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Uber works with NASA to get flying taxis ready by 2020

They say the best revenge is living well, and so in the midst of its ongoing and messy breakup with London, Uber has proven it’s doing just fine thank you very much by signing an agreement with NASA to develop software for its proposed flying taxi project, Elevate.



At a speech at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Uber’s head of product Jeff Holden revealed the company has signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA to create the air traffic control system that will manage its low-flying taxi fleet, which it aims to have in the air by 2020. The company also announced that a third test city, Los Angeles, has been added to the program, joining Dallas-Fort Worth and Dubai. According to Uber, its UberAIR service could compress a one and a half hour journey from LAX to the Staples Center during rush hour to under 30 minutes.

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Uber released a slick video, seen above, alongside its announcement, illustrating just how it envisions the Elevate service being used. It closes with the line “closer than you think”. With NASA’s clout behind the project, the idea of a flying taxi service is not only closer, but a whole lot more credible, too.




Uber has a new London rival in Taxify

Ordering a taxi by app has just become even cheaper.

Taxify, an Estonian competitor to Uber, will launch in the city on Tuesday with a 50% discount on fares during September to get people downloading its app.

Like Uber, passengers download the Taxify app, register their number, and order a cab to their location. Unlike Uber, passengers can pay by cash or through the app with a pre-registered bank card.

When Business Insider compared the same journey across the two apps, Taxify came out almost three times cheaper than Uber. A journey from Aldgate East to Angel station would cost around £4.35 on Taxify. Uber estimates that the same journey would cost £16 on Uber X. (Note: Uber was showing surge pricing at the time, meaning it was more expensive than usual.)

Despite a bold promise to take on Uber in London, Taxify is still relatively unknown.


Its founder is 23-year-old university dropout Markus Villig, who started Taxify at home before expanding to 19 markets in Africa and eastern Europe. It’s avoided most Western European markets so far partly because of the tougher regulatory environment.

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With a new pile of funding from Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxingin its back pocket, Taxify is now taking on Uber in one of its biggest markets. Villig said the firm had raised around €2 million from outside investors, prior to Didi. After London, Villig told Business Insider, Taxify could launch in Paris.

What’s to say Taxify won’t join the growing pile of startups which tried and failed to take on Uber, like Karhoo and Hailo? Uber is the most valuable private company in the world, and has raised around $15 billion in equity and debt to fuel an aggressive global expansion. It’s dominant in London, with 40,000 registered drivers. There are an estimated 22,500 black cabs operating in the city by comparison. Taxify has 10,000 drivers in London either registered or waiting to register.

Villig told Business Insider that Taxify has two advantages. Firstly, it hasn’t raised billions in outside investment and therefore has comparatively little pressure to turn a profit and repay its investors, except for Didi Chuxing.



Uber drivers have made more than $50M in the first month of tipping

Uber is making additional changes to its driver-side app by allowing drivers to set more destinations and offering “long trip notifications” to tell a driver when a rider is requesting a ride that’s 45 minutes or longer.

The company will also stop penalizing drivers who turn down trips. Previously, when a driver turned down potential trips, it could affect promotions and account standing.

The changes are part of a process the company is calling “180 Days of Change,” which it says will transform the driver experience for the 2 million people who drive for Uber each week. It began about two months ago with the notable addition of tipping to the app. Uber US and Canada manager Rachel Holt told several press outlets that the company’s drivers have earned $50 million in tips since that feature was added. In-app tipping became available nationwide in mid-July.


In addition to tipping, the changes increased driver pay for wait time and reduced the “cancellation window” from five minutes to two minutes.

Before the changes were implemented, drivers were able to set destinations twice per day, which allowed them to get ride-hailing work while also heading in a direction they wanted to go anyhow. Now they can do that six times per day.

The long trip notifications still won’t tell drivers where a rider is going until that rider is picked up. It will just be a simple alert letting the driver know that the ride is estimated to take longer than 45 minutes. Holt told TechCrunch that most drivers like longer rides, since they earn more money. But they also want to be able to plan for breaks, and the notifications will help with that.

The “180 Days of Change” campaign came a week after Uber put into effect changes recommended by an internal investigation. That included the firing of some executives and the resignation of then-CEO Travis Kalanick.

The company is still waiting for a new CEO. The Associated Press reported Monday that former GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt is among the finalists for the position.



Uber is beginning to warn drivers about “long trips” likely to last over an hour

Uber driver Steve Fleck wasn’t expecting to drive to Cincinnati when he picked up a passenger at the MGM Grand Detroit a few minutes after 5:30am on Aug. 2. The ride-hailing company doesn’t reveal rider destinations to its drivers until after they accept a trip, a feature designed to keep drivers from discriminating against customers headed to poorer and less accessible neighborhoods historically underserved by taxis. But that Wednesday morning it also meant Fleck didn’t learn his rider had booked a four-hour trip across state lines until the passenger was already climbing into his car.

“I was a little in shock,” Fleck, 37, said.

Uber is now testing a feature to avoid precisely these situations. “Long Trip” warns drivers when a ride is likely to last over an hour before they accept the fare. The feature was spotted by Harry Campbell, author of the popular driver blog The Rideshare Guy, as well as on Reddit, where one driver recently shared a screenshot of the alert. “Long: This trip likely to take 60+ minutes,” it reads. A spokesman for Uber confirmed to Quartz the company is testing this feature. He declined to say whether refusing a long trip would count toward a driver’s overall ride acceptance rate.

Fleck’s 265-mile trip took a little over four hours and 10 minutes. The rider slept most of the way, then chatted with Fleck for the last hour. Fleck said the rider asked for his contact information, in case he wanted to make the Detroit to Cincinnati trip by Uber again. The rider left a small tip, which Fleck took to a cafe down the street after completing the trip. He took a short break to eat a curry chicken sandwich, then turned around and drove back to Detroit.

In all, Fleck drove more than 500 miles over nearly nine hours that day. But he only got paid for the first half of the trip, when there was an Uber passenger in his car. Fleck earned $260.10 for the ride. Uber paid him 64 cents a mile and 12 cents a minute, plus a base fare of 40 cents and $60 for a demand-based incentive called “boost.” Depending on how you look at it, he either made about $62 an hour, or just under $30 an hour before gas and other expenses. Uber charged the rider $593.82, of which it kept $333.72, or 56%.

“I believe this negates everything uber has said about us not working for them and us being self-employed,” Fleck wrote in an email to Quartz on Aug. 9, in which he shared the details of his trip. “Because if I am self-employed I just got fucking robbed, because I just made uber a shit ton of money.”

Long trips have always been a gamble for Uber drivers. Kevin Jones hit the jackpot when he drove a woman 550 miles from Omaha to Denver last October. Jones made $702.09 for the seven-and-a-half hour trip, 80% of the total $877.61 fare. Others, like Janis Rogers, do less well. Rogers earned $294.09 in December taking a woman 400 miles from Virginia to New York City. That trip lasted just under eight hours in one direction. There and back, Rogers estimated she made just over $9 an hour after expenses. “This was not lucrative,” Rogers, 64, told the New York Post at the time. “I did it because it was an adventure.”


Uber is beginning to warn drivers about “long trips” likely to last over an hour

Benchmark sues former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

Benchmark, the Silicon Valley venture firm and early investor in Uber, has sued former CEO Travis Kalanick.

In a Delaware Chancery Court filing, originally identified by Axios’ Dan Primack, the suit alleges that Kalanick committed fraud, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty. Both Kalanick and Benchmark hold Uber board seats.

Accusing Kalanick of being “selfish” by packing Uber’s board with “loyal allies,” Benchmark alleges that the ousted CEO broke the law by trying to pave the way for his own return. Reports have suggested that Kalanick has been telling people that he’s “Steve Jobs-In it” and will be back at the helm.

If successful, the Benchmark lawsuit could kick Kalanick off the board of directors, making his return impossible.

Much of the complaint revolves around a June 2016 decision that expanded the size of Uber’s board from eight to 11. Kalanick was given the right to choose those seats. Kalanick eventually gave one of those to himself when he lost his CEO seat. The other two are still unfilled.

Benchmark is claiming that it would never have given Kalanick the power to choose those seats if the team had been aware of the gender discrimination, sexual harassment and other misconduct.

Uber has had a tumultuous 2017. After a former Uber employee wrote a story detailing sexual harassment and an environment that discriminated against women, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder oversaw an investigation into the company’s culture. This ultimately led to a series of executive departures and Kalanick’s resignation.


Uber has also been embroiled in a patent lawsuit with Waymo, the self-driving car division owned by the Google parent. Unsurprisingly, it’s another major point of contention in the new lawsuit. In a long list of items that Benchmark characterizes as “gross mismanagement” by Kalanick is his “personal involvement in causing Uber to acquire a self-driving vehicle start-up that, according to a confidential report not disclosed to Benchmark at the time (the ‘Stroz Report’), allegedly harbored trade secrets stolen from a competitor.”

The stakes are high because Uber is the most valuable private company at $70 billion. Benchmark and Kalanick are amongst the largest shareholders.


Benchmark sues former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

Uber adds in-app messaging between riders and drivers

Uber is starting to roll out a new in-app chat feature globally today, which will allow riders to send text messages directly to their driver once they book a ride, and vice versa. The new feature replaces the somewhat clunky mechanism of SMS for text communication between rider and driver, helping to preserve privacy for both sides in all markets, and cutting down on potential confusion.

Now, when you book a ride, a chat option appears that lets you message your driver directly. It’ll show your driver’s name, vehicle type and plate number at the top of the messaging window, and you can see read/received receipts for messages sent. On the driver side, received messages will be read aloud to help minimize distraction, and drivers can acknowledge a message with one tap to send a ‘thumbs up’ emoji response. Drivers can also initiate chat, but the Uber driver app cautions directly in the messaging window that drivers should only do so when stopped and not actually driving.

The in-app messaging feature arose because the SMS method had a number of areas where it was lacking from a user experience perspective, according to Uber Product Manager Jeremy Lermitte. He explained in an interview that in some markets, there is cost sensitivity associated with using limited SMS plans for getting in touch (and in some cases, drivers don’t have voice plans on their devices at all for calls), and that’s just one among many reasons to bring messaging in-app.

“In many of our markets, SMS isn’t actually available for us, we don’t have the technology in place,” Lermitte said. “That’s especially true in some of our key markets like Brazil and India. And then in other emerging markets where we do offer SMS, we don’t have the technology in place to anonymize the personal contact info, so the rider and driver are actually sharing their personal contact information in some of those markets.”


Uber adds in-app messaging between riders and drivers

Thanks to a dashcam, crafty Uber drivers are boosting their pay

For Uber and Lyft drivers, installing a dashboard camera can boost their earnings by 5% to 15%.

Drivers are starting to place cameras behind their windshields to record the road ahead of them. Startups chasing the gold mine of car data are paying them to install these cameras. The startups want these videos to do everything from build maps for self-driving cars to track pedestrian activity.


A San Francisco startup, lvl5, is crowdsourcing maps for autonomous vehicles from dashcam videos. Two of its founders previously worked on Tesla’s autopilot team.

In three months, they’ve mapped over 500,000 miles of U.S. roads with 2,000 drivers using their iPhone app, Payver. Drivers receive between two and five cents per mile. Lvl5 expects that with 50,000 U.S. drivers, it can gather enough data to build maps for self-driving cars.

Lvl5 was founded in December by Andrew Kouri and Erik Reed, who both worked on Tesla’s Autopilot team, and George Tall, a computer vision engineer from iRobot, has developed a way to take enormous amounts of video collected from a camera and turn it into high-definition 3D maps that are constantly refreshing. These maps will always reflect the latest road conditions, providing self-driving cars with the information they need to detect and plan their route safely.


“The thing that everyone is kind of ignoring silently is that self-driving cars won’t ship unless we have really good HD maps that update every single day,” Kouri said in an interview with The Verge. “And nobody has a system to do this yet. This is what we’re building.”

Kouri says self-driving cars don’t need LIDAR, light detection, and ranging radar used to see the world around it. That’s a departure from what many automakers and tech companies like Google’s Waymo say is needed for the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles.

Lvl5’s philosophy, in many ways, mirrors Tesla’s approach, which contends it can deploy fully autonomous vehicle technology without relying on LIDAR.

“We don’t really care if LIDAR wins out or computer vision wins out,” Kouri said. “Right now we know that if we want to make self-driving car en masse, cameras are ready and LIDAR is not.”

The company’s system uses consumer-grade cameras and a computer vision algorithm to turn all of the video it captures into useable, 3D maps. But it needed to scale it.

So they reached out to Uber and Lyft drivers who can crowdsource the video data via a dashcam app created by Lvl5 called Payver.

Drivers are paid to mount smartphones on the dashboard of their cars and run the app, which automatically collects video, accelerometer, and GPS data. Huge amounts of data are captured; video is taken every meter along a vehicle’s route. The compressed data is then sent to the cloud and then sent to lvl5’s central hub. From there, lvl5 uses its computer vision algorithm to translate all of this footage into high-definition 3D maps.



Uber Fires 20 Amid Investigation Into Workplace Culture

Uber has fired more than 20 employees in conjunction with an internal investigation into its workplace culture, according to a current Uber employee.

The company disclosed the move at an all-hands meeting at its San Francisco headquarters on Tuesday, said the person, who spoke anonymously because he or she was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. Uber executives did not name the individuals who were terminated.

Uber is taking steps to correct what many in the ride-hailing company say are deep-seated management and culture issues, which have been brought to light over the last few months. In February, Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer, said that she was sexually harassed by her supervisor during her time at Uber and that the human resources department ignored the claims. Other employees reported systemic issues within Uber, where a premium was placed on strong performance and growth, often at the expense of other workplace behavior.


Uber has hired former United States Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and his law firm, Covington & Burling, to conduct an independent investigation of those claims and Uber’s overall culture. The findings are not yet out.

Uber’s terminations announced on Tuesday stem from a separate investigation conducted by Perkins Coie, another law firm hired by Uber. Lawyers from Perkins Coie consulted with Uber on the internal investigation, and Uber acted upon that firm’s recommendations.

Mr. Holder’s report has been delivered to Uber’s board, though it is unclear when it will be distributed more widely within the company.


Lyft drivers call for investigation into alleged ‘wage theft’

A New York labor organization is calling for an investigation of Lyft and other ride-hailing services for allegedly cheating drivers on their fares.

The Independent Drivers Guild (IDG), which formed last year as an affiliate of an existing labor union, said Wednesday that Lyft has been engaged in “large-scale deception” by improperly deducting more than 11 percent from drivers’ fares on interstate trips. In effect, the ride-hailing company is stealing some of the drivers’ wages by collecting taxes and surcharges on trips out of state that should apply only to in-state trips, and then disguising those charges as administrative fees, the labor group says.

New York State Assembly member Robert Rodriguez backed the IDG’s request for a full investigation in a letter addressed to the state’s attorney general and the Department of Taxation and Finance.

Drivers have also accused Uber, Juno and other ride-hailing services of being less than upfront in their dealings with their citizen drivers.

“There is no merit to this allegation,” Lyft spokesman Adrian Durbin said Wednesday afternoon. “Our driver agreement lays out what commissions and fees apply to driving on the Lyft platform, and we’ve consistently abided by the agreement since entering the New York market in 2014.”

Ride-hailing drivers in New York have discovered that Lyft appears to be deducting a state sales tax on out-of-state trips that should be applied only to rides that begin and end in New York, the drivers guild says. The ride-hailing service also appears to be improperly collecting a surcharge for the Black Car Fund that shouldn’t apply to out-of-state trips.

When the drivers complained to Lyft, however, they were told that the charges were administrative fees. Those fees also happen to mimic the rates of the 8.875 percent state sales tax and the 2.5 percent surcharge for the Black Car Fund, which funds workers’ compensation for the drivers, according to the drivers group.

“This is an egregious and deliberate tax scam that amounts to wage theft affecting thousands of our members. By disguising these pay deductions as state taxes, Lyft willfully deceived drivers in order to rob them of their earnings and further enrich the company,” Ryan Price, executive director of the IDG, said in a written statement.



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