Hi and welcome back to The Station. Memorial Day is this coming Monday, a holiday meant to honor military personnel who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Over the years, it has evolved for many Americans who use the three-day weekend to fire up the grill, go camping, head to the beach, local amusement park or take a road trip. It’s become the unofficial kickoff to the summer season — even though we still have more than three weeks of spring.
Every year around this time, AAA provides an estimate for travel over the weekend. For the first time in 20 years, AAA said it would not issue a Memorial Day travel forecast, as the accuracy of the economic data used to create the forecast has been undermined by COVID-19.
The travel forecast often reflects the state of the economy or at least certain aspects of it. For instance, Memorial Day 2009 holds the record for the lowest travel volume at nearly 31 million travelers. Last year, 43 million Americans traveled for Memorial Day Weekend, the second-highest travel volume on record since 2000, when the organization began tracking this data.
I will put my prognosticator hat on for a moment knowing I might very well be wrong (I’m sure ya’ll will remind me later). I expect this weekend to be a low travel holiday, but I fully anticipate this summer will mark the return of the road trip. And that’s not just my forecast for the U.S. I expect Europeans will stick closer to home and opt for road and possibly train travel over long haul flights for their summer holidays. That has all kinds of implications, positive and negative. And it’s why I’m going to spend some time in the coming weeks driving a variety of new SUV models in search of road trip worthy vehicles.
This past week I drove the 2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport V6 SEL (premium trim), a more smaller and approachable version of the massive three-row Atlas. I will share a few thoughts about it next week. After that, I will be driving the 2020 Land Cruiser standard trim. Have a vehicle suggestion? Reach out and I’ll try to put it in my queue.
Shall we get down to it? Vamos.
Micromobility had some good action this week so let’s dive on in. Here in San Francisco, Bird’s Scoot redeployed 300 electric kick scooters. By Memorial Day weekend, Scoot will have 500 electric scooters available. Additionally, Scoot expanded its scooter service area to serve more parts of San Francisco.
Over in Atlanta, GoX and Tortoise teamed up to deploy teleoperated electric scooters. In Peachtree Corners, GoX riders can hail a scooter equipped with tech from Tortoise. As Keaks, aka Kirsten Korosec, explained earlier this week, riders can request a scooter to come to them and once they’re done, the scooter will drive itself back to a parking spot.
Meanwhile, in Europe, Tier brought integrated helmets to its electric scooters. The foldable helmets fit inside a box attached to the scooter below the handlebars. This month, Tier plans to deploy 200 scooters equipped with helmets in Paris and Berlin. Over the summer, Tier will deploy an additional 5,000 helmet-equipped scooters. Additionally, given concerns about COVID-19, Tier is experimenting with an antibacterial, self-disinfecting handlebar technology from Protexus. Tier is testing these handlebars in Paris and Bordeaux.
Also, don’t miss my analysis of why micromobility may come back stronger after the pandemic.
Deal of the week
Vroom, the online used car marketplace that has raised some $700 million since 2013, filed for an IPO this week. (Yes, IPOs qualify as deals in my book). It plans to trade on the Nasdaq under VRM with Goldman Sachs as lead underwriter.
Vroom is an interesting company that I’ve been writing about for years now. And there have been times that I wondered if it would fold altogether. The company managed to keep raising funds though, most recently $254 million in December 2019 in a Series H round that valued the company at around $1.5 billion.
A look at the S-1 shows modest growth, rising losses and slim gross margins. Eck!
Here’s a quick breakdown:
- Vroom’s revenue grew 39.3% in 2019 compared to 2018. During that same period, its gross margin fell from 7.1% to 4.9%. The company’s net losses as a percent of revenue rose from 10% in 2018 to 12% in 2019. (That doesn’t include costs relating to “accretion of redeemable convertible preferred stock.” By counting the non-cash cost, add $13 million to Vroom’s 2018 net loss and $132.8 million to its 2019 figure.)
- In the first quarter of 2020, Vroom generated revenue of $375.8 million, leading to gross profit of $18.4 million, or about 4.9% of revenue. It also reported a net loss of $41.1 million in the first quarter, putting it on a run-rate to lose even more money in 2020 than it did in 2019.
TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm takes a look under Vroom’s hood and digs into why the company is heading to the public markets during this volatile time. Check it out.
Missfresh, a Chinese grocery delivery company backed by Tencent, is closing in on $500 million in new funding.
Autonomous aviation startup Xwing locked in a $10 million funding round before COVID-19 hit. Now the San Francisco-based startup is using the capital to hire talent and scale the development of its software stack as it aims for commercial operations later this year — pending FAA approvals. The Series A funding round was led by R7 Partners, with participation from early-stage VC Alven, Eniac Ventures and Thales Corporate Ventures.
Fly Now Pay Later, a London-based fintech startup focused on travel, raised £5 million in Series A equity funding and another £30 million in debt funding.
French startup Angell has signed a wide-ranging partnership with SEB, the French industrial company behind All-Clad, Krups, Moulinex, Rowenta, Tefal and others. As part of the deal, SEB will manufacture Angell’s electric bikes in a factory near Dijon, France. SEB’s investment arm, SEB Alliance, is also investing in Angell. The terms of the deal are undisclosed, but Angell says it plans to raise between $7.6 and $21.7 million with a group of investors that include SEB.
Layoffs, business disruptions and people
Hertz filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Friday, a move we’ve been anticipating for awhile now. The bankruptcy protection stems from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Once business trips and other travel was halted, Hertz was suddenly sitting on an unused asset — lots and lots of cars. It wasn’t just that the revenue spigot was turned off. Used car prices have dropped, further devaluing its fleet.
The company said that it has more than $1 billion in cash on hand, which it will use to keep the business operating through the bankruptcy process. Hertz also said its principal international operating regions, including Europe, Australia and New Zealand are not included in the U.S. Chapter 11 proceedings, nor are franchised locations.
Indian ride-hailing firm Ola has seen revenue drop by 95% in the last two months as India enforced a stay-at-home order for its 1.3 billion citizens in late March. You can guess what has happened as a result. Ola co-founder and CEO Bhavish Aggarwal said in an internal email the company is cutting 1,400 jobs in India, or 35% of its workforce in the home market.
India’s top food delivery startup Swiggy is cutting 1,100 jobs and scaling down some adjacent businesses as it looks to reduce costs to survive the coronavirus pandemic.
Here’s something on the “new” job front …
There’s been a lot of attention on autonomous delivery robots. These companies will most certainly struggle to become profitable. On-demand delivery is a tricky business. But COVID-19 might have inadvertently expanded the labor pool for these companies.
On-demand delivery startup Postmates has seen an increase in demand for its autonomous delivery robots known as Serve, which operate in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The company uses teleoperators, humans who remotely monitor and guide the autonomous robots. COVID-19 prompted Postmates to set up teleoperations centers within each employee’s home. Postmates sees potential to reach a new group of workers.
Tortoise, which we mentioned earlier in Micromobbin’, sees the same potential, according to its founder and CEO Dmitry Shevelenko.
A little bird
We hear (and see) things. But we’re not selfish. We share!
For those not familiar with “a little bird,” this is a periodic section that shares insider tips that have been vetted. This week comes out of the super-hyped world of on-demand delivery. It’s a business that might be seeing a lot of demand. But demand doesn’t always square with profitability.
Take Postmates for example. The company has raised about $900 million to date, including a $225 million round announced in October that valued the company at about $2.5 billion. But now it seems that common shares are trading at a 45% discount on the secondary market, according to our sources.
Early investors do take money off the table from time to time. But it can also indicate other troubles worth watching out for. Postmates filed confidential IPO paperwork in February 2019, but those plans have been delayed. The company is also fighting for market share against giants like Doordash. A Uber-Grubhub merger would put it even with DoorDash.
That leaves Postmates in a distant fourth. Dan Primack over at Axios noted “multiple sources” have told him the company is seeking raise around $100 million in new private-market funding.
Other notable bits
Here are a few other items that caught my eye …
Amazon is joining India’s online food delivery market just as top local players Swiggy and Zomato reduce their workforce to steer through the coronavirus pandemic and months after Uber Eats’ exit from the nation.
GM has a “big team” working on an advanced version of its hands-free driving assistance system, Super Cruise, that will expand its capability beyond highways and apply it to city streets, the automaker’s vice president of global product development Doug Parks said during a webcasted interview at Citi’s 2020 Car of the Future Symposium.
Cake, the Stockholm-based mobility startup, debuted the Kalk OR, a 150-pound, battery-powered two-wheeler engineered for agile off-road riding and available in a street-legal version.
Nauto has launched a new feature in its driver behavior learning platform that is designed to detect imminent collisions to help reduce rear-end accidents. It works by taking in driver behavior data, vehicle movement, traffic elements, and contextual data to help predict and prevent collisions.
Organizers of the New York International Auto Show, once hoping to hold the rescheduled event in August, have decided to scrap the entire year. The show has been officially canceled for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers announced Friday. The next show will take place April 2 to April 11, 2021. Press days will be March 31 and April 1.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company is raising the price of its “Full Self-Driving” package of its Autopilot driver assistance package by around $1,000 on July 1. This has happened before and it will, I promise happen again. The Verge has a good breakdown of why. I, of course, care about the financial reasons. Right now, Tesla can only count about half of the revenue it generates from FSD. The other half is deferred revenue — money that Tesla can recognize on its balance sheet at a later date.
Wunder Mobility, the Hamburg-based startup that provides a range of mobility services, from carpooling to electric scooter rentals, announced the launch of Wunder Vehicles and a business-to-business partnership with Chinese EV manufacturer Yadea. Wunder Vehicles is a service that gives customers a toolkit of sorts to launch a fleet-sharing company. The company provides software, a marketing plan, data, financing options and the electric vehicles, which will come from Yadea.
Rad Power Bikes unveiled the newest iteration of its electric cargo bike. The RadWagon 4 has been fully redesigned from the ground up. Trucks VC’s Reilly Brennan recently described this on Twitter as the possible F-150 of micromobility. We hope to test it soon.
To visualize how serious this problem is, one has only to imagine what would happen if quarantine measures like this spring’s were to happen in the fall — and considering experts predict a second wave in that period, this is very much a possibility.
If lockdown measures were being intensified and extended not on May 3rd, but November 3rd, how would the election proceed?
The answer is: it wouldn’t.
There would be no real election because so few people in the country would be able to legally and safely vote. This is hardly speculative: We have seen it happen in states where, for lack of any other option, people had to risk their lives, breaking quarantine to vote in person. Naturally it was the most vulnerable groups — people of color, immigrants, the poor and so on — who were most affected. The absurdity of a state requiring voters to gather in large groups while forbidding people to gather in large groups is palpable.
With this problem scaled to national levels, the entire electoral process would be derailed, and the ensuing chaos would be taken advantage of by all and sundry for their own purposes — something we see happening in practically every election.
For the 2020 election, if any elections official in this country claims to value the voters for which they are responsible, voting by mail is the only way to enable every citizen to register and vote securely and remotely. Anything less can only be considered deliberate obstruction, or at best willful negligence, of the electoral process.
There’s a fair amount of talk about apps, online portals and other avenues, and these may figure later, but mail is the only method guaranteed right now to securely serve every address and person, providing the fundamental fabric of connectivity that is absolutely necessary to universally accessible voting.
Hand-wringing about fraud, lost ballots and other issues with voting by mail is deliberate, politically motivated FUD (and you can expect a lot of it over the next few months). States where voting by mail is the standard report no such issues; on the contrary, they have high turnout and few problems because it is simple, effective and secure. As far as risk is concerned, there is absolutely no comparison to the widespread and well-documented process and security issues with touchscreen voting systems, even before you bring in the enormous public health concerns of using those methods during a pandemic.
Federal law requires that troops around the world, among others unable to vote in person, are able to request and submit their ballots by mail. That this is the preferred method for voting in combat zones is practically all the endorsement such a system needs. That the president votes by mail is just the cherry on top.
Fear of voters
So why hasn’t voting by mail been adopted more widely? The same reason we have gerrymandered districts: Politicians have manipulated the electoral process for decades in order to stack the deck in their favor. While gerrymandering has been employed with great (and deplorable) effect by both Democratic and Republican officials, voter suppression is employed overwhelmingly by the political right.
While this is certainly a politically charged statement, it’s not really a matter of opinion. The demographics of the voting public are such that as the proportion of the population that votes grows, the aggregate position begins to lean leftward. This happens for a variety of reasons, but the result is that limiting who votes benefits conservatives more than liberals. (I am not so naive to think that if it were the other way around, Democrats would altogether abstain from the practice, but that isn’t the case.)
This is not a new complaint. Deliberate voter suppression goes back a century and more. Nor is the practice equally distributed. For one thing, white, well-off, urban areas are more likely to have effective and modern voting systems and laws.
This is not only because those areas are generally the first to receive all good things, but because voter suppression has been aimed specifically at people of color, immigrants, the poor and so on. Again, this is no longer a controversial or even particularly partisan statement; it has been admitted to by politicians and strategists at every level — including, quite recently, by the president: “They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
When voting by mail was merely a convenient, effective alternative to voting in person, it was fairly easy to speak against it. Now, however, voting by mail is increasingly looking like the only possible method to accomplish an election.
Again, think of how we would vote during a stay-at-home order. Using only today’s methods would be dangerous, chaotic and generally an ineffective way to ask the population at large who they want to lead their city, state and country.
That is no way to conduct an election. Therefore, we currently have no way to conduct a national election. Voting by mail is the only method that can realistically be rolled out to accomplish an effective election in 2020.
Because elections are run by state authorities, voting methods and laws vary widely between them. The quickest way to a nationwide vote-by-mail system would use federal funding and authority, but even if states were in favor of this (they won’t be, as it is an encroachment on their authority), Washington is not. The possibility of a bill implementing universal voting by mail passing the House, Senate and the president’s desk by November is, sadly, remote.
Which is not to say that no one in D.C. is not trying it:
This means it’s down to the states — not great news, considering it is at the state level that voting rights have been eroded and voter suppression enshrined in policy.
The only hope we have is for state authorities to recognize that the 2020 presidential election will be a closely watched litmus test for competence and corruption that will haunt them for years. It’s one thing to put your finger on the scale under normal circumstances. It’s quite another to author a high-profile electoral failure in an election few doubt will be one of the most consequential in American history — especially if that failure was manifestly preventable.
And we know it is preventable because due to federal voting rights laws, every state already has some form of accessible, mail-in or absentee voting. This is not a matter of inventing a new system from scratch, but scaling existing, proven systems in ways already demonstrated and verified over decades. Several states, for instance, have simply announced that all voters will get absentee ballots or applications sent unrequested to their homes. No one said it would be easy, but the first step — committing — is at least simple.
It will be obvious in a few months which state authorities actually care about the vote and which see it as just another instrument to manipulate in order to retain and accrue power. The actions taken in the run-up to this election will be remembered for a long time. As for the federal government interfering with states’ prerogative to run their own elections — that’s a violation of states’ rights that I expect will encounter strong bipartisan opposition.
How tech can help without hindering
The tech world will want to aid in this cause out of several motives, but the simple truth is there’s no way a technological solution can be developed and deployed by November. And not only is it infeasible, but there is serious political opposition to online voting systems to be widely deployed. The idea is a non-starter for this election and probably the next.
Rather than trying, Monolith-style, to evolve voting to the next phase by taking on the whole thing tip to tail, tech should be providing support structures via uniquely digital tools that complement rather than replace effective voting systems.
For example, there is the possibility, however remote, that a mailed ballot will be intercepted by some adversary and modified, shredded, selectively deposited, or what have you. No large-scale fraud has ever been perpetrated, despite what opponents of voting by mail might say. States developed preventative solutions long ago, like secure ballot boxes placed around the city and tamper-evident envelopes.
But end to end security is something at which the tech sector excels, and moreover recent advances make a digitally augmented voting process achievable. And there’s plenty of room for competition and commercial involvement, which sweetens the pot.
Here’s a way that commonplace tech could be deployed to make voting by mail even more secure and convenient.
Imagine a mail-in ballot of the ordinary fill-in-the-bubble type. Once a person makes their selections, they take a picture of the ballot in a dedicated, completely offline app. Via fairly elementary image analysis nearly any phone can now perform, the votes can be detected and tabulated, verified by the voter, then hashed with a unique voter sheet ID into a code short enough to be written down.
The ballot is mailed and (let us say for now) received. When it is processed, the same hash is calculated by the machine reader and placed on an easily accessible list. A voter can check that their vote was tabulated and correctly recorded by entering their hash into a website — which itself reveals nothing about their vote or identity.
What if something goes wrong? Say the ballot is lost. In that case the voter has a record of their vote in both image and physical form (mail-in ballots have little tear-off tabs you keep) and can pursue this issue. The same database that lets them verify their vote was correct will allow them to see if their vote was never cast. If it was interfered with or damaged and the selections differ from what the voter already verified, the hash will differ, and the voter can prove this with the evidence they have — again, entirely offline and with no private information exposed.
This example system only works because smartphones are now so common, and because it is now trivial to process an image quickly and accurately offline. But importantly, the digital aspect only addresses shortcomings of the mail-in system rather than being central to it. You vote with only a ballpoint pen, as simply as possible — but if you want to be sure, you may choose to employ the latest technology to track your vote.
A system like this may not make it in time for the 2020 election, but voting by mail can and must if there is to be an election at all.
Minecraft Dungeons is a sort of my-first-dungeon-crawler type game, a friendly, streamlined version of the genre Diablo created where players enter a procedurally created dungeon or region, kill some monsters, get some loot, make it out alive and do it all over again.
That’s the idea in this game as well, but of course the whole thing uses the block-based look and feel of Minecraft. As you travel through different biomes to free villagers, destroy ancient forges and so on, everything from the levels and monsters to equipment and potions looks like it came straight out of the original game. They nailed the look perfectly.
It’s refreshing, because games like this tend to court a rather grim aesthetic, and when it comes to gameplay they pile on features and mechanics until it feels more like you’re playing a spreadsheet than a game. It’s clear from the start Minecraft Dungeons was intended to provide the fun of fighting, upgrading and exploring without the overly complex and dark trappings of the genre.
For instance, instead of having a handful of character classes each with their own skill tree, everything your character can do depends on their equipment. Weapons, armor and accessories all have unique bonuses and abilities. So if you want to be a bow and arrow-type fighter, wear the Ranger armor that gives you extra-ranged damage and ammo, and use accessories that empower your arrows. Want to be a melee guy? There’s armor and swords for that too.
Customization of your play style, an important part of these games, is achieved by judicious choice of a set of random upgrades on each item. When you gain a level, you get a point that can be used to activate, say, a passive ability that deflects enemy projectiles 20% of the time. Then it costs two points to upgrade it again, so it deflects 30% of the time.
You get those points back when you trash the item and can reapply them to a new one, providing low-risk, low-commitment progress — in time you’ll have lots of points banked to upgrade and experiment with whatever new item you find.
This approach is really a breath of fresh air after the convoluted overlapping systems of the likes of Diablo, Grim Dawn and Path of Exile. There was just the right amount of “this new sword is tempting but do really I want to recycle my old one?” tension, and although you will collect trash loot, it’s easy to check and dispose of.
I didn’t get a chance to test multiplayer, but the game is definitely designed with co-adventuring in mind. Couch co-op lets you drop in a second player with a controller or connect online with others on the same platform (cross-play is coming soon). A cross-platform casual dungeon crawler is something I’ve been wanting for a long time.
It’s too bad, then, that this is where the game runs out of really positive qualities. I’m keeping in mind that this is a $20 game designed with players new to the genre in mind — not to say kids exactly — so there’s no sense comparing it directly to a major mainstream gaming franchise. But even so, Minecraft Dungeons has some serious issues.
For one thing, it really needs more variety. Part of the fun of these games is traveling from region to region and fighting new types of monsters with different tactics and abilities. That really just isn’t there in this game. The 10 different areas are visually distinct, yes, but they’re linear, similar from one run to another, and don’t differ all that much gameplay-wise. One aspect of Minecraft I’ve always loved, exploration, is nearly absent. Getting up on a hill or down in some little valley or cavern you can see usually isn’t possible — they’re just walls or bottomless pits. Side paths often run quite a distance, but I eventually learned to stopped taking them because they were frequently empty and it always took forever to backtrack afterwards.
You’ll run into the same zombies, spiders and soldiers over and over, and get the same weapons and accessories dropped over and over, often with very similar stats. Although there seems to be a good variety at first, the abilities and weapons don’t seem particularly well-balanced, with some obviously and objectively better than others. Some are basically useless: One ability gives you a speedup for a few seconds after you dodge — but the game also slows you down for a few seconds after you roll, so they kind of just cancel each other out. Another returns a third of one percent of your health for every 100 blocks you uncover in the game. What?
This wouldn’t be an issue if the game had better difficulty tuning. I found in my playthrough that there was no challenge whatsoever 99% of the time, and then suddenly a situation would arise where I would be nearly instantly killed. These weren’t lesson-teaching deaths like other games — just sudden confluences of bad luck and, it must be said, some poor design.
Ranged attacks from enemies will often come from off-screen, for instance. And not just a stray arrow, but many simultaneously. Enemy projectiles also go through all other enemies, unlike your own, and are very difficult to dodge, especially when there are a dozen coming from different angles. So sometimes after spending the whole level barely taking a hit, you’re reduced to an emergency situation in a fraction of a second, with very little warning, by enemies you haven’t had a chance to react to or perhaps even see. The close-zoom camera shows details well but limits your understanding of what’s happening around you.
These brutal difficulty spikes aren’t always accidental. One enemy kept popping up that repeatedly spawned huge numbers of bear traps under my character’s feet that closed before any but a really expert player could be expected to dodge. Bosses are cheap, swarming players with minions, storms of enormous projectiles, and instant, undodgeable melee attacks.
The issue here isn’t just that it’s hard, but that the game doesn’t give you the tools you need to deal with it. Dodging feels clumsy and enemies block your movement; there is little in the way of active defense like a shield or accessory you activate to repel arrows for 5 seconds; you only have one slowly recharging healing potion and health doesn’t trickle back, so little mistakes add up over time. Not that it matters, since punishment is usually swift and extreme.
What all this amounts to is a game that alternates between monotonous and frustratingly hard, even for a fan of the genre like myself. And considering you’ll run through all the areas in the game in a handful of hours — there are 10 areas, each of which takes perhaps 20 minutes to clear — it’s expected that you’ll repeat them over and over to reach the gear level required to beat the final boss. I got all the way to that point and was insta-killed twice in a row.
I repeated a few areas but found them nearly indistinguishable from their earlier iterations. Ultimately I just wasn’t motivated to grind away just so I could unlock another, likely even more unfair, difficulty level.
I wouldn’t complain so much if this wasn’t, ostensibly, a game for beginners. Minecraft Dungeons innovates and simplifies in some really laudable ways, but the moment-to-moment game design is too uneven and the variety on offer isn’t enough even for a $20 game.
But it must be said that Minecraft itself also started out rather bare-bones and was built up over time into something remarkable and almost infinite. There are two DLC packs in the works for Dungeons, one rather crassly visible from the very start — nothing like being asked to pay more for a game you just bought. The good news is these packs will grow the game to a size that feels more like an adventure and less like a demo. I also expect that patches over the coming weeks and months will considerably tweak the equipment and difficulty — it can be, and needs to be, fixed.
A year from now Minecraft Dungeons could very well be a no-brainer purchase, a cross-platform casual hack-and-slash that you can play with your kids or your friends and have a great time without thinking too hard about it (or opening Excel). But right now it’s mostly potential. I’d hold off on picking this one up until it has been made into the game it’s meant to be.