demand for its electric vehicles.
The scheme appears to have worked in the second quarter, which could prompt analysts to place loftier expectations on Tesla for the remainder of the year.
Tesla shares popped Wednesday after the market opened and pushed the company’s market capitalization to nearly $208 billion, surpassing Toyota to become the world’s most valuable automaker by market value. The shares rose in part on reports of a companywide email from CEO Elon Musk congratulating employees on reaching its sales and production goals.