Ride-Hail Companies Are Making Life Harder for Scooters

Robotaxis don’t exist yet. Some experts suspect they won’t circulate widely for another decade. But earlier this month, the state of California adopted new rules governing how ride-hail services without a driver behind the wheel might work.

There are separate rules for autonomous vehicles with safety drivers, and those without. But operators of both types of services will have to hand over lots of information to the government: data on where robotaxi riders are picked up and dropped off; how many miles the vehicles travel; whether the vehicles are powered by gas or electricity; whether rides are available in underserved communities; and a safety plan, which Californians will be able to comment on.

The rules contrast sharply with the first-of-their kind ride-hail rules that the state adopted in 2013. Then, the debate du jour was more, “What the heck is this Lyft and Uber business, and will it survive a battle with the taxi industry?” than “How will these business models change the world?” Now, everyone takes transportation regulation more seriously—and jockeys to weigh in.

If you’re wondering why a utilities agency gets to determine how an autonomous vehicle taxi ride works, know that it is pretty weird. The agency, created early in the 20th century to oversee gas and electric companies, now regulates telecommunications, railroads, and privately owned transportation services, like limos, tours buses, and ferries. Historically, taxis have been the domain of city rule-makers. Then came ride-hail. In 2013, amid disputes about what ride-hail was, and how long these upstart companies would last, California regulators heeded company lobbyists and crafted rules for companies like Uber and Lyft.

The ride-hail companies seized on that decision, and their lobbyists pushed it as a model elsewhere. Today, more than 40 state legislatures have passed mostly industry-friendly laws regulating ride-hail—and stripping cities of the power to oversee the services or set their own rules.

Over time, many city officials came to see those laws as a bad deal. Ride-hail services weren’t just disrupting a stagnant taxi industry. They took some people off transit. They clogged up streets, especially in busy downtowns. Even if, as the companies theorized, more people gave up their personal cars, ride-hail contributed to a spike in total vehicle miles traveled. (Turns out drivers need to travel between fares.) Yet there was little local leaders could do about it. Allowing state agencies to make the calls on ride-hail “unempowered cities,” says Marla Westervelt, a transportation policy analyst who worked at both LA Metro and the scooter-share company Bird. “It set the framework for all the fights we’re having now. It was the original sin.”

Look closely at the conversations—and disputes—that crop up around transportation and technology, and you’ll see the ghosts of those original policy decisions, and an attempt by authorities to reel back power that’s been lost. Cities, especially big ones like San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, have gotten more assertive about overseeing transportation companies—especially transportation companies that pull into town with California license plates and a pile of venture capital funding. (Chicago and DC were among the first to tax ride-hail trips to subsidize public transit.) For those cities, the questions are: How can we point this private business towards a public good? And how can we eke out enough power over them to do that?

Micromobility companies—the folks who flooded your block with shared electric scooters and bikes a few years back—have borne the brunt of this new approach. Part of the reason is practical: Cities generally have authority over their sidewalks in a way that they don’t over ride-hail vehicles. After the first, and sometimes unannounced, introductions of scooters on streets led to public backlash, many city governments chose a new approach: They slowed everything down.

“We want to know, ‘What is the role [of scooters] in the transportation network? Are people really using them to joyride? Are they taking the place of walking and bike trips? Or are they really taking the place of driving trips?” says Tilly Chang, the executive director of San Francisco’s county transportation authority, which monitors the city’s congestion.

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With $200 Million, Uber and Lyft Write Their Own Labor Law

Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and California’s other gig companies emerged victorious Tuesday night, as voters endorsed a ballot measure that allows them to continue to treat hundreds of thousands of workers as independent contractors. Fifty-eight percent of the state’s voters approved Proposition 22, which repudiated a recent state labor law that would have required the companies to hire their drivers and delivery people as employees—and pay them traditional benefits, including health care, sick pay, and workers’ compensation. With a $200 million campaign, the companies pulled off what once seemed unlikely: reversing the work of state lawmakers and courts, which had sided against Uber and its peers.

Any Californian with eyes, ears, a cell phone number, or a working television likely heard from those pushing Prop 22. The campaign, the most expensive in California history, flooded airwaves with ads and mailboxes with pro-22 mailers. Supporters texted voters with frequency and vim. The companies filled their own apps with campaign-related messaging, prompting a group of Uber drivers to sue the company for coercing them into voting “yes” on the measure. (A state court judge dismissed the case.)

The urgency made sense: The gig companies believed that treating their workers as employees would disrupt the disruptors, driving their already precarious business models over the brink. One Barclays analysis estimated that shifting Uber and Lyft drivers to employee status in California would cost the companies hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The companies had threatened to leave California, or at least temporarily shut down service in the state, if they had lost. Now, gig workers’ independent contractor status in California is near-irreversible. The ballot measure can only be changed by a seven-eighths majority of the state legislature. Uber shares rose by 14 percent Wednesday, and Lyft shares by 12 percent.

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illustration of 2020 in red and blue

The gig companies, which made their names by exploiting legal loopholes and gray areas, have found another way to win. “California is, in some sense, a bellwether for the gig economy,” says Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School. The companies’ willingness to spend big in the state, he says, proves how important the labor fight is to them, and how much they have to lose.

“I am very concerned about what [the Proposition 22 win] portends for the future of work in our country,” says Shannon Liss-Riordan, an attorney who has sued gig companies for labor-related issues in California and elsewhere. “They were able to change the law in a way that suited them and allows them to save labor costs at the expense of working people in this country.”

The California results likely will embolden the gig economy companies to mount similar campaigns in other states and cities where their business model is at risk. In a statement, Lyft spokesperson CJ Macklin called the ballot measure “a groundbreaking step toward the creation of a ‘third way,’” a reference to workers who aren’t quite employees and aren’t quite independent contractors, either. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi advocated for a “third way” in a New York Times op-ed published in August, and successfully lobbied the White House earlier this year to include gig workers in coronavirus relief funds.

Proposition 22’s “third way” does not qualify gig workers for traditional benefits like sick pay, unemployment insurance, or paid family leave. But it will provide a new health care subsidy for those who work a certain number hours, some accident insurance and workers’ compensation, and 120 percent of the minimum wage for the time they spend completing tasks for the companies. That doesn’t include the time workers spend signed in and waiting for a job, which, for Uber drivers, can account for more than 30 percent of the miles they drive while signed on to work.

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Why Is Everyone Building an Electric Pickup Truck?

The electric pickup trucks are here. Or almost here, at least.

General Motors dropped a pretty penny to debut its new electric Hummer during the World Series on Tuesday, with a two minute, 15 second ad that took up an entire commercial break. But you won’t be able to drive the $112,595 truck off the lot until at least next fall. Tesla staged a smashing reveal for its Cybertruck pickup nearly a year ago, but it hasn’t yet built the factory in Texas that will make the thing—reservation holders can probably expect their truck late next year. Other contenders on the horizon include the Rivian R1T, which, after delays, should show up around June; the Lordstown Endurance (sometime in 2021); the Bollinger B2 (probably next year); the Ford F-150 EV (due mid-2022); and the Nikola Badger (thanks to the company’s leadership troubles, who knows). The competition for the hearts and minds of the American electric pickup truck buyer is bound to be intense.

Here’s the problem: No one knows who that American electric pickup buyer is. “It’s not like people have been asking for this,” says Jessica Caldwell, the executive director of insights at Edmunds. “I don’t think people have been sitting around and thinking, ‘You now what I need? A pickup with an electric motor.’”

cybertruck

Tesla has not yet finished the Texas factory where it plans to build the Cybertruck.

Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Josh Tavel, General Motors’ lead engineer for electric vehicles, has some ideas about the Hummer buyer. And also about who they are not: “For the majority of people, the environment and making the world better isn’t, maybe, their number one reason for purchasing something,” Tavel says. It would be weird, nay, yucky, to bait green car nerds with a Hummer. In the aughts, the brand became a cultural stand-in for pre-recession excess, a monster truck for folk intrigued by war games who didn’t fret over ozone holes.

Instead, GM is after today’s outdoor adventurers, or at least the people who like to look like outdoor adventurers. The Hummer, which hasn’t been produced since 2010, has gained a cult status among a certain kind of driver. General Motors wants the car aficionados and gearheads to pay attention: Convince them to go electric, and the whole world might follow. To wit, GM has stuffed plenty of nerdery into the electric pickup. It comes with a crab walk feature that lets the truck drive diagonally and in-vehicle graphics developed by video game maker Epic Games. The truck, the first to use GM’s new Ultium batteries, has a 350-mile range. It can do 0 to 60 in three seconds.

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The Fate of Gig Workers Is in the Hands of California Voters

On November 3, California voters will determine how the state’s gig workers will, well, work.

A ballot measure would create a new legal classification for Uber drivers, Instacart shoppers, and DoorDash deliverers—not quite employees, but not the independent contractors they’ve been until now.

Under Proposition 22, lavishly funded by the gig companies, their workers would be assured of something resembling a minimum wage, as well as some health care coverage and access to workers’ compensation.

If the measure fails, the companies likely will have to recognize their workers as employees. Uber and Lyft have threatened to leave the state if that happens, though court filings from a related legal case suggest they might instead shift the way they operate in California.

Opponents, including labor- and driver-advocacy groups, say gig work is too precarious. They argue that transforming contractors into employees may bring some stability to those who depend on apps to keep them afloat.

The fight is shaping as the second-most expensive ballot fight in the state’s history, and could become the most expensive by Election Day. Prop 22 supporters, including Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart, and Postmates (which was recently acquired by Uber), have poured nearly $200 million into promoting it. They’ve unleashed a barrage of advertisements on Californians’ airwaves, inboxes, text messages, and even cell phone push notifications, which Uber has used to proselytize from within voters’ pockets.

The outcome may have implications for other California workers. The measure “may be incentivizing other industries to think, ‘Oh, we can recreate special rules for our industry,’” says Mary-Beth Moylan, a law professor at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, who helps create a guide to California ballot measures every two years. “It could chip away at employment and labor protections in all sorts of ways.”

The upset over Prop 22 began last fall, when California enacted Assembly Bill 5, which narrowed the definition of an independent contractor. According to a “test” set out by the law, contractors must not be under control of direction of the company while working, must perform work that’s “outside the usual course” of a company’s business, and perform the same sort of work for other companies. The test makes it much harder for app-based companies to fall back on their argument that they’re simply platforms connecting one kind customer, a driver, with another kind of customer, someone who wants a ride. Many industries have said the test is ill-suited for their workers; the California legislature has since passed new rules governing others, like freelance writers and musicians.

Since AB 5 kicked in this year, Uber has made some changes to its California drivers’ apps, allowing drivers to be more choosy about the rides they accept and select from a predetermined set of fares. Some drivers say the new scheme helps make strategic choices, and allows them to make more money. Others argue it pits drivers against each other, in a race to the bottom.

Despite that, the gig companies have insisted the new law doesn’t apply to them. The California Attorney General and three city attorneys disagree: In May, they sued Uber and Lyft for not complying with the law. A judge ordered the companies to comply with AB 5; the case is currently on appeal. Prop 22 effectively lets voters decide.

If gig workers were treated as employees, as AB 5 requires, they would be entitled to minimum wage, and qualify for benefits like overtime pay, workers’ compensation, lunch breaks, unemployment insurance, and paid sick leave. The arrangement could cost the companies thousands of dollars per driver. Prop 22, by contrast, promises workers some new perks. Workers putting in at last 15 hours a week would receive a health care subsidy. It requires the companies to provide some accident insurance and some disability payments, if workers are hurt on the job. And it promises drivers 120 percent of the state or local minimum wage (at least $14.40 an hour), plus 30 cents per mile.

But there’s a big caveat to the pay guarantee: Only a driver’s “engaged time,” or the time between when a worker accepts a job and when she completes it, counts towards that hourly wage. Research commissioned by Uber suggests that drivers spend plenty of working hours waiting for riders—about 30 percent of the total miles traveled by drivers in six cities occur while waiting for the next ride. Those miles wouldn’t be compensated under Prop 22.

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Cruise Will Soon Hit San Francisco With No Hands on the Wheel

Last week, Waymo, the self-driving-vehicle developer owned by Alphabet, expanded a first-of-its-kind service offering rides to paying passengers around Phoenix—with no one behind the wheel. Videos shared by Waymo and others show its minivans navigating wide, sunny streets with ease.

Now rival Cruise, a General Motors subsidiary, has taken a step toward running its own self-driving-taxi service—on the hilly, winding, pedestrian-swarmed streets of San Francisco. On Thursday, Cruise said the California Department of Motor Vehicles had granted it a permit to test up to five of its modified Chevy Bolts without anyone behind the wheel. In a blog post, Cruise CEO Dan Ammann said truly driverless cars would operate in the city before the end of the year.

Most of the more than 60 companies with DMV permits to test autonomous vehicles in California must keep at least one safety driver inside, who sits behind the wheel and monitors the technology. Four other companies—Waymo, Amazon-owned Zoox, delivery-robot company Nuro, and AutoX—have received permits to test totally driverless vehicles in the state. But none is testing its driverless cars in areas as hectic as San Francisco.

The permit is a sign that companies like Cruise “are transitioning out of the development phase of the technology,” says Kyle Vogt, the company’s CTO.

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The WIRED Guide to Self-Driving Cars

How a chaotic skunkworks race in the desert launched what’s poised to be a runaway global industry.

So as not to freak out the neighbors, Cruise says its driverless-car rollout will be gradual and will begin in just one neighborhood; it declined to specify which one. DMV’s permit limits the five vehicles to speeds under 30 miles per hour and prohibits operating them in heavy fog or heavy rain. The slow rollout will “start to introduce people to the concept that maybe driverless cars are coming,” says Vogt. “Maybe not in the timeline [people] thought a couple of years ago, but they’re coming and expect that and start to acclimate to it.”

Cruise, like much of the industry, has admitted that the technical challenges of self-driving cars are more difficult than once thought. It had initially planned to launch an autonomous ride-hailing service by the end of 2019. Vogt has learned his lesson: He says it’s no longer “reasonable to put a hard, hard deadline or date” on when fleets of truly driverless vehicles might ferry paying passengers in San Francisco.

Among the challenges, according to Vogt: Cruise needs to know that the vehicle will perform safely and prudently if, say, an internal wire is loosened. It needs to know that the car will react safely facing a situation it hasn’t been trained to deal with. To that end, Cruise has been testing driverless cars for months at a General Motors facility in Michigan.

A driverless Chevy Bolt tests at General Motors’ proving grounds in Milford, Michigan.

Courtesy of Cruise

San Franciscans have not always been comfortable with the self-driving testing in their midst. In the five years since Cruise began testing in California, its cars have reportedly been involved in slap-fights with cabbies, and taken at least one errant golf ball to the windshield. Collision reports posted by DMV indicate that self-driving vehicles testing in California are involved in occasional fender-benders. The most recent reports, from September, show Cruise vehicles testing in autonomous mode have been rear-ended, bumped into, and involved in collisions, which according to the reports sometimes leave the company’s safety drivers with neck or back pain. Self-driving advocates say that while vehicles driven by software will never be perfect, they’ll keep the roads safer than humans, who are sometimes distracted, tired, or drunk. Neither the San Francisco mayor’s office nor the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency responded to questions about Cruise’s new permit.

That future can be hard to visualize, but Cruise has some ideas. The company earlier this year staged a San Francisco launch event for a vehicle it’s calling Origin, a six-seat electric vehicle meant for autonomous ride-hailing and delivery. “It’s what you would build if there were no cars,” Ammann, the CEO, said.


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Elon Musk Promises a $25,000 Tesla in 3 Years—Again

What happens when you load more than 200 Tesla shareholders—increasingly rich shareholders—into a Fremont, California, parking lot, and set CEO Elon Musk loose in front of them to talk about the company’s upcoming battery tech? They honk. A lot.

The unusual shareholder meeting, courtesy of the Covid-19 pandemic, had a few big applause—or honk—lines. One: Tesla had begun to design and produce its own batteries, Musk said. The other: Tesla would produce a $25,000 electric vehicle “about three years from now,” according to Musk. The car, he said, would also be autonomous.

It’s no wonder that Musk’s ambitious announcement elicited such an ear-piercing response from shareholders. The design and manufacture of the battery inside an electric car is arguably its most important element. The battery determines how far the car can travel between charges, how quickly it tops up, and how fast it can accelerate. And the battery, which today accounts for about a third of the cost of the company’s Model 3, is the car’s most expensive component. Bring the cost of the battery down by refining its chemistry or hacking its supply chain, and you bring down the cost of the car. Bring down the cost of the electric car, and you make it easier for anyone to buy one.

Musk said the cost of Teslas—the Model 3, Tesla’s cheapest car, starts at $38,000 before subsidies—limits their appeal. “A lot of people want to buy a Tesla, but they simply don’t have enough money,” he said. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, fewer than 2 percent of the vehicles sold in the US last year were battery powered.

Tesla’s promises come with the usual caveat: Musk has never been one to underpromise and overdeliver. He told an interviewer in 2018 that Tesla could roll out a $25,000 EV in three years. Tuesday, he pushed that deadline back by two years—because, Musk said, it’s a challenging goal.

But the Tesla battery project appears to be underway. Musk confirmed rumors that the company has built a pilot battery production facility at its Fremont factory. The company also has plans to build out a lithium mine and a cathode plant in North America, moves that will shrink the travel for the materials that end up in batteries by 80 percent. In all, Tesla said production improvements would reduce the cost per kilowatt-hour of its batteries by 56 percent.

Tinkering with the infrastructure of the electric vehicle business is key to making the cars competitive with their gas-guzzling rivals. Tesla can try to reduce the cost of materials in its batteries, “but eventually, the amount by which you can reduce that cost is limited,” says James Frith, an analyst who heads energy storage research at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “One of the final levers that you can pull is to try and reduce some of the margins within the supply chain.”

Image may contain: Vehicle, Transportation, Car, Automobile, Sedan, Sports Car, and Race Car

The WIRED Guide to Self-Driving Cars

How a chaotic skunkworks race in the desert launched what’s poised to be a runaway global industry.

Tesla has worked with Panasonic, LG Chem, and more recently, the Chinese battery company CATL to produce batteries. But taking control of more of the battery-making process should allow the company to squeeze more savings out of the supply chain.

Still, Tuesday’s battery presentation was filled with plenty of hedging, with Musk and co. warning many times that the technology they were presenting would likely take years to implement. Despite sharing plenty of details about its newest battery breakthrough, the company didn’t show off a prototype. Observers noted the slightly subdued tone, a contrast to the bombastic presentations and projections that have occasionally gotten the company in trouble with public officials. Tesla shares nearly 7 percent in after-hours trading.

The native battery effort is proof that Tesla is optimistic about electric vehicles, but sees batteries as possible future supply constraints. Case in point: Musk stressed on Twitter this week that his company would keep working with its battery partners, including with Panasonic at its Nevada Gigafactory.

“Projections of global electric vehicle demand suggest that there will be massive demand in the global supply chain, which will create much more competition,” says Alissa Kendall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Davis who studies the environmental effects of industry. “You can see why Tesla is nervous, and why they want to support their own battery technology.”


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Lidar Is Finally Becoming a Real Business

For years, the lidar business has had a lot of hype but not a lot of hard numbers. Dozens of lidar startups have touted their impressive technology, but until recently it wasn’t clear who, if anyone, was actually gaining traction with customers.

ARS TECHNICA

This story originally appeared on Ars Technica, a trusted source for technology news, tech policy analysis, reviews, and more. Ars is owned by WIRED’s parent company, Condé Nast.

That’s starting to change. This summer, three leading lidar makers have done major fundraising rounds that included releasing public data on their financial performance.

The latest lidar maker to release financial data is Ouster, which announced a $42 million round in a Tuesday blog post. That post also revealed a striking statistic: The company says it now has 800 customers.

That’s interesting because we can compare it fairly directly to two other prominent lidar companies that have released data in recent months. Velodyne, which has been considered the industry leader for the past decade, revealed in July that it had 300 customers.

The lidar startup Luminar hasn’t revealed its number of customers, but it disclosed two other figures in August: The company has 50 commercial partners and expects to sell roughly 100 lidar sensors in 2020.

By the metric of total customers, then, Ouster seems to be well ahead of two of its better-known rivals. But saying that Ouster has become the industry leader would be too simplistic. In reality, the three companies are each pursuing different segments of the market.

At the high end of the lidar market are powerful sensors that sell for tens of thousands of dollars each. Self-driving-vehicle companies buy these units for their prototype vehicles. Because these companies are well-funded and are making only a few prototype vehicles, they’re willing to pay piles of money to get the most powerful sensors available. This market has traditionally been dominated by Velodyne, which has charged as much as $75,000 for a single sensor.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are lidar sensors intended for mass-market automotive applications. Lidar sensors for this market generally need to stay under $1,000 to be viable.

The pioneer here was a little-known company called Ibeo, which partnered with auto supplier Valeo to provide lidar sensors for the 2018 Audi A8. The sensor was primitive, with only four vertical “lines” of resolution. But it was the best lidar Audi could afford given the financial constraints of the consumer car business.

This is the market Luminar is gunning for. Luminar’s lidar is much more powerful than the sensor in those early Audis, and the company believes it can get the cost below $1,000 at scale. Back in May, Luminar announced a deal with Volvo to incorporate its lidars into vehicles beginning in 2022. It’s the first deal to put high-performance lidar into consumer vehicles. Luminar hopes it will be an inspiration for other automakers.

Ouster makes spinning lidar that looks a lot like Velodyne’s high-end sensors. But inside, Ouster uses solid-state chip technology to pack all of its lasers—16 to 128 of them, depending on the product—on a single chip. Ouster’s sensors are much simpler than Velodyne’s classic design, which involved packaging together 16 to 128 individual lasers and 16 to 128 individual sensors.

The resulting combination of strong performance and relatively low cost has opened new markets for lidar sensors. Ouster’s latest generation of 32-laser sensors start at $6,000. That’s way too expensive for mass-market automotive use, but it’s much less than Velodyne charged for comparable sensors before Ouster came along.

Earlier this year, I talked to John Williams, chief technology officer at Kudan, which sells software to help robots track their own location (a problem known as SLAM in the robotics world). Williams said plenty of companies are building custom robots for niche applications in mines, warehouses, and other industrial environments.

Lidar sensors have obvious value for this kind of application. But before Ouster came along, high-quality lidar was simply too expensive.

“The fact that you can get a 64-channel spinning lidar for $12,000 was unheard of,” Williams told me. While Ouster’s lidars were “not quite as good as Velodyne” in his opinion, he argued that the company was “the up-and-comer in terms of disrupting the market.”

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Uber Pledges to Go All-Electric, but It Doesn’t Own the Cars

Uber on Tuesday pledged to convert its fleet in US, Canadian, and European cities to fully electric by 2030. By the end of the following decade, Uber says, all of its rides will be aboard electric vehicles, either cars, bikes, or scooters. The pledge follows a similar one from rival Lyft, which said in June that all of its rides would be in electric vehicles by 2030.

“Uber has a clear responsibility to reduce our environmental impact,” CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told reporters. “Today, we’re committing to work with cities to build back better together and tackle the climate crisis more aggressively than ever before.”

There’s a hitch, however: Uber and Lyft don’t own the cars that they’re pledging to electrify. In fact, they’re fighting legal battles in California, Massachusetts, and elsewhere to prove that their drivers—who own the cars—aren’t even employees. So electrifying “their” fleet hinges on convincing the often not-wealthy people who often drive part-time for their apps to get behind the wheel of a new, often more expensive car. Beyond the drivers, the plans turn on decisions—by policymakers, by the people who fund and build charging infrastructure, and by riders—that the companies don’t control.

Climate experts call the ride-hail industry’s electric push admirable—particularly because it could spark wider change in the automotive industry. Just 3 percent of the vehicles sold globally last year were electric, and fewer than 2 percent of those sold in the US were battery powered, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. But batteries are getting more powerful, prices are dropping, and new electric vehicle models are hitting roads in the next few months. If electric Ubers and Lyfts make the more emissions-friendly options seem more accessible, that’s a win for the planet.

“There’s a catalyst opportunity here, to have positive benefits in the market as a whole and not just for ride hailing,” says Don Anair, research and deputy director of the Clean Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. An analysis by Anair and colleagues released earlier this year estimates that ride-hail trips produce an average 69 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the trips—by foot, by public transit, by personal car—they displace. (Part of the increase stems from the time drivers spend cruising or idling while waiting for fares, and driving between trips.) That means eliminating a gas-powered ride-hail car should eliminate plenty of carbon—about three times more than electrifying a personal car, according to recent research from UC Davis.

Drivers have plenty of reasons to go electric. The vehicles have fewer parts and don’t need oil changes. Their regenerative braking systems take longer to wear down. Their ranges improve every year, and it’s rare that ride-hail drivers travel more than their 200-odd miles of range each day.

But charging can be slow, taking anywhere between days (a regular wall outlet), hours (a standard charger made for homes), and 30 minutes (a public fast-charger). Not every driver has access to a charger overnight, and in many parts of the US, public chargers can be difficult to find. If a driver covers tens of thousands of miles each year, they might need to replace their battery, which can cost thousands of dollars.

Then there’s the cost. Electric cars are more expensive than similar conventional vehicles. “Even if there are incentives, EVs are not very accessible for Uber and Lyft drivers,” says Giovanni Circella, director of the 3 Revolutions Future Mobility Program at UC Davis. According to Kelley Blue Book, the average small car costs $20,000; the average midsize one is $25,000. The all-electric Chevy Bolt and Tesla’s Model 3 cost an additional $10,000. Cheaper used EVs can be hard to track down; so can electric car rentals.

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Uber and Lyft Win a Reprieve, and Won’t Quit California—for Now

Uber and Lyft will not ditch California drivers and riders at midnight, after a state appeals court let them—for now—continue treating their drivers as independent contractors, instead of employees.

The court’s order halts a brief but furious game of chicken between the companies and the state of California, which sued them to follow a new labor law passed last fall. Uber and Lyft had threatened to leave the state over the law, Assembly Bill 5, which creates a more stringent test to differentiate contractors from employees. The companies said they didn’t have enough time to prepare for what would have been a monumental shift in their business model in the midst of a pandemic, though the law was passed last year.

For drivers and riders, the status quo is now set to continue until at least mid-October, when judges will hear the companies’ and state’s arguments in court. The appeals court also ordered the companies to submit a guarantee that they will comply with the law if they lose. Workers who are employees instead of contractors are entitled to minimum and overtime wages, paid sick leave, health benefits, and access to social insurance programs like unemployment.

The appeals court decision likely means that California voters—rather than judges—will determine the outcome of the Golden State labor fight. Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and DoorDash are backing a statewide ballot measure, known as Proposition 22, to create a “third” category of employment, which would include a minimum wage, some auto insurance and vehicle maintenance costs, and a health care stipend. The companies have poured more than $110 million into a “Yes on 22” campaign.

If Proposition 22 fails, and companies don’t prevail in their appeal, Uber and Lyft would have to rethink their business model in California, which is both their home state and host to some of their biggest markets. Lyft has said in legal filings that complying with AB 5 would mean “restructuring its business and changing its relationship with drivers by, for example, drastically reducing their flexibility and taking control over their time to manage them as employees.” Some drivers say the flexibility to work when and where they want attracted them to the platform.

The New York Times reported this week that both companies have considered a franchise model in the state, which might allow them to avoid treating drivers as employees. Or the companies could leave the state for good. Neither company responded to questions about its plans if Proposition 22 fails.

In a statement, Uber spokesperson Davis White said the company was “glad that the Court of Appeals recognized the important questions raised in this case, and that access to these critical services won’t be cut off while we continue to advocate for drivers’ ability to work with the freedom they want.”

Lyft spokesperson Julie Wood said, “While we won’t have to suspend operations tonight, we do need to continue fighting for independence plus benefits for drivers.”

As the appeals court released its decision, workers and organizers with driver advocacy groups Gig Workers Rising and We Drive Progress rallied in front of Uber headquarters on San Francisco’s Market Street—though Uber employees are permitted to work from home through the middle of next year. One organizer dressed in a baby outfit to represent the ride-hail companies, as drivers circled the block in a pandemic-friendly car caravan, honking in support. “This rally, this fight has always been about defeating Prop. 22, Uber and Lyft’s latest attempt to write themselves out of the law,” driver and Gig Workers Rising organizer Edan Alva said in a statement. “We, the workers, remain focused on defeating Prop. 22.”


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This Plane Flies Itself. We Went for a Ride

“The challenge is there is no track record of how safe these systems are,” says Cathy Cahill, director of the University of Alaska’s Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration. “The FAA’s rules and regulations have been written in blood. And they do not want to write more in blood. So what they’re doing is being very cautious.”

proprietary tech in plane belly

The plane is a 27-year-old Cessna Caravan—a workhorse of cargo operations. But within, Xwing’s automated machinery manipulates the flight controls.

Photograph: Phuc Pham

sensor array

The plane is “nothing fancy, just the bare minimum to carry things around,” Gariel says. Xwing hopes that its simplicity will allow pilot-free flights to come sooner.

Photograph: Phuc Pham

The FAA’s first concern is the safety of the flight systems themselves—whether or not an autonomous system will simply fall out of the sky. But the bigger issue, Cahill explains, is what’s referred to as “command and control”—the relationship between a pilot on the ground and the robot in the sky. Autonomous systems that travel beyond their operator’s line of sight depend on a data link between the plane and the controller on the ground. That allows the controller to change the flight path at the request of air traffic control, and keep an eye on the plane’s surroundings using cameras on board. The FAA wants to know how remote operators plan to make that connection stick, so that the bird isn’t left flying blind. One answer is redundancy. In the Arctic, where Cahill’s team sends drones to inspect pipelines and photograph ice seal pups, the aircraft are linked back to the ground by three different channels, including an Iridium satellite and two radio links.

But what if all those links get cut off? Cahill’s team has been working with the FAA to validate so-called detect-and-avoid systems that identify airborne hazards. These run the gamut from acoustics to radar to visual and infrared cameras. The task is simpler than, say, putting self-driving cars on the roads, she notes, with inconvenient pedestrians and rule-flouting human drivers. But the consequences of a mistake are more dire. She says the technology is close but not proven yet for wide-scale use. Xwing, with the aerospace company Bell and funding from NASA, has developed its own system that it plans to demonstrate this fall.

Still, there’s incremental progress, Cahill says, with case-by-case approval that permits operators to run flights beyond the operator’s line of sight at a particular time and place. Last year, the FAA gave that permission to both UPS and Wing, a subsidiary of Google’s parent Alphabet, for small drones—primarily for moving blood and medical supplies. “It used to be you proposed one of these operations and the answer was ‘Hell no.’ And then it went to no. And then it was a maybe. And now it’s gotten to yes,” she says. It’s unclear what the FAA will make of larger aircraft, like the Cessna, she says, but she notes they might be more comfortable with the familiar workhorse of the skies. She’d personally love autonomous Cessnas to deliver packages in rural Alaska, where she lives; the major cargo airline delivering there went bankrupt last year, and human piloted flights are both expensive and dangerous. “For us it’s an immediate need,” she adds.

Piette’s vision of a sky buzzing with drones will likely need to wait. “I think the next jump everyone wants is going to take more time,” Cahill says. “I think it will be in the next five to 10 years.” That’s because it will take real infrastructure. Think comprehensive networks of redundant data links into the national airspace, and secured from hackers. There will be studies of how pilots should be trained and how many planes they can handle. And in all likelihood, a much bigger public debate about where and how those systems can be used.

In the meantime, the humans remain aboard. As we bank serenely over the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta, Gariel sits in the back of the plane in front of two screens, acting the role of the ground-based “pilot.” The detection system picks up a few small aircraft in our sight, warning where we shouldn’t go, to avoid interfering with the other planes. But it’s a quiet day, and there are no imminent threats. In fact, there isn’t much for Gariel to do at all. He admits the flights get a little boring sometimes. But he hopes for many more boring flights ahead, flights that would prove he wasn’t needed up here at all. In the meantime, he muses, perhaps he could start skydiving back to the tarmac.


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