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Yesterday — July 2nd 2020Your RSS feeds

Velodyne becomes latest tech company to go public using a SPAC, eschewing the traditional IPO path

By Kirsten Korosec

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

The company said it able to raise $150 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE, from new institutional investors as well as existing shareholders of Graf Industrial. Through the transaction, Velodyne will have about $192 million in cash on its balance sheet.

Velodyne’s founder David Hall along with backers Ford, Chinese search engine Baidu, Hyundai Mobis  and Nikon Corp. will keep an 80% stake in the combined company. Hall will become executive chairman and Anand Gopalan will keep his CEO position.

The merger is expected to close in the third quarter of 2020. The combined company will remain on the NYSE and trade under a new ticker symbol VLDR following the close of the business combination, Velodyne said.

The agreement marks the latest company to turn to SPACs in lieu of a traditional IPO process. Earlier this week, online used car marketplace startup Shift Technologies announced an agreement to merge with SPAC Insurance Acquisition Corp. The newly combined company will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol. Nikola Motor also went public via a SPAC earlier this year.

Velodyne will become a publicly traded company amid a period of consolidation in the broader autonomous vehicle industry. Startups, automakers and tech giants have extended their timelines in the capitally intensive pursuit of developing and deploying AVs. Some startups have been swallowed up by larger companies, while others have become defunct. It has also prompted automakers in the past 18 months to shift more resources and attention towards advanced driver assistance systems in passenger cars, trucks and SUVs.

Lidar is perhaps one of the most crowded sub categories in the autonomous vehicle industry. Lidar is a sensor that measures distance using laser light to generate highly accurate 3D maps of the world around the car. The sensor is considered by most in the self-driving car industry a key piece of technology required to safely deploy robotaxis and other autonomous vehicles.

Velodyne is best known for its “KFC bucket” spinning-laser lidar. The design was inspired by sensor failures in vehicles competing in the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2004. Hall developed the spinning laser lidar and sold the sensors to teams competing in a future autonomous vehicle DARPA competition. The KFC buckets were the go-to lidar sensors for companies working on autonomous vehicles. Waymo, back when it was just the Google self-driving project, even used Velodyne LiDAR sensors until 2012.

However, Spinning lidar units are expensive and mechanically complex. It spurred a new generation of lidar startups to try new approaches. Today, there are dozens of lidar companies — some counts track upwards of 70 — trying to convince automakers and AV developers to use their sensors. And they’re all aiming for Velodyne.

This new generation of companies has prompted Velodyne to evolve as well. The company announced at CES 2020 in January new sensors, including a tiny $100 lidar unit called Velabit as well the VelaDome and a software product called Vella.

“There’s no argument about the market opportunity for lidar,” Gopalan told TechCrunch reporter Devin Coldewey back in January. “I think the right conversation is about what you want to do with it. Others are focused on level 2+ or 3 [autonomy, i.e. above simple driver assistance] — what we want to do is short-circuit that approach. The only reason it’s not being adopted at lower levels is price. If I say you can have lidar for a hundred dollars, of course you’re going to use it. Under a hundred dollars, you can’t even imagine the applications you open up: drones, home robotics, sidewalk robots.”

The company has spent the past several years focused on reducing the cost of its lidar as well as diversifying its portfolio. The Velabit is just one example of the company’s efforts to lock in customers outside of the AV industry. The small sensor doesn’t have the capabilities needed for autonomous vehicles. Instead, Velodyne sees an application for the sensor to be used on smaller industrial robots.

Ford taps Disney Media Works to mark the return of the Bronco SUV

By Kirsten Korosec

Ford is teaming up with Disney Media Networks to mark the return of its iconic Bronco SUV through a series of short films that will be broadcast across a number of cable and digital properties including ABC, ESPN, National Geographic and Hulu.

The strategy — prompted by COVID-19 shutdowns — is a departure for Ford, which has traditionally revealed new vehicles at auto shows or other in-person media events. More than three years ago, Ford announced it was bringing back the Bronco after years of customer requests and speculation. The mid-size SUV that ended its 30-year production run in 1996 was supposed to debut in June at the revamped North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Ford was forced to come up with a new strategy after organizers cancelled the 2020 NAIAS due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Bronco will be revealed in 3-minute films that will air during the first commercial break in the 8 p.m. ET hour July 13 on ABC, ESPN and National Geographic. Ford will begin taking reservations for the Bronco as the films air. The automaker plans to share additional information about the upcoming Bronco models on its YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter channels.

The short films will be available on-demand via Hulu the following day.

Ford is collaborating with Disney CreativeWorks to create the reveal stories. Jimmy Chin, director, cinematographer, photographer and professional climber best known for the Academy Award-winning documentary Free Solo, was tapped for the project.

“Ford Bronco is an icon that has captured people’s imaginations and inspired them to explore the most remote corners of America and the world since the 1960s,” said Jim Farley, Ford’s chief operating officer. “As a new era for Bronco begins, we’re proud to tap the strengths of epic adventurers like Jimmy Chin and Disney storytellers to help bring Bronco to life and inspire millions of people to get out into the wild.”

The short films will be different for each channel. On ABC, the film will star country music singer Kip Moore and air during “CMA Best of Fest,” the Country Music Association’s three-hour concert experience. Professional climber Brooke Raboutou will be featured in a film that will air on ESPN during its SportsCenter show. hin highlight a new Bronco model during the National Parks: Yosemite episode on the National Geographic channel. Chin will judge a hashtag challenge contest and appear in an Instagram Story featuring the Bronco on NatGeo’s Instagram account, Ford said.

State-backed COVID-19 disinfo spreads faster and farther than local news outlets in 4 languages

By Devin Coldewey

Questionable stories on COVID-19 from state-backed outlets in Russia, China, Turkey and Iran are being shared more widely than reporting by major news organizations around the world, according to Oxford analysts. French, German, Spanish and English news sites see far less social engagement than these foreign-originated ones in their languages.

The study is part of ongoing monitoring of COVID-19 disinformation campaigns by the Computational Propaganda Project. The group found that major outlets like Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El Pais are being out-shared four or five to one in some metrics by content from Russia Today, China Radio International, and other state-backed organizations.

Earlier reports focused on English-language sharing of this type of media, which can be generally described as fact-adjacent with a strong emphasis on certain narratives.

The repeated finding was that although mainstream news outlets have an overall stronger presence, state-backed and junk news is way ahead in engagement per post or article. In the latest report it is shown that on average, mainstream articles collect about 25 engagements per post, while state-backed items get 125. When multiplied by millions of users and followers, that becomes an enormous discrepancy.

There is more nuance to the data than that, of course, but it gives a general idea of what’s happening: Disinformation is being spread widely, whether by bots or organic reach, while ordinary news sources only reach a similar amount of people through more output and wider initial reach. It wasn’t, however, clear whether this was the case outside English-language media.

It certainly seems to be, according to data collected over three weeks from a variety of news sources. Mainstream media had a larger overall reach, but state-backed media often produced far higher engagement per article. This is perhaps explained by the fact that the state-backed organizations tended to pursue and push controversies and divisive narratives. As the study puts it:

  • Russian outlets working in French and German consistently emphasized weak democratic institutions and civil disorder in Europe, but offered different kinds of conspiracy theories about the pandemic.
  • Chinese and Turkish outlets working in Spanish promoted their own countries’ global leadership in combating the pandemic, while Russian and Iranian outlets generated polarizing content targeted at Latin America and Spanish-speaking social media users in the United States.

That sort of clickbait spreads like wildfire on social media, of course, and few of those who thoughtlessly hit that share button will have the inclination to check whether the source is a government-backed news agency plainly attempting to sow discord.

On the other hand, it seems as if some consider turnabout fair play.

For example, a Chinese state-backed news countering the flourishing U.S. conspiracy theory that the virus is a Chinese bioweapon with a counter-theory that it is a U.S. bioweapon released in and blamed on China.

“Many of these state-backed outlets blend reputable, fact-based reporting about the coronavirus with misleading or false information, which can lead to greater uncertainty among public audiences trying to make sense of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Oxford’s Katarian Rebello in a news release.

The countries and state-backed outlets mentioned also have a major presence in Arabic-language markets and the researchers are working on a follow-up study inclusive of those.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Oscar’s health insurance platform nabs another $225 million

By Jonathan Shieber

The direct-to-consumer health insurer Oscar has raised another $225 million in its latest, late-stage round of funding as its vision of tech-enabled healthcare services to drive down consumer costs becomes more and more of a reality.

In an effort to prevent a patient’s potential exposure to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, most healthcare practices are seeing patients remotely via virtual consultations, and more patients are embracing digital health services voluntarily, which reduces costs for insurers and potentially provides better access to basic healthcare needs. Indeed, Oscar now has a $2 billion revenue base to point to and now a fresh pile of cash from which to draw.

“Transforming the health insurance experience requires the creation of personalized, affordable experiences at scale,” said Mario Schlosser, the co-founder and chief executive of Oscar.

Oscar’s insurance customers have the distinction of being among the most active users of telemedicine among all insurance providers in the U.S., according to the company. Around 30% of patients with insurance plans from the company have used telemedical services, versus only 10% of the country as a whole.

The new late-stage funding for Oscar includes new investors Baillie Gifford and Coatue, two late-stage investor that typically come in before a public offering. Other previous investors, including Alphabet, General Catalyst, Khosla Ventures, Lakestar and Thrive Capital, also participated in the round.

With the new funding, Oscar was able to shrug off the latest criticisms and controversies that swirled around the company and its relationship with White House official Jared Kushner as the president prepared its response to the COVID-19 epidemic.

As the Atlantic reported, engineers at Oscar spent days building a standalone website that would ask Americans to self report their symptoms and, if at risk, direct them to a COVID-19 test location. The project was scrapped within days of its creation, according to the same report.

The company now offers its services in 15 states and 29 U.S. cities, with more than 420,000 members in individual, Medicare Advantage and small group products, the company said.

As Oscar gets more ballast on its balance sheet, it may be readying itself for a public offering. The insurer wouldn’t be the first new startup to test public investor appetite for new listings. Lemonade, which provides personal and home insurance, has already filed to go public.

Oscar’s investors and executives may be watching closely to see how that listing performs. Despite its anemic target, the public market response could signal that more startups in the insurance space could make lemonade from frothy market conditions — even as employment numbers and the broader national economy continue to suffer from pandemic-induced economic shocks.

Ford Bronco debut date moved so it wouldn’t fall on O.J. Simpson’s birthday

By Kirsten Korosec

Ford has changed the debut of its 2021 Bronco once again because its planned July 9 reveal falls on the birthday of O.J. Simpson, one of the iconic SUV’s most infamous passengers

The automaker tweeted Friday that it has moved the unveiling to July 13.

The reveal of the all-new Bronco lineup will now happen on Monday, July 13. This is instead of July 9. We are sensitive and respectful to some concerns raised previously about the date, which was purely coincidental.

— Ford Motor Company (@Ford) June 19, 2020

Here’s a short history lesson for those who might not understand why Simpson’s birthday and a Bronco are linked. In 1994, Simpson was charged in the double murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. He was involved in a slow speed chase as a passenger in a 1993 white Bronco driven by his friend after failing to turn himself in. The incident was broadcast on local and cable networks and the white Bronco became a pop culture moment. Simpson was acquitted.

Ford said that picking the debut date was coincidental.

The relaunch of the Bronco has been anticipated for years now. In 2017, Ford announced it was bringing back the Bronco after years of customer requests and speculation. The mid-size SUV that ended its 30-year production run in 1996 was supposed to debut in March. Then COVID-19 happened and well everything got cancelled, including numerous vehicle reveals.

Ford to roll out hands-free driving in Q3 of 2021, starting with the Mustang Mach-E

By Kirsten Korosec

Ford will start offering a hands-free driving feature in the second half 2021, beginning with its new Mustang Mach-E electric vehicle.

The hands-free feature, called Active Drive Assist, is part of a larger package of advanced driver assistance features collectively called Ford Co-Pilot360 Active 2.0 Prep Package. But it’s the hands-free offering that is getting all of the attention today.

The hands-free feature has been anticipated since the Mustang Mach-E — which has a driving monitoring system situated above the steering wheel — was revealed last year.

There are important caveats to Ford’s announcement. The tech, while notable, won’t be available everywhere and in every Ford vehicle. Drivers who want the feature will have to buy a 2021 Mustang Mach-E and the additional Active 2.0 Prep Package, which includes the proper hardware, such as sensors to support the system. The software is purchased separately and at a later date once it’s ready. The software can be added either at a dealership or via over-the-air updates in the third quarter of 2021, Ford said. And all this will come at a price, which is still unknown.

The hands-free feature will work on about 100,000 miles of pre-mapped, divided highways in the U.S. and Canada. The monitoring system will include an advanced infrared driver-facing camera that will track eye gaze and head position to ensure drivers are paying attention to the road. The DMS will be used in the hands-free mode and when drivers opt for lane-centering mode, which works on any road with lane lines. Drivers who don’t keep their eyes forward will be notified by visual prompts on their instrument cluster.

This “prep package” also includes the latest iteration of park assist, which will handle maneuvering into parallel and perpendicular spaces. It also offers a “Park Out Assist” feature, with side-sensing capability that helps drivers navigate out of a parking spot when someone’s parked too close.

Ford made a point of comparing its system in the Mustang Mach-E to Tesla’s Model Y. In particular, Ford notes that it is hands-free, while Tesla’s driver assistance system, known as Autopilot, is not. But the comparison doesn’t quite square.

A better comparison might be with its rival GM, which has taken a similarly cautious approach to introducing its hand-free driving system known as Super Cruise, which also has a driver-monitoring system. GM limited Super Cruise to just one Cadillac branded model, the full-size CT6 sedan, and restricted its use to certain divided highways. Over the past year, GM has improved the capabilities of the feature, expanded where it can be deployed and is offering it in other models.

La Haus is bringing US tech services to Latin America’s real estate market

By Jonathan Shieber

The alchemy for a successful startup can be hard to parse. Sometimes, it’s who you know. Sometimes it’s where you go to school. And sometimes it’s what you do. In the case of La Haus, a startup that wants to bring U.S. tech-enabled real estate services to the Latin American real estate market, it’s all three.

The company was founded by Jerónimo Uribe and Rodrigo Sánchez Ríos, both graduates of Stanford University who previously founded and ran Jaguar Capital, a Colombian real estate development firm that had built over $350 million worth of retail and residential projects in the country.

Uribe, the son of the controversial Colombian President Daniel Uribe (who has been accused of financing paramilitary forces during Colombia’s long-running civil war and wire-tapping journalists and negotiators during the peace talks to end the conflict) and Sánchez Ríos, a former private equity professional at the multi-billion-dollar firm Lindsay Goldberg, were exposed to the perils and promise of real estate development with their former firm.

Now the two entrepreneurs are using their know-how, connections and a new technology stack to streamline the home-buying process.

It’s that ambition that caught the attention of Pete Flint, the founder of Trulia and now an investor at the venture capital firm NfX. Flint, an early investor in La Haus, saw the potential in La Haus to help the Latin American real estate market leapfrog the services available in the U.S. Spencer Rascoff, the co-founder of Zillow, also invested in the company.

“Latin America is very early on in its infancy of having really professional agents and really professional brokerages,” said Flint.

La Haus guides home buyers through every stage of the process, with its own agents and salespeople selling properties sourced from the company’s developer connections.

“The average home in the U.S. sells in six weeks or less,” said La Haus chief financial officer Sánchez Ríos in an interview. “That timing in Latin America is 14 months. That’s the dramatic difference. There is no infrastructure in Latin America as a whole.”

La Haus began by reaching out to the founders’ old colleagues in the real estate development industry and started listing new developments on its service. Now the company has a mix of existing and new properties for sale on its site and an expanded geographic footprint in both Colombia and Mexico.

“We have a portal… that acts as a lead-generating machine,” said Sánchez Ríos. “We aggregate listings, we vet them. We focus on new developers.”

The company has about 500 developers using the service to list properties in Colombia and another 200 in Mexico. So far, the company has facilitated more than 2,000 transactions through its platform in three years.

“Real estate now is turning fully digital and also in this market professionalizing,” said Flint. “The publicly traded online real estate companies are approaching all-time highs. People are just prizing the space that they spend their time in… the technologies from VR and digital walkthroughs to digital closes become not just a nice to have but a necessity. “

Capitalizing on the open field in the market, La Haus recently closed on $10 million in financing led by Kaszek Ventures, one of the leading funds in Latin America. That funding will be used to accelerate the company’s geographic expansion in response to increasing demand for digital solutions in response to the COVID-19 epidemic.

“Because of Covid-19, consumers’ willingness to conduct real estate transactions online has gone through the roof,” said Sánchez Ríos, in a statement. “Fortunately we were in the position to enable that, and we expect to see a permanent shift online in how people conduct all, or at least most, of the home-buying process. This funding gives us ample runway to build the end-to-end real estate experience for the post-Covid Latin America.”

Joining NFX, Rascoff, and Kaszek Ventures are a slew of investors including Acrew Capital, IMO Ventures and Beresford Ventures. Entrepreneurs like Nubank founder David Velez; Brian Requarth, the founder of Vivareal (now GrupoZap); and Hadi Partovi, CEO and founder of Code.org also participated in the financing.

“We backed La Haus because we saw many of the same ingredients that resulted in a fantastic outcome for many of our successful companies: A world-class team with complementary skills; a huge addressable market; and an almost religious zeal by the founders to solve a big problem with technology,” said Hernan Kazah, co-founder and managing partner of Kaszek Ventures. 

Volkswagen sinks another $200 million into solid-state battery company QuantumScape

By Kirsten Korosec

Volkswagen said Tuesday it has invested another $200 million into QuantumScape, a Stanford University spinout developing solid-state batteries as the automaker bets on a next-generation technology that will unlock longer ranges and faster charging times in electric vehicles.

Volkswagen’s relationship with QuantumScape, which had early backing from Kleiner Perkins and Khosla Ventures, actually stretches back to 2012. The two companies formed a joint venture in 2018 to accelerate the development of solid-state battery technology and then produce them at commercial scale.

Volkswagen made an initial $100 million investment into QuantumScape in September 2018. The additional $200 million aims to accelerate that joint development work, according to Thomas Schmall, chairman of the board of management of Volkswagen Group components, which has end-to-end responsibility for batteries.

The companies have plans to set up a pilot plant for the industrial-level production of the solid-state batteries. Volkswagen said plans for this pilot factory will be “firmed up” sometime this year.

Two years ago, Volkswagen set a target to establish a production line for these batteries by 2025.

Today’s electric vehicles use lithium-ion batteries. A battery contains two electrodes. There’s an anode (negative) on one side and a cathode (positive) on the other. An electrolyte sits in the middle and acts as the courier that moves ions between the electrodes when charging and discharging. Solid-state batteries use a solid electrolyte and not a liquid or gel-based electrolyte found in lithium-ion batteries.

Developers claim that solid electrolytes have greater energy density, which translates into squeezing more range out of a smaller and lighter battery. Solid electrolytes also are supposed to be better at thermal management, reducing the risk of fire and the reliance on the kinds of cooling systems found in today’s EVs.

The cost of solid-state batteries has been a difficult hurdle to overcome. Yet the promise of this technology at commercial scale has prompted a number of automakers to pursue it. BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota are just a handful of automakers investing in the research and development of solid-state battery technology.

Here’s what is driving GM’s reported plans to develop a commercial electric van

By Kirsten Korosec

GM’s electric offensive to bring at least 20 new EVs to market by 2023 reportedly includes a commercial van.

Reuters reported Thursday that the company is developing an electric van for the commercial market code named BV1. The vehicle is expected to start production in late 2021 and will use the Ultium battery system that was revealed in March, according to the report.

When, and if, GM delivers on that goal in 2021 it will join an increasingly crowded pool. Amazon ordered 100,000 electric delivery vans from Rivian, the first of which are expected to be on the road in 2021. Ford has announced an electric Transit van that’s expected to launch in 2021. Startups such as Arrival, Chanje, Enirde, and XoS have received orders for electric vans from package delivery companies such as Ryder and UPS.

Tesla is one outlier that hasn’t revealed plans to produce commercial electric vans. GM’s move has been cast as a strategy to get ahead of Tesla in the commercial marketplace.

But there are likely other reasons driving GM’s decision, including high margins that can be achieved selling commercial trucks and vans as well as governments enacting increasingly strict emissions laws, particularly in urban centers.

Electric vans are logical fit for delivery companies, which tend to have predictable routes, a specific geographic area and operate a high utilization all of which fits with the EV infrastructure and charging ecosystems that enables their full economic use, a research note released Thursday from Morgan Stanley argues.

Morgan Stanley notes it hasn’t been “smooth sailing” for all EV vans. For instance, DHL’s StreetScooter program was recently shut down.

Prior to Reuters’ report, it appeared GM’s EV strategy was pinned to passenger vehicles. In March, GM revealed an electric architecture that will be the foundation of its future EV plans and support a wide range of products across its brands, including compact cars, work trucks, large premium SUVs, performance vehicles and a new Bolt EUV crossover expected to come to market next summer.

GM said the modular architecture, called “Ultium,” will be capable of 19 different battery and drive unit configurations, 400-volt and 800-volt packs with storage ranging from 50 kWh to 200 kWh, and front-, rear- and all-wheel drive configurations.

GM’s focus on making this EV architecture modular underlines the automaker’s desire to electrify a wide variety of its business lines, from the Cruise Origin autonomous taxi and compact Chevrolet  Bolt EUV to the GMC HUMMER electric truck and SUV and the newly-announced Cadillac Lyriq SUV. GM also showed a variety of electric vehicles that had not yet been announced, to show how this modularity will be exploited further out in their product plan, including a massive Cadillac flagship sedan called Celestiq.

Self-driving vehicle startup Argo AI completes $2.6B deal with Volkswagen, expands to Europe

By Kirsten Korosec

Volkswagen Group finalized Tuesday its $2.6 billion investment into Argo AI, the Pittsburgh-based self-driving car startup that came out of stealth in 2017 with $1 billion in backing from Ford.

The deal turns Argo into a global company with two customers — VW and Ford — as well as operations in the U.S. and Europe and an instant jump in its workforce. Autonomous Intelligent Driving, the self-driving subsidiary that was launched in 2017 to develop autonomous vehicle technology for the VW Group, will be absorbed into Argo AI. AID’s Munich offices will become Argo’s European headquarters.

That integration, which can begin now that the deal has closed, will expand Argo’s workforce to more than 1,000 people. Argo also has offices in Detroit, Palo Alto, and Cranbury, New Jersey. The company has fleets of autonomous vehicles mapping and testing on public roads in Austin, Miami and Washington, D.C.

Argo AI is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles. That mission now expands to VW. Ford and VW will share the cost of developing Argo AI’s self-driving vehicle technology under the terms of the deal.

“Building a safe, scalable and trusted self-driving service, however, is no small task. It’s also not a cheap one,” Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC CEO John Lawler said in a blog post.

Two years ago, Ford said it would spend $4 billion through 2023 in a newly created LLC dedicated to building out an autonomous vehicles business. Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC houses the company’s self-driving systems integration, autonomous-vehicle research and advanced engineering, AV transportation-as-a-service network development, user experience, business strategy and business development teams.

Lawler emphasized that “sharing development costs” doesn’t mean Ford is reducing its overall spend in autonomous vehicles. Instead, the company said it will reallocate money towards development of transportation as a service software and fleet operations for its eventual self-driving service.

Despite this shared investment, Ford and VW will not collaborate on the actual self-driving vehicle service.

Lawler, who is also vice president of mobility partnerships at Ford, said the U.S. automaker “will remain independent and fiercely competitive in building its own self-driving service.”

Argo’s board will now be comprised of two VW seats, two Ford seats and three Argo seats.

As wildfire season approaches, AI could pinpoint risky regions using satellite imagery

By Devin Coldewey

The U.S. has suffered from devastating wildfires over the last few years as global temperatures rise and weather patterns change, making the otherwise natural phenomenon especially unpredictable and severe. To help out, Stanford researchers have found a way to track and predict dry, at-risk areas using machine learning and satellite imagery.

Currently the way forests and scrublands are tested for susceptibility to wildfires is by manually collecting branches and foliage and testing their water content. It’s accurate and reliable, but obviously also quite labor intensive and difficult to scale.

Fortunately, other sources of data have recently become available. The European Space Agency’s Sentinel and Landsat satellites have amassed a trove of imagery of the Earth’s surface that, when carefully analyzed, could provide a secondary source for assessing wildfire risk — and one no one has to risk getting splinters for.

This isn’t the first attempt to make this kind of observation from orbital imagery, but previous efforts relied heavily on visual measurements that are “extremely site-specific,” meaning the analysis method differs greatly depending on the location. No splinters, but still hard to scale. The advance leveraged by the Stanford team is the Sentinel satellites’ “synthetic aperture radar,” which can pierce the forest canopy and image the surface below.

“One of our big breakthroughs was to look at a newer set of satellites that are using much longer wavelengths, which allows the observations to be sensitive to water much deeper into the forest canopy and be directly representative of the fuel moisture content,” said senior author of the paper, Stanford ecoydrologist Alexandra Konings, in a news release.

The team fed this new imagery, collected regularly since 2016, to a machine learning model along with the manual measurements made by the U.S. Forest Service. This lets the model “learn” what particular features of the imagery correlate with the ground-truth measurements.

They then tested the resulting AI agent (the term is employed loosely) by having it make predictions based on old data for which they already knew the answers. It was accurate, but most so in scrublands, one of the most common biomes of the American west and also one of the most susceptible to wildfires.

You can see the results of the project in this interactive map showing the model’s prediction of dryness at different periods all over the western part of the country. That’s not so much for firefighters as a validation of the approach — but the same model, given up to date data, can make predictions about the upcoming wildfire season that could help the authorities make more informed decisions about controlled burns, danger areas, and safety warnings.

The researchers’ work was published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment.

Rivian’s Amazon electric delivery van still on track as factory reopens

By Kirsten Korosec

Rivian, the electric vehicle company backed by Amazon, Cox Automotive and Ford, has resumed work at its factory in Normal, Ill. following a temporary shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Construction on the factory, which will eventually produce its R1T and R1S electric vehicles for consumers as well as 100,000 delivery vans for Amazon, has restarted with employees returning in phases. Despite the shutdown and gradual restart, the timeline for the Amazon delivery vans is still on track, according to a statement from Amazon released Thursday.

In September, Amazon announced it had ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles from Rivian as part of its commitment to The Climate Pledge to become net zero carbon by 2040. Vans will begin delivering to customers in 2021, as previously planned. About 10,000 of electric vehicles will be on the road as early as 2022 and all 100,000 vehicles on the road by 2030, Amazon said in a statement Thursday.

Rivian has pushed the start of production on the R1T and R1S to 2021. The company had initially planned to start production and begin deliveries of the electric pickup truck and SUV in late 2020. That timeline has been adjusted. Rivian had always planned to deliver the R1T truck first, followed by the R1S.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the company to adjust its timeline due to supply constraints. However, Rivian is now working on bringing the production and delivery timeline of the R1T and R1S closer together.

For now, the company is focused on work inside and outside the factory. About 335 Rivian employees were on site before COVID hit. Today, about 116 are on site with plans to gradually bring back the remaining employees. Rivian did not furlough any employees and continues to pay all workers their wages.

About 109 contractors are also back at the factory working on the interior. Another 120 to 140 contractors are working outside to expand the factory from 2.6 million to 3 million square feet.

The company has implemented new safety practices under a 4-phase plan, according to Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe. Temperature checks are carried out and workers are supplied with protective clothing and equipment.

The vehicle engineering and design teams have also developed digital methods to make sure that program timing remains on track, according to Scaringe.

Kenya’s Apollo Agriculture raises $6M Series A led by Anthemis

By Jake Bright

Apollo Agriculture believes it can attain profits by helping Kenya’s smallholder farmers maximize theirs.

That’s the mission of the Nairobi-based startup that raised $6 million in Series A funding led by Anthemis.

Founded in 2016, Apollo Agriculture offers a mobile-based product suit for farmers that includes working capital, data analysis for higher crop yields and options to purchase key inputs and equipment.

“It’s everything a farmer needs to succeed. It’s the seeds and fertilizer they need to plant, the advice they need to manage that product over the course of the season. The insurance they need to protect themselves in case of a bad year…and then, ultimately, the financing,” Apollo Agriculture CEO Eli Pollak told TechCrunch on a call.

Apollo’s addressable market includes the many smallholder farmers across Kenya’s population of 53 million. The problem it’s helping them solve is a lack of access to the tech and resources to achieve better results on their plots.

The startup has engineered its own app, platform and outreach program to connect with Kenya’s farmers. Apollo uses M-Pesa mobile money, machine learning and satellite data to guide the credit and products it offers them.

The company — which was a TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa 2018 finalist — has served over 40,000 farmers since inception, with 25,000 of those paying relationships coming in 2020, according to Pollak.

Apollo Agriculture Start

Apollo Agriculture co-founders Benjamin Njenga and Eli Pollak

Apollo Agriculture generates revenues on the sale of farm products and earning margins on financing. “The farm pays a fixed price for the package, which comes due at harvest…that includes everything and there’s no hidden fees,” said Pollak.

On deploying the $6 million in Series A financing, “It’s really about continuing to invest in growth. We feel like we’ve got a great product. We’ve got great reviews by customers and want to just keep scaling it,” he said. That means hiring, investing in Apollo’s tech and growing the startup’s sales and marketing efforts.

“Number two is really strengthening our balance sheet to be able to continue raising the working capital that we need to lend to customers,” Pollak said.

For the moment, expansion in Africa beyond Kenya is in the cards but not in the near-term. “That’s absolutely on the roadmap,” said Pollak. “But like all businesses, everything is a bit in flux right now. So some of our plans for immediate expansion are on a temporary pause as we wait to see things shake out with with COVID.”

Apollo Agriculture’s drive to boost the output and earnings of Africa’s smallholder farmers is born out of the common interests of its co-founders.

Pollak is an American who studied engineering at Stanford University and went to work in agronomy in the U.S. with The Climate Corporation. “That was how I got excited about Apollo. I would look at other markets and say, ‘wow, they’re farming 20% more acres of maize, or corn, across Africa but farmers are producing dramatically less than U.S. farmers,'” said Pollak.

Pollak’s colleague, co-founder Benjamin Njenga, found inspiration from his experience in his upbringing. “I grew up on a farm in a Kenyan village. My mother, a smallholder farmer, used to plant with low-quality seeds and no fertilizer and harvested only five bags per acre each year,” he told the audience in 2018 at Startup Battlefield Africa in Lagos.

Image Credits: Apollo Agriculture”We knew if she’d used fertilizer and hybrid seeds her production would double, making it easier to pay my school fees.” Njenga went on to explain that she couldn’t access the credit to buy those tools, which prompted the motivation for Apollo Agriculture.

Anthemis Exponential Ventures’ Vica Manos confirmed its lead on Apollo’s latest raise. The UK-based VC firm — which invests mostly in the Europe and the U.S. — has also backed South African fintech company Jumo and will continue to consider investments in African startups, Manos told TechCrunch.

Additional investors in Apollo Agriculture’s Series A round included Accion Venture Lab, Leaps by Bayer and Flourish Ventures.

While agriculture is the leading employer in Africa, it hasn’t attracted the same attention from venture firms or founders as fintech, logistics or e-commerce. The continent’s agtech startups lagged those sectors in investment, according to Disrupt Africa and WeeTracker’s 2019 funding reports.

Some notable agtech ventures that have gained VC include Nigeria’s Farmcrowdy, Hello Tractor — which has partnered with IBM and Twiga Foods, a Goldman-backed B2B agriculture supply chain startup based in Nairobi.

On whether Apollo Agriculture sees Twiga as a competitor, CEO Eli Pollak suggested collaboration. “Twiga could be a company that in the future we could potentially partner with,” he said.

“We’re partnering with farmers to produce lots of high-quality crops, and they could potentially be a great partner in helping those farmers access stable prices for those…yields.”

Ford to offer COVID-19 testing for symptomatic workers as part of reopening plan

By Kirsten Korosec

Ford said Saturday it will test hourly and salaried employees with suspected COVID-19 symptoms in four metro areas where it has major operations as it prepares to reopen facilities this month.

The automaker is expected to resume production and some operations at its North America facilities May 18. Aside from factory workers, Ford is also bringing back about 12,000 employees whose jobs cannot be done remotely such as vehicle testing and design. The company’s parts distribution centers reopened in North America on May 11.

Ford said it will initially use polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing, which identifies if someone is actively infected. PCR tests are used to detect the presence of viral RNA, not the presence of the antibodies, which are the body’s immune response.

The automaker said it has signed contracts with health systems to conduct the testing. Ford will work with Beaumont Health for testing in Southeast Michigan, the University of Louisville Health in Louisville, Liberty Hospital in the Kansas City area and the University of Chicago Medical Center and UChicago Medicine-Ingalls Memorial Hospital in the Chicago area.

Collectively, Ford employs more than 72,000 people in Southeast Michigan, Louisville, Kansas City and Chicago.

The contracts will enable Ford to test employees with suspected symptoms with a goal of getting results back within 24 hours, according to the automaker’s medical director Dr. Walter Talamonti.

Testing results will be simultaneously shared with Ford doctors to help identify other employees who might have been in close contact with an infected worker. Those employees will be required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

The company is working on expanding testing, Ford CTO Ken Washington said in a statement. Washington added that Ford is looking into voluntary antibody testing in the future for its employees.

Ford released May 1 a back-to-work playbook that describes the protocols that it will put in place once production at its factories resume. Employees will have to complete a self-certification health check daily and have their temperature scanned upon arrival to any Ford facility. Face masks will also be required. Safety glasses with side shields or face shields will be required when jobs don’t allow for social distancing.

Spin restarts scooter business in four markets

By Kirsten Korosec

Spin, the electric scooter startup acquired by Ford in 2019 for nearly $100 million, has restarted operations in four U.S. markets as COVID-19-related closures begin to ease.

The company has resumed operations in Orlando, Nashville, Columbus, Ohio and St. Louis. The ramp up of operations will depend on the city, the company said. In Columbus, Spin has deployed its entire 200-scooter fleet, the largest number allowed under the city’s permit. Spin is putting fewer scooters than permits allow in other cities. The company said it will scale up its scooter numbers based on demand.

Spin was operating in about 70 markets, a figure that includes college campuses and cities, until the COVID-19 pandemic caused governments to issue stay-at-home orders. The company has maintained operations in some areas that have allowed it.

Spin said it has “enhanced” its safety protocols, which includes disinfecting scooters more often and requiring employees to wear gloves and face shields during their shifts.

The scooters are now disinfected every time they’re picked up for charging or enter a warehouse, the company said. Scooters with higher usage will be cleaned more frequently — as much as twice a day or more, a spokesperson said when asked for more details.

At warehouses, where Spin scooters are maintained, charged and cleaned, workers are supplied with disinfectant materials to properly clean high-traffic surfaces between every shift. Employees also carry disinfectant materials with them out in the field to clean scooters on the spot.

Spin said it has been working directly with cities to fill transportation gaps and deploy scooters where they are most needed.

Separately, the company said it has extended through May 31 a program that gives essential healthcare workers free 30-minute rides and helmets.

The Station: Audi punts on Level 3, Lyft layoffs and Nio’s $1 billion deal

By Kirsten Korosec

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.

Hi readers. Welcome back to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to the future (and present) of transportation. I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch.

While COVID-related stay-at-home orders have been extended in places like the San Francisco Bay area, officials in other counties and states in the U.S. have decided to open up for business. The rest of us are watching and waiting to see how these two experiments play out.

These opposing approaches have managed to create even more tension in the United States. If politics didn’t divide us before, how and when to open amid a health pandemic is proving to be an effective wedge.

The “how” is as important, or even more so, than the “when.” What will life and business look like? Wuhan, China, a transportation and manufacturing metropolis of 11 million people and where COVID-19 started, offers a view into one approach. (The photo below shows a worker disinfecting a bus in Wuhan on April 30.)

China-wuhan-bus-covid

A staff member sprays disinfectant on a bus at a long-distance bus station in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on April 30, 2020, ahead of the Labor Day holiday which started May 1.

When those stay-at-home orders are finally lifted, returning to work won’t be quick or easy. Wuhan was placed on lockdown January 23. Wuhan officials eased outgoing travel restrictions April 8. While the strictest component of that lockdown has been lifted, many businesses remain closed. Didi didn’t reopen its ride-hailing services in the city until April 30.

In short, it’s going to be complex. Ford’s back-to-work playbook is a case in point. The plan includes a number of daily measures such as online health self-certifications completed before work every day, face masks and no-touch temperature scans upon arrival. But that’s just a sliver of what it will take. Check out their complete playbook.

Here’s a friendly reminder to reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Alrighty folks, shall we dig in? Vamos. 

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

It was a rough week for micromobility. Over at Lyft, the company laid off 982 employees and furloughed 288 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Lyft also permanently ceased scooter operations in Oakland, San Jose and Austin.

“We’re focusing our resources where we can have the biggest impact and best serve cities and riders,” a Lyft spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “We’re continuing to invest in our bike and scooter business, but have made the tough decision to shift resources away from three scooter markets and toward opportunities where we are set up for longer-term success.”

At Lime, the startup let go 13% of its staff while the very next day relaunching its electric scooters in Baltimore and Ogden, Utah.

“Almost overnight, our company went from being on the eve of accomplishing an unprecedented milestone — the first next-generation micromobility company to reach profitability — to one where we had to pause operations in 99% of our markets worldwide to support cities’ efforts at social distancing,” Lime CEO Brad Bao wrote in a note to employees.

Just one day after those layoffs, the company relaunched scooters in Baltimore to help support essential medical workers as well as in Ogden.

Uber is weighing its own layoffs. The Information reported that the company could cut up to 20% of its staff. That translates to more than 5,000 jobs. Those cuts could be announced in stages over the next several weeks. Meanwhile, Thuan Pham, who was hired as Uber’s chief technology officer by former CEO Travis Kalanick back in 2013, is leaving the company in three weeks, the ride-share giant revealed in an SEC filing.

— Megan Rose Dickey

Deal of the week

money the station

Chinese electric vehicle startup Nio secured a $1 billion investment from several state-owned companies in Hefei in return for agreeing to establish headquarters in the city’s economic development hotspot and giving up a stake in one of its business units.

The injection of capital comes from several investors, including Hefei City Construction and Investment Holding Group, CMG-SDIC Capital and Anhui Provincial Emerging Industry Investment Co.

Why deal of the week? The deal alleviates some concerns about Nio’s liquidity. It also marks the latest Chinese EV startup to turn to the state as private capital has shrunk.

There is no free lunch, however. The deal itself is complex and involves some asset shuffling. Nio is transferring its core businesses in China into a new company called Nio China. The investors will get a 24.1% stake in Nio China. The shareholding structure of the parent company is unchanged.

Other deals announced this week are below. Keep in mind that just because a deal is announced that doesn’t mean it closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Fundraising rounds often close weeks and even months before they’re announced.

Otonomo, an automotive data services startup based in Israel, raised $46 million in a Series C funding round that included investments from SK Holdings, Avis Budget Group and Alliance Ventures. Existing investors Bessemer Venture Partners also participated. Otonomo has raised $82 million, to date.

The company has a software platform that captures and anonymizes vehicle data so it can then be used to create apps to provide services such as electric vehicle management, subscription-based fueling, parking, mapping, usage-based insurance and emergency service.

KlearNow, a startup that has built a software platform to automate the customs clearance process, raised $16 million in a Series A funding round led by GreatPoint Ventures, with additional participation from Autotech Ventures, Argean Capital and Monta Vista Capital. Ashok Krishnamurthi, managing partner at GreatPoint Ventures, will join KlearNow’s board. Daniel Hoffer from Autotech Ventures is joining as a board observer.

Skycell, a Switzerland-based startup that builds hardware and operates a logistics network designed to transport pharmaceuticals has raised $62 million.

A merger between U.K.’s JustEat and the Netherlands’ Takeaway.com has been approved by regulators. The merged company announced that it had raised €700 million ($756 million) in new outside funding in the form of new shares and convertible bonds.

Cheetah, a San Francisco-based startup that provided a wholesale delivery service and has pivoted to selling to consumers during COVID-19, raised $36 million in Series B funding.

Innovation of the week

Computer vision company Eyesight Technologies has tweaked its driver monitoring system so it can detect driver distraction and drowsiness even while wearing a medical face mask.

This “innovation of the week” gets back to my opening remarks about “how” we get back to work. Face masks will likely be a part of our world for some time.

Driver monitoring systems, which are increasingly being used by commercial fleets, are trained to detect and monitor facial features of the driver. The system will take in data points like head pose, mouth, eyes and eyelids and use the gathered visual data to detect signs of drowsiness and distraction. If the sensor can’t read one or more of these features the system could fail to detect a drowsy truck driver or inattentive transit worker.

Driver Monitoring with mask

Eyesight Technologies

Eyesight Technologies says that its computer vision and AI algorithms have been trained to detect distraction and drowsiness even if a driver is wearing a mask and glasses.

“We are living in unprecedented times,” Eyesight Technologies CEO David Tolub said. “Without a concrete end date to the current situation, wearing medical masks may be a reality for the foreseeable future. Eyesight Technologies is forging ahead and adapting to provide a reliable solution to help guarantee safety even under less than ideal circumstances.”

Audi punts on Level 3

Audi has scrapped plans to roll out a Level 3 automated driving system in its A8 flagship sedan. Automotive News Europe broke the story.

The feature, which is branded Traffic Jam Pilot, theoretically allows the vehicle to operate on its own without the human driver keeping their eyes on the road. But it’s never been commercially deployed.

Traffic Jam Pilot was supposed to be in the latest-generation A8 that debuted in 2017. It’s now 2020. What happened? Regulations, or lack of them, have been the primary scapegoat. But it’s not quite the whole story.

TechCrunch reached out to Audi to dig into why? In short, the company told us, that it’s complicated. The lack of a legal framework has raised concerns about liability. To further complicate the problem, the A8 is now progressing through its generational life cycle. And Audi was faced with continuing to pour money into the feature to adapt it without promise of framework progressing.

Here’s a few tidbits from the folks at Audi.

On the legal framework:

As of now, there is no legal framework for Level 3 automated driving. Consistently it is not possible to homologate such function anywhere in the world in a series production car. It is still very challenging to plan the exact introduction scenarios for level 3 systems, as we continuously moving in an intensive interplay between the findings from ongoing testing and the requirements that legislators and approval authorities are now defining for conditional automated driving.

On development costs:

As these clarifications and safeguards continue to take time, we also monitor economic aspects in addition. This includes development costs, which are summing up continuously. Secondly, the remaining life of the determined target model A8 combined with the forecasted installation rate and the expected market greediness in the individual countries are playing an important role.

This has brought us to the following decision: We will not see the traffic jam pilot on the road with its originally planned level 3 series function in the current model generation of the Audi A8 because our luxury sedan has already gone through a substantial part of its model life cycle.

Audi’s belief in automated driving:

We still believe in the technology of automated driving and today we know better than almost anyone when it comes to the decisive technological key factors. During the development phase we continuously learned more and more technical “unknown unknowns” and developed approaches how to handle the fact, that there will appear more.

Together with the above mentioned dependencies concerning legislation and type approval, we believe that actually it is not the right moment to deliver the function to the customer. This is our attitude of responsibility.

How Audi is moving forward:

An important part of the truth, which the industry is now facing: development of automated driving is extremely complex and cost-intensive. Our aim more than ever before is to generate the greatest possible synergies.

Within the VW group we therefore have the best preconditions. We have consolidated our efforts to further develop level 3 automated driving in the Car.Software organization. This is a new organization within the Volkswagen Group .

Former Audi managers will be head of two out of the five domains within this new organization: Thomas Müller will manage the automated driving area, and Dr. Klaus Büttner will manage the Intelligent Body&Cockpit area. Together with the specialists coming from Audi, Volkswagen and Porsche, this ensures that the current expertise in this cross-brand organization is available for the greatest possible benefit to everyone in the Volkswagen Group.

Oxwash bags $1.7M for a cleaner spin on laundry

By Natasha Lomas

Oxwash, a UK-based laundry startup that’s aiming to disrupt traditional but environmentally costly washing and dry-cleaning processes by using ozone to sterilize fabrics at lower temperatures, along with electric cargo bikes for hyper local pick ups and deliveries, has bagged a £1.4 million (~$1.7M) seed.

Backers in the funding round include TrueSight Ventures, Biz Stone (co-founder of Twitter), Paul Forster (founder of Indeed.com), Founders Factory and other unnamed angel investors.

Prior to this, Oxwash was working with a £300k pre-seed round — which it used to fund building its first washing hubs (which it calls “Lagoons”) and to test its reengineered washing process.

The startup’s pitch is that its applying “space age” technology to clean dirty laundry, burnished by the claim that its co-founder and CEO, Kyle Grant, is a former NASA engineer — having spent two years as a systems engineer where he researched the use and effect of microorganisms for extended space travel.

That said, it’s packing its reengineered cleaning system into standard (but “massively” modified) industrial washing machines. Just add coronavirus-safe ‘space suits’ (er, PPE)….

“Washing still has crazy carbon emissions, pollution and collection/delivery services cause large amounts of congestion. We saw a way to re-engineer the laundry process from the ground up and to be the first truly sustainable, space-age laundry company in the world,” says Grant, discussing the opportunity he and his co-founder spied to rethink laundry.

“We’re developing processes to have zero net carbon emissions for the whole laundry process — from collection to washing and back to delivery.”

The team is developing “chemistry that works at 20˚C better than at 40˚C or higher, integrating ozone disinfection to remove microorganisms by oxidation rather than using heat and developing water recycling and filtration systems to reduce water consumption and remove microfibre pollution at the same time”, per Grant.

It’s also structuring business operations to locate washing hubs in city centres, where its customers are based, so it can make use of electric bikes for moving the laundry around — allowing for a next day service with 30 minute collection and delivery windows.

“Traditional washing processes use huge amounts of water, energy to heat said water, harsh chemicals and normal petrol/diesel vans for the collections and deliveries. These process warehouses are usually located outside of cities and there are large lags in when items are returned to the customers (up to two weeks),” he further claims.

While ozone itself is a pollutant that degrades air quality, and can even be dangerous if released, Grant says the ozone used in its cleaning machines — which is produced from oxygen in the atmosphere — degrades back to oxygen “within minutes and is therefore inert and safe”.

“After extensive analysis ozone is far safer to use in commercial laundry processes than heat and harsh chemicals such as peroxides (bleach),” he suggests.

On safety, he also says their washing machines are modified to be sealed whilst “washing and disinfecting”, and can only be opened after the ozone has degraded. “Our lagoons are also fitted with ozone sensors that will cut off our generators if the ozone concentration in the air ever goes over the safe limit,” he adds. “Thankfully this has never occurred. The risks to our staff are far lower than when working with boiling water tanks, harsh chemicals and manual handling, the usual work flow in commercial laundries.”

Oxwash launched in the UK in early 2018 and now has more than 4,000 individual customers, per Grant, along with “several hundred” business customers — including the Marriott Hotel Chain, NHS GP practices, London Marathon and Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

It’s executed a slight pivot of focus over the past two months — spying an opportunity to target risks related to the coronavirus. “We’ve developed a service in the last 2 months that is available to provide coronavirus disinfection,” he says in a statement. “We are working closely with [the UK’s National Health Service] NHS and vulnerable groups to provide support when needed.”

“We have adopted laboratory-grade PPE [personal protective equipment] processes, heavily inspired and adapted from my time working at NASA but also from guidelines from the NHS and HSE England,” Grant adds. “For example, we now perform contactless collections and deliveries whereby the customers pre-bag their items in supplied dissolvable bags. Our rider then has gloves, goggles and a respirator to perform the transfer back to the lagoon where a member of our team in full hazmat gear will load and unload the machines where disinfection is performed.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he says the startup was getting traction from customers wanting to remove allergens that caused them allergic reactions.

“We were confident of moving into the healthcare market in the years to come but usually the tender process for such contracts is not conducive to a startup,” says Grant. “However since the advent of COVID-19 and our ongoing healthcare certification, we have seen a huge increase in the value of proper hygiene to both the individuals and businesses we serve. The Marriott Hotel chain and Airbnb have both expressed serious intent to work on a non-healthcare hygiene rating much like that of the Food Standards Authority. We are working with CINET (the international textile committee) to bring this to market with our technology and processes.”

The seed funding will be used to expand to more cities within the UK and Europe — with London and other European hubs, such as Paris and Amsterdam, in its sights. Its initial two locations are Oxford and Cambridge.

It’s also going to spin up on the hiring front, planning to add a head of growth and head of tech, as well as new operational roles in London.

Ploughing more resource into software dev is another focus, with funding going to expand the tech stack and the software systems which run its logistics and integrate with its digitised washing process. More work on its app is also planned. 

Asked what makes Oxwash a scalable business, Grant points to the development of this proprietary software alongside the reengineered washing service. “This iteration of technology and service allows us to develop our washing technology rapidly and get real-time feedback on the end-product and service from our customers,” he says. “The scalable technology element is the proprietary washing process driven by our bespoke software stack and process algorithms.”

On the labor side, Grant says Oxwash is “working towards a B Corp accreditation”.

“[We] have long held that our team should be properly reimbursed for their work but also as ambassadors for our brand out on our bikes. To that end all of our riders (couriers) are fully employed and like the rest of the team they are paid in excess of the national living wage,” he adds.

Silicon Valley needs a new approach to studying ethics now more than ever

By Walter Thompson
Lisa Wehden Contributor
Lisa Wehden is an investor at Bloomberg Beta, a VC fund focused on the future of work; previously she launched Entrepreneur First in Berlin.

Next month, Apple and Google will unveil features to enable contact tracing on iOS and Android to identify people who have had contact with someone who tests positive for the novel coronavirus.

Security experts have been quick to point out the possible dangers, including privacy risks like revealing identities of COVID-19-positive users, helping advertisers track them or falling prey to false positives from trolls.

These are fresh concerns in familiar debates about tech’s ethics. How should technologists think about the trade-off between the immediate need for public health surveillance and individual privacy? And misformation and free speech? Facebook and other platforms are playing a much more active role than ever in assessing the quality of information: promoting official information sources prominently and removing some posts from users defying social distancing.

As the pandemic spreads and, along with it, the race to develop new technologies accelerates, it’s more critical than ever that technology finds a way to fully examine these questions. Technologists today are ill-equipped for this challenge: striking healthy balances between competing concerns — like privacy and safety — while explaining their approach to the public.

Over the past few years, academics have worked to give students ways to address the ethical dilemmas technology raises. Last year, Stanford announced a new (and now popular) undergraduate course on “Ethics, Public Policy, and Technological Change,” taught by faculty from philosophy, as well as political and computer science. Harvard, MIT, UT Austin and others teach similar courses.

If the only students are future technologists, though, solutions will lag. If we want a more ethically knowledgeable tech industry today, we need ethical study for tech practitioners, not just university students.

To broaden this teaching to tech practitioners, our venture fund, Bloomberg Beta, agreed to host the same Stanford faculty for an experiment. Based on their undergraduate course, could we design an educational experience for senior people who work across the tech sector? We adapted the content (incorporating real-world dilemmas), structure and location of the class, creating a six-week evening course in San Francisco. A week after announcing the course, we received twice as many applications as we could accommodate.

We selected a diverse group of students in every way we could manage, who all hold responsibility in tech. They told us that when they faced an ethical dilemma at work, they lacked a community to which to turn — some confided in friends or family, others revealed they looked up answers on the internet. Many felt afraid to speak freely within their companies. Despite several company-led ethics initiatives, including worthwhile ones to appoint chief ethics officers and Microsoft and IBM’s principles for ethical AI, the students in our class told us they had no space for open and honest conversations about tech’s behavior.

If we want a more ethically knowledgeable tech industry today, we need ethical study for tech practitioners, not just university students.

Like undergraduates, our students wanted to learn from both academics and industry leaders. Each week featured experts like Marietje Schaake, former Member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands, who debated real issues, from data privacy to political advertising. The professors facilitated discussions, encouraging our students to discuss multiple, often opposing views, with our expert guests.

Over half of the class came from a STEM background and had missed much explicit education in ethical frameworks. Our class discussed principles from other fields, like medical ethics, including the physician’s guiding maxim (“first, do no harm”) in the context of designing new algorithms. Texts from the world of science fiction, like “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin, also offered ways to grapple with issues, leading students to evaluate how to collect and use data responsibly.

The answers to the values-based questions we explored (such as the trade-offs between misinformation and free speech) didn’t converge on clear “right” or “wrong” answers. Instead, participants told us that the discussions were crucial for developing skills to more effectively check their own biases and make informed decisions. One student said:

After walking through a series of questions, thought experiments or discussion topics with the professors, and thinking deeply about each of the subtending issues, I often ended up with the opposite positions to what I initially believed.

When shelter-in-place meant the class could no longer meet, participants reached out within a week to request virtual sessions — craving a forum to discuss real-time events with their peers in a structured environment. After our first virtual session examining how government, tech and individuals have responded to COVID-19, one participant remarked: “There feels like so much more good conversation to come on the questions, what can we do, what should we do, what must we do?”

Tech professionals seem to want ways to engage with ethical learning — the task now is to provide more opportunities. We plan on hosting another course this year and are looking at ways to provide an online version, publishing the materials.

COVID-19 won’t be the last crisis where we rely on technology for solutions, and need them immediately. If we want more informed discussions about tech’s behavior, and we want the people who make choices to enter these crises prepared to think ethically, we need to start training people who work in tech to think ethically.


To allow students to explore opposing, uncomfortable viewpoints and share their personal experiences, class discussions were confidential. I’ve received explicit permission to share any insights from students here.

Ford goes drag racing with 1,400 HP electric Mustang Cobra Jet

By Matt Burns

Ford today took the wraps off an electric Mustang prototype. Called Mustang Cobra Jet 1,400, it carries Ford’s long tradition of drag racing the Mustang. But for the first time, a quiet electric power plant is spinning the slicks instead of a roaring V8.

This one-off prototype is said to hit mid-eight second quarter-mile times thanks to 1,400 HP and 1,100 ft.-lbs of torque. That’s on par with numbers put up by Ford’s 2018 Cobra Jet equipped with a supercharged 5.2L engine.

Ford has yet to reveal any technical information about the electric Cobra Jet’s motors, batteries, tires, or range.

Such prototypes are critical to Ford’s electric strategy that includes producing an electric SUV under the Mustang brand. Many have criticized Ford for expanding the Mustang family to include the Mach-E electric SUV as the Mustang has always been a two-door sports car. With this electric Mustang drag racer, Ford is seemingly telling the automotive world that it sees electric motors and batteries as a viable future for the Mustang brand.

This electric Cobra Jet could be a shot across the bow of Tesla and Porsche. The original 1968 Ford Mustang 428 Cobra Jet is widely considered the most powerful muscle car of the era, outclassing everything from General Motors and Chrysler. Right now, in 2020, Tesla and Porsche offer the most powerful and fastest electric cars outside of electric exotics, and this prototype is seemingly telling them to check their rearview mirrors because Detroit is serious about electric cars.

The original Cobra Jet debuted in 1968 and dominated drag strips across the United States. A person could walk into a Ford dealership and leave with a vehicle capable of besting most modified Cameros, GTOs, and Road Runners. Ford revived the Cobra Jet in 2008 and has since released limited-run versions every few years. Most are not road legal. These are cars designed to do one thing: go fast in a straight line. And now, with the 1,400 HP electric Mustang Cobra Jet, it’s designed to do two things: Go fast and show the world batteries can be fun, too.

LA COVID-19 antibody study adds further support for a higher-than-suspected infection rate

By Darrell Etherington

A new study conducted by the University of Southern California along with the LA County Department of Public Health indicates that the presence of antibodies for COVID-19 in between 2.5 and 5.6% of the population of LA County, suggesting that between 221,000 and 442,000 individuals had the infection – up to 55 times more people than have been confirmed via testing. This is the second antibody study in a short span of time in California that suspects infections are far more widespread than previously thought, and a good justification for continued social distancing measures.

The LA County study does contain some good news, if the antibody testing proves to be accurate (we aren’t entirely sure what they show for sure at this point, especially in terms of immunity), in that the mortality rate of the infection is actually much lower than the official diagnosed case data would suggest. The infection rate found via antibody testing through the USC study is also remarkably close to the rate found in a Stanford study published last week about the number of infections in Santa Clara County, which found that between 48,000 and 81,000 people in that part of California could’ve had and recovered from the infection.

Whereas the LA study found around 2.8 to 5.6 parent had antibodies, accounting for the margin of error and extrapolating from results to the entire population, the Stanford research found between 2.5 and 4.2 percent of residents carry antibodies for the infection. Those numbers are based on the test kits’ performance, as well as the demographic makeup of the sample population tested.

Neither new research papers have yet been peer-reviewed, so it’s worth taking them with a grain of salt. But the close alignment between the numbers in both, along with early results from similar studies being conducted globally, does seem to suggest that the number of actual cases of COVID-19 far undershoots the published numbers, which typically only include confirmed diagnoses – most of which represent individuals showing moderate to severe symptoms.

The higher rate of undetected infection definitely should not be taken as a sign that COVID-19 is less serious than it appeared, however; this new info only means that its transmission from people who showed no outward symptoms and never subsequently never sought any medical care or were identified for quarantine or contact tracing is probably a lot higher than anyone guessed.

That means social distancing measures are more important than ever, since it’s likely harder than ever to identify who might be a passive carrier of the virus that leads to COVID-19 without realizing it. Eventually, understanding the nature of the spread should help with refining measures to avoid the greatest potential risks of exposure, but for now, this new info just means that COVID-19 is much more effective at moving through a population without raising early warning signs than we previously understood.

❌