Indonesia’s Travelio raises $18M to help tenants rent apartments

More than 50% of residential apartments and other real estate properties in Jakarta are currently vacant, according to official estimates. A startup that is attempting to make it easier for tenants to rent these properties in Jakarta and other places in Indonesia said on Thursday that it has closed a new financing round.

Travelio has raised $18 million in its Series B financing round led by Singapore-based Pavilion Capital and Gobi Partners, the four-year-old startup said. Some existing investors also participated in the round.

The startup works with individual apartment owners and property dealers to allow tenants to find and rent apartments. People can book an apartment for a day to months, Christina Suriadjaja, cofounder and chief strategy officer of Travelio, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Travelio has over 4,000 properties exclusively signed up with the platform, she said. The startup takes between 20% to 35% of the revenue cut from its property owner partners, she explained.

Typically, it would cost a little more than $350 for someone to rent an apartment for a month from Travelio. In Indonesia, currently those looking for an apartment from property dealers and individual owners have to make a down payment of 20% and pay an advanced security deposit for more than a year. Through its pricing structure, Travelio is attempting to address this issue as well.

A number of startups including RedDoorz, Oyo, and Airbnb operate in Indonesia, but because they are focused on providing rooms for a day or two like hotels, this differentiates them from Travelio. Suriadjaja said Airbnb, which lists properties of Travelio, is more of a partner than a competitor. “Our competitors are property dealers,” she said.

In addition to offering these fully furnished apartments on rents, Travelio also takes care of house cleaning and maintenance of these properties.. “In the coming months, we will work on expanding the services we offer,” she said. Some of the services it is exploring include interior design, daily necessities, financing, payments and other logistic-related offerings.

The startup aims to have 20,000 apartments on its platform in one year. “With Indonesia’s rising middle class population, Travelio is well-positioned to serve the growing demand for temporary housing, urbanization and affordable living options,” the startup said.

A recent research report by Google, Temasek and Bain & Co projected that Southeast Asia’s internet economy would top $100 billion this year. Indonesia, home to more than 260 million people, would be the biggest contributor to the internet economy’s growth in the region, the report said.

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John Carmack steps down at Oculus to pursue AI passion project ‘before I get too old’

Legendary coder John Carmack is leaving Facebook’s Oculus after 6 years to focus on a personal project — no less than the creation of Artificial General Intelligence, or “Strong AI.” He’ll remain attached to the company in a “Consulting CTO” position, but will be spending all his time working on, perhaps, the AI that finally surpasses and destroys humanity.

AGI or strong AI is the concept of an AI that learns much the way humans do, and as such is not as limited as the extremely narrow machine learning algorithms we refer to as AI today. AGI is the science fiction version of AI — HAL 9000, Replicants, and of course the Terminator. There are some good ones out there, too — Data and R2D2, for instance.

So far AGI has yet to be even defined in any serious way, let alone approached by researchers. It’s an open question whether such a thing is even possible, and if it is, whether we can accomplish it — and if we can, whether we should.

Carmack announced the move on Facebook, where he explained that the uncertainty about such a fascinating and exciting topic is exactly what attracted him to it.

When I think back over everything I have done across games, aerospace, and VR, I have always felt that I had at least a vague “line of sight” to the solutions, even if they were unconventional or unproven. I have sometimes wondered how I would fare with a problem where the solution really isn’t in sight. I decided that I should give it a try before I get too old.

His plan is to pursue it from home, “Victorian Gentleman Scientist” style, and make his kid help. It’s a bit like someone retiring early to dedicate their life full-time to the perpetual motion machine they’ve almost got working… except Carmack may actually have a chance to create something remarkable.

His is the rare combination of a technical mind combined with vision and creativity, leading him to skim the bleeding edge of technology and sometimes give it a serious push in some direction or another.

Unlike his work at Oculus, however, we won’t be able to buy the result of his expert touch, so we’ll just have to wait for whatever comes out of it, if anything. I wish him good luck — but I also wish he’d be careful.

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Messaging app Wire confirms $8.2M raise, responds to privacy concerns after moving holding company to the US

Big changes are afoot for Wire, an enterprise-focused end-to-end encrypted messaging app and service that advertises itself as “the most secure collaboration platform”. In February, Wire quietly raised $8.2 million from Morpheus Ventures and others, we’ve confirmed — the first funding amount it has ever disclosed — and alongside that external financing, it moved its holding company in the same month to the US from Luxembourg, a switch that Wire’s CEO Morten Brogger described in an interview as “simple and pragmatic.”

He also said that Wire is planning to introduce a freemium tier to its existing consumer service — which itself has half a million users — while working on a larger round of funding to fuel more growth of its enterprise business — a key reason for moving to the US, he added: There is more money to be raised there.

“We knew we needed this funding and additional to support continued growth. We made the decision that at some point in time it will be easier to get funding in North America, where there’s six times the amount of venture capital,” he said.

While Wire has moved its holding company to the US, it is keeping the rest of its operations as is. Customers are licensed and serviced from Wire Switzerland; the software development team is in Berlin, Germany; and hosting remains in Europe.

The news of Wire’s US move and the basics of its February funding — sans value, date or backers — came out this week via a blog post that raises questions about whether a company that trades on the idea of data privacy should itself be more transparent about its activities.

Specifically, the changes to Wire’s financing and legal structure were only communicated to users when news started to leak out, which brings up questions not just about transparency, but about the state of Wire’s privacy policy, given the company’s holding company now being on US soil.

It was an issue picked up and amplified by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden . Via Twitter, he described the move to the US as “not appropriate for a company claiming to provide a secure messenger — claims a large number of human rights defenders relied on.”

The key question is whether Wire’s shift to the US puts users’ data at risk — a question that Brogger claims is straightforward to answer: “We are in Switzerland, which has the best privacy laws in the world” — it’s subject to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation framework (GDPR) on top of its own local laws — “and Wire now belongs to a new group holding, but there no change in control.” 

In its blog post published in the wake of blowback from privacy advocates, Wire also claims it “stands by its mission to best protect communication data with state-of-the-art technology and practice” — listing several items in its defence:

  • All source code has been and will be available for inspection on GitHub (github.com/wireapp).
  • All communication through Wire is secured with end-to-end encryption — messages, conference calls, files. The decryption keys are only stored on user devices, not on our servers. It also gives companies the option to deploy their own instances of Wire in their own data centers.
  • Wire has started working on a federated protocol to connect on-premise installations and make messaging and collaboration more ubiquitous.
  • Wire believes that data protection is best achieved through state-of-the-art encryption and continues to innovate in that space with Messaging Layer Security (MLS).

But where data privacy and US law are concerned, it’s complicated. Snowden famously leaked scores of classified documents disclosing the extent of US government mass surveillance programs in 2013, including how data-harvesting was embedded in US-based messaging and technology platforms.

Six years on, the political and legal ramifications of that disclosure are still playing out — with a key judgement pending from Europe’s top court which could yet unseat the current data transfer arrangement between the EU and the US.

Privacy versus security

Wire launched at a time when interest in messaging apps was at a high watermark. The company made its debut in the middle of February 2014, and it was only one week later that Facebook acquired WhatsApp for the princely sum of $19 billion.

We described Wire’s primary selling point at the time as a “reimagining of how a communications tool like Skype should operate had it been built today” rather than in in 2003. That meant encryption and privacy protection, but also better audio tools and file compression and more.

It was a pitch that seemed especially compelling considering the background of the company. Skype co-founder Janus Friis and funds connected to him were the startup’s first backers (and they remain the largest shareholders); Wire was co-founded in by Skype alums Jonathan Christensen and Alan Duric (no longer with the company); and even new investor Morpheus has Skype roots.

Yet even with that Skype pedigree, the strategy faced a big challenge.

“The consumer messaging market is lost to the Facebooks of the world, which dominate it,” Brogger said today. “However, we made a clear insight, which is the core strength of Wire: security and privacy.”

That, combined with trend around the consumerization of IT that’s brought new tools to business users, is what led Wire to the enterprise market in 2017 — a shift that’s seen it pick up a number of big names among its 700 enterprise customers, including Fortum, Aon, EY and SoftBank Robotics.

But fast forward to today, and it seems that even as security and privacy are two sides of the same coin, it may not be so simple when deciding what to optimise in terms of features and future development, which is part of the question now and what critics are concerned with.

“Wire was always for profit and planned to follow the typical venture backed route of raising rounds to accelerate growth,” one source familiar with the company told us. “However, it took time to find its niche (B2B, enterprise secure comms).

“It needed money to keep the operations going and growing. [But] the new CEO, who joined late 2017, didn’t really care about the free users, and the way I read it now, the transformation is complete: ‘If Wire works for you, fine, but we don’t really care about what you think about our ownership or funding structure as our corporate clients care about security, not about privacy.’”

And that is the message you get from Brogger, too, who describes individual consumers as “not part of our strategy”, but also not entirely removed from it, either, as the focus shifts to enterprises and their security needs.

Brogger said there are still half a million individuals on the platform, and they will come up with ways to continue to serve them under the same privacy policies and with the same kind of service as the enterprise users. “We want to give them all the same features with no limits,” he added. “We are looking to switch it into a freemium model.”

On the other side, “We are having a lot of inbound requests on how Wire can replace Skype for Business,” he said. “We are the only one who can do that with our level of security. It’s become a very interesting journey and we are super excited.”

Part of the company’s push into enterprise has also seen it make a number of hires. This has included bringing in two former Huddle C-suite execs, Brogger as CEO and Rasmus Holst as chief revenue officer — a bench that Wire expanded this week with three new hires from three other B2B businesses: a VP of EMEA sales from New Relic, a VP of finance from Contentful; and a VP of Americas sales from Xeebi.

Such growth comes with a price-tag attached to it, clearly. Which is why Wire is opening itself to more funding and more exposure in the US, but also more scrutiny and questions from those who counted on its services before the change.

Brogger said inbound interest has been strong and he expects the startup’s next round to close in the next two to three months.

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SpaceX completes key Crew Dragon launch system static test fire

SpaceX has confirmed that it ran a static’s fire test of its Crew Dragon astronaut capsule launch escape system. That’s a key step that it needed to run, and one that is under especially high scrutiny since a static fire of its thrusters back in April resulted in an explosion that destroyed that spacecraft. After an investigation, SpaceX and NASA were confident that they identified and corrected the cause of that faulty test, which seems to have worked in their favor with today’s engine fire.

Today’s stick fire appears to have gone much more smoothly, with SpaceX noting that it ran for the full planned duration, and that now its own engineers along with NASA teams will be reviewing the results of this test and the data it provided. So long as what these times find from these test results is within their expected range and criteria for success, that will mean they can move on to an in-flight demonstration of the crew space system – the next and necessary step leading up to the eventual crewed flight of Crew Dragon with NASA astronauts on board.

The in-flight abort test that will be the next key step for Crew Dragon will demonstrate how the SuperDraco crew escape system would behave in the unlikely event of an actual emergency during a crewed mission, albeit with a Crew Dragon spacecraft that doesn’t actually have anyone on board. NASA requires that its commercial crew partners demonstrate this system to ensure the safety of those on board, by showing that they can quickly move the crew capsule to a safe distance away from the spacecraft in case of emergency. Musk has said they’d hope to fly an in-flight abort as early as mid-December, provided this static test shows that everything is behaving as predicted.

If everything goes as planned with that crucial demonstration, NASA and SpaceX are optimistic that a first mission with crew on board could fly as early as the first part of next year. Commercial crew co-contractor Boeing is tracking to a similar timeline with its own Starliner crew capsule program.

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AWS, Salesforce join forces with Linux Foundation on Cloud Information Model

Last year Adobe, SAP and Microsoft came together and formed the Open Data Initiative. Not to be outdone, this week AWS, Salesforce and Genesys in partnership with The Linux Foundation announced the Cloud Information Model.

The two competing data models have a lot in common. They are both about bringing together data and applying a common open model to it. The idea is to allow for data interoperability across products in the partnership without a lot of heavy lifting, a common problem for users of these big company’s software.

Jim Zemlin, executive director at The Linux Foundation says this project provides a neutral home for the Cloud Information model, where a community can work on the problem. “This allows for anyone across the community to collaborate and provide contributions under a central governance model. It paves the way for full community-wide engagement in data interoperability efforts and standards development, while rapidly increasing adoption rate of the community,” Zemlin explained in a statement.

Each of the companies in the initial partnership is using the model in different ways. AWS will use it conjunction with its AWS Lake Formation tool to help customers move, catalog, store and clean data from a variety of data sources, while Genesys customers can use its cloud and AI products to communicate across a variety of channels.

Patrick Stokes from Salesforce says his company is using the Cloud Information Model as the underlying data model for his company’s Customer 360 platform of products. “We’re super excited to announce that we’ve joined together with a few partners — AWS, Genesys and The Linux Foundation — to actually open source that data model,” Stokes told TechCrunch.

Of course, now we have two competing “open” data models, and it’s going to create some friction until the two competing projects find a way to come together. The fact is that many companies use tools from each of these companies, and if there continues to be these competing approaches, it’s going to defeat the purpose of creating these initiatives in the first place.

As Satya Nadella said in 2015, “It is incumbent upon us, especially those of us who are platform vendors to partner broadly to solve real pain points our customers have.” If that’s the case having competing models is not really achieving that.

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Freshworks raises $150M Series H on $3.5B valuation

Freshworks, a company that makes a variety of business software tools from CRM to help desk software, announced a $150 million Series H investment today from Sequoia Capital, CapitalG (formerly Google Capital) and Accel on a hefty $3.5 billion valuation. The late-stage startup has raised almost $400 million, according to Crunchbase data.

The company has been building an enterprise SaaS platform to give customers a set of integrated business tools, but CEO and co-founder Girish Mathrubootham says they will be investing part of this money in R&D to keep building out the platform.

To that end, the company also announced a new unified data platform today called the “Customer-for-Life Cloud”  that runs across all of its it tools.  “We are actually investing in really bringing all of this together to create the “Customer-for-Life Cloud,” which is how you take marketing, sales, support and customer success — all of the aspects of a customer across the entire lifecycle journey and bring them to a common data model where a business that is using Freshworks can see the entire lifecycle of the customer,” Mathrubootham explained.

While Mathrubootham was not ready to commit to an IPO, he said that they are in the process of hiring a CFO and are looking ahead to one day becoming a public company. “We don’t have a definite timeline. We want to go public at the right time. We are making sure that as a company that we are ready with the right processes and teams and predictability in the business,” he said.

In addition, he says he will continue to look for good acquisition targets, and having this money in the bank will help the company fill in gaps in the product set should the right opportunity arise. “We don’t generally acquire revenue, but we are looking for good technology teams both in terms of talent, as well as technology that would help give us a jumpstart in terms of go-to-market.” It hasn’t been afraid to target small companies in the past, having acquired 12 already.

Freshworks, which launched in 2010,  has almost 2500 employees, a number that’s sure to go up with this new investment. It has 250,00 customers worldwide, including almost 40,000 paying customers. These including Bridgestone Tires, Honda, Hugo Boss, Toshiba and Cisco.

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Extra Crunch members get free Zendesk for 6 months

We’re excited to announce a new Extra Crunch community perk from Zendesk. Starting today, annual and 2-year Extra Crunch members that are new to Zendesk and located within the US or Canada can receive a credit for six months of unlimited licenses for any combination of Zendesk Support, Talk, Chat, and Guide, and Sell products, for free. Zendesk Talk and Zendesk Sell minutes are not included.

Zendesk is a customer service and engagement platform  that creates better experiences for agents, admins, and customers. Zendesk’s products are powerful and flexible, and scale to meet the needs of any business. You can learn more about Zendesk here

In order to qualify for the Zendesk community perk from Extra Crunch, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Must be an annual or 2-year Extra Crunch member. You can sign up here.
  • Must be located within the US or Canada
  • Must be a new customer of Zendesk

The Zendesk community perk from Extra Crunch is inclusive of subscription fees free for six months, after which you will be responsible for payment. Any downgrades to your Zendesk subscription will result in the forfeiture of the promotion, so please check with Zendesk first regarding any changes (startups@zendesk.com). The credit is only available for the Zendesk Support, Talk, Chat, and Guide, and Sell products.

Extra Crunch is a membership program from TechCrunch that features intelligence on the most disruptive opportunities for startups, how-tos and interviews on company building, an experience on TechCrunch.com that’s free of banner ads, discounts on TechCrunch events, and several community perks like the one mentioned in this article. Our goal is to democratize information about startups, and we’d love to have you join our community.

You can sign up for Extra Crunch here.

Here’s how the process works. After signing up for an annual or 2-year Extra Crunch membership, you’ll receive a welcome email with a link to apply to the Zendesk perk. Apply for the perk via the provided link in the email. Within 48 hours, the Zendesk team will send an email to you with the promo code.

Start a Zendesk Trial, and from inside your Zendesk trial, click the “Buy Now” button. Select your chosen plan and number of product licenses. Don’t forget to use monthly billing.

Enter the promo code that Zendesk provides you, and complete the checkout process. 

Zendesk offers a free 15-day trial, and if you are interested in purchasing a plan after the trial you can enter the code to get 6 months free. 

If you are already an annual or 2-year Extra Crunch member, you will receive a separate email with the offer at some point in the next 48 hours. If you are currently a monthly Extra Crunch subscriber and want to upgrade to annual in order to claim this deal, head over to the “my account” section on TechCrunch.com and click the “upgrade” button.

This is one of several community perks we’ve launched for annual and 2-year Extra Crunch members. Other community perks include a 20% discount on TechCrunch events, 100,000 Brex rewards points upon credit card sign up, and an opportunity to claim $1,000 in AWS credits.

If there are other community perks you want to see us add, please let us know by emailing travis@techcrunch.com.Sign up for an annual Extra Crunch membership today to claim this community perk. You can purchase an annual or 2-year Extra Crunch membership here.

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New NASA app puts you in the pilot’s seat of Boeing’s Starliner or SpaceX’s Crew Dragon

NASA has a new app (or web-based game, if you’re on desktop) that provides a simplified simulation of what it’s like to plan and run a commercial crew mission – meaning one of the planned varieties of mission that will actually take place aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner once they begin flying crews next year.

The app takes you through each part of the process, from spacecraft choice, to mission type, to crew selection and then to the actual launch and docking process. It’s mostly about providing some education aoudad each part of the process, rather than offering up an exhaustively realistic flight simulator – but the docking process with the International Space Station can be handled either on full automatic, or on manual mode – and manual mode is fairly challenging and fun.

NASA has included plenty of great info on both the Crew Dragon and the Starliner, and the respective rockets they will launch atop. It also included great bios for 10 actual astronauts you can select from to staff your mission. The launch assembly stage was a bit buggy when I gave it a try on my iPhone, but still workable, and it also provides key info about each element of the launch spacecraft, from boosters to crew capsules and everything in between.

The ‘Rocket Science: Ride 2 Station’ app is a free download, out now on iOS, and also available on the web.

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The Math of Sisyphus

“There is but one truly serious question in philosophy, and that is suicide,” wrote Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. This is equally true for a human navigating an absurd existence, and an artificial intelligence navigating a morally insoluble situation.

As AI-powered vehicles take the road, questions about their behavior are inevitable — and the escalation to matters of life or death equally so. This curiosity often takes the form of asking whom the car should steer for should it have no choice but to hit one of a variety innocent bystanders. Men? Women? Old people? Young people? Criminals? People with bad credit?

There are a number of reasons this question is a silly one, yet at the same time a deeply important one. But as far as I’m concerned, there is only one real solution that makes sense: when presented with the possibility of taking a life, the car must always first attempt to take its own.

The trolley non-problem

First, let’s get a few things straight about the question we’re attempting to answer.

There is unequivocally an air of contrivance to the situations under discussion. That’s because they’re not plausible real-world situations but mutations of a venerable thought experiment often called the “Trolley Problem.” The most familiar version dates to the ’60s, but versions of it can be found going back to discussions of utilitarianism, and before that in classical philosophy.

The problem goes: A train car is out of control, and it’s going to hit a family of five who are trapped on the tracks. Fortunately, you happen to be standing next to a lever that will divert the car to another track… where there’s only one person. Do you pull the switch? Okay, but what if there are ten people on the first track? What if the person on the second one is your sister? What if they’re terminally ill? If you choose not to act, is that in itself an act, leaving you responsible for those deaths? The possibilities multiply when it’s a car on a street: for example, what if one of the people is crossing against the light — does that make it all their fault? But what if they’re blind?

And so on. It’s a revealing and flexible exercise that makes people (frequently undergrads taking Intro to Philosophy) examine the many questions involved in how we value the lives of others, how we view our own responsibility, and so on.

But it isn’t a good way to create an actionable rule for real-life use.

After all, you don’t see convoluted moral logic on signs at railroad switches instructing operators on an elaborate hierarchy of the values of various lives. This is because the actions and outcomes are a red herring; the point of the exercise is to illustrate the fluidity of our ethical system. There’s no trick to the setup, no secret “correct” answer to calculate. The goal is not even to find an answer, but generate discussion and insight. So while it’s an interesting question, it’s fundamentally a question for humans, and consequently not really one our cars can or should be expected to answer, even with strict rules from its human engineers.

A self-driving car can no more calculate its way out of an ethical conundrum than Sisyphus could have calculated a better path by which to push his boulder up the mountain.

And it must also be acknowledged that these situations are going to be vanishingly rare. Most of the canonical versions of this thought experiment – five people versus one, or a kid and an old person – are so astronomically unlikely to occur that even if we did find a best method that a car should always choose, it’ll only be relevant once every trillion miles driven or so. And who’s to say whether that solution will be the right one in another country, among people with different values, or in ten or twenty years?

No matter how many senses and compute units a car has, it can no more calculate its way out of an ethical conundrum than Sisyphus could have calculated a better path by which to push his boulder up the mountain. The idea is, so to speak, absurd.

We can’t have our cars attempting to solve a moral question that we ourselves can’t. Yet somehow that doesn’t stop us from thinking about it, from wanting an answer. We want to somehow be prepared for the situation even though it may never arise. What’s to be done?

Implicit and explicit trust

The entire self-driving car ecosystem has to be built on trust. That trust will grow over time, but there are two aspects to be considered.

The first is implicit trust. This is the kind of trust we have in the cars we drive today: that despite being one-ton metal missiles propelled by a series of explosions and filled with high octane fuel, they won’t blow up, fail to stop when we hit the brakes, spin out when we turn the wheel, and so on. That we trust the vehicle to do that is the result of years and years of success on the part of car manufacturers. Considering their complexity, cars are among the most reliable machines ever made. That’s been proven in practice and most of the time, we don’t even think of the possibility of the brakes not catching when the pedal is depressed.

You trust your personal missile to work the way you trust a fridge to stay cold. Let’s take a moment to appreciate how amazing that is.

Self-driving cars, however, introduce new factors, unproven ones. Their proponents are correct when they say that autonomous vehicles will revolutionize the road, reduce traffic deaths, shorten commutes, and so on. Computers are going to be much better drivers than us in countless ways. They have superior reflexes, can see in all directions simultaneously (not to mention in the dark, and around or through obstacles), communicate and collaborate instantly with nearby vehicles, immediately sense and potentially fix technical problems… the list goes on.

But until these amazing abilities lose their luster and become just more pieces of the transportation tech infrastructure that we trust, they’ll be suspect. That part we can’t really accelerate except, paradoxically, by taking it slow and making sure no highly visible outlier events (like that fatal Uber crash) arrest the zeitgeist and set back that trust by years. Make haste slowly, as they say. Few people remember anti-lock brakes saving their lives, though it’s probably happened to several people reading this right now — it just quietly reinforced our implicit trust in the vehicle. And no one will remember when their car improved their commute by 5 minutes with a hundred tiny improvements. But they sure do remember that Toyotas killed dozens with bad software that locked the car’s accelerator.

The second part of that trust is explicit: something that has to be communicated, learned, something of which we are consciously aware.

For cars there aren’t many of these. The rules of the road differ widely and are flexible — some places more than others — and on ordinary highways and city streets there we operate our vehicles almost instinctively. When we are in the role of pedestrian, we behave as a self-aware part of an the ecosystem — we walk, we cross, we step in front of moving cars because we assume the driver will see us, avoid us, stop before they hit us. This is because we assume that behind the wheel of every car is an attentive human who will behave according to the rules we have all internalized.

Nevertheless we have signals, even if we don’t realize we’re sending or receiving them; how else can you explain how you know that truck up there is going to change lanes fives seconds before it turns its blinker on? How else can you be so sure a car isn’t going to stop, and hold a friend back from stepping into the crosswalk? Just because we don’t quite understand it doesn’t mean we don’t exert it or assess it all the time. Making eye contact, standing in a place implying the need to cross, waving, making space for a merge, short honks and long honks… It’s a learned skill, and a culture- or even city-specific one at that.

Cold blooded

With self-driving cars there is no humanity in which to place our trust. We trust other people because they’re like us; Computers are not like us.

In time autonomous vehicles of all kinds will become as much a part of the accepted ecosystem as automated lights and bridges, metered freeway entrances, parking monitoring systems, and so on. Until that time we will have to learn the rules by which autonomous vehicles operate, both through observation and straightforward instruction.

Some of these habits will be easily understood, for instance maybe autonomous vehicles will never, ever try to make an U-turn by crossing a double yellow line. I try not to myself, but you know how it is. I’d rather do that than go an extra three blocks to do it legally. But an AV will perhaps scrupulously adhere to traffic laws like that. So there’s one possible rule.

Others might not be quite so hard and fast. Merging and lane changes can be messy, but perhaps it will be the established pattern that AVs will always brake and join the line further back rather than try to move up a spot. This requires a little more context and the behavior is more adaptive, but it’s still a relatively simple pattern that you can perceive and react to, or even exploit to get ahead a bit (please don’t).

It’s important to note that, like the trolley problem “solutions,” there’s no huge list of car behaviors that says, always drop back when merging, always give the right of way, never this, this if that, etc. Just as our decision to switch or not switch tracks proceeds from a higher-order process of morality in our minds, these autonomous behaviors will be the natural result of a large set of complicated evaluations and decision-making processes that weigh hundreds of factors like positions of nearby cars, speed, lane width, etc. But I think they’ll be reliable enough in some ways and in some behaviors that there will definitely be a self-driving “style” that doesn’t deviate too much.

Although few if any of these behaviors are likely to be dangerous in and of themselves, it will be helpful to understand them if you are going to be sharing the road with them. Imperfect knowledge is how we get accidents to begin with. Establishing an explicit trust relationship with self-driving vehicles is part of the process accepting them into our everyday lives.

But people naturally want to take things to their logical ends, even if those ends aren’t really logical. And as you consider the many ways AVs will drive and how they will navigate certain situations, the “but what if…” scenarios naturally get more and more dire and specific as variables approach limits, and ultimately you arrive at the AV equivalent of the trolley problem that we started with. What happens when the car has to make a choice between people?

It’s not that anyone even thinks it will happen to them. What they want to know, as a prerequisite to trust, is that the system is not unprepared, and that the prepared response is not one that puts them in danger. People don’t want to be the victim of the self-driving car’s logic, even theoretically — that would be an impassible barrier to trust.

Because whatever the scenario, whoever it “chooses” between, one of those parties is undeniably the victim. The car got on the road and, following its ill logic to the bitter end, homed in on and struck this person rather than that one.

If neither of the people in this AV-trolley problem can by any reasonable measure be determined to be the “correct” one to choose, especially from their perspective (which must after all be considered), what else is there to do? Well, we have to remember that there’s one other “person” involved here: the car itself.

Is it self-destruction if you don’t have a self?

My suggestion is simply that it be made a universal policy that should a self-driving car be put in a situation where it is at serious risk of striking a person, it must take whatever means it can to avoid it — up to and including destroying itself, with no consideration for its own “life.” Essentially, when presented with the possibility of murder, an autonomous vehicle must always prefer suicide.

When presented with the possibility of murder, an autonomous vehicle must always prefer suicide.

It doesn’t have to detonate itself or anything. It just needs to take itself out of the action, and a robust improvisational engine can be produced to that end just as well as for avoiding swerving trucks, changing lanes suddenly, and any other behavior. There are telephone poles, parked cars, trees — take your pick; any of these things will do as long as they stop the car.

The objection, of course, is that there is likely to be a person inside the self-driving car. Yes — but this person has consented to the inherent risk involved, while the people on the street haven’t. While much of the moral calculus of the trolley problem is academic, this bit actually makes a difference.

Consenting to the risks of using a self-driving system means the occupant is acknowledging the possibility that should such a situation arise, however remote the possibility, they would be the person who may be the victim of it. They are the ones who will explicitly consent to trust their lives to the logic of the self-driving system. Furthermore, as a practical consideration, the occupant is so to speak on the soft side of the car.

As we’ve already established, it’s unlikely a car will ever have to do this. But what it does is provide a substantial and easily understood answer when someone asks the perfectly natural question of what an autonomous vehicle will do when it is careening towards a pedestrian. Simple: it will do its level best to destroy itself first.

There are extremely specific and dire situations that there will never be a solution to as long as there are moving cars and moving people, and self-driving vehicles are no exception to that. You’ll never run out of imaginary scenarios for any system, human or automated, to fail. But it is in order to reduce the number of such scenarios and help establish trust, not to render tragedy impossible, that every self-driving car should robustly and provably prefer its own destruction to that of a person outside itself.

We are not aiming for a complete solution, just an intuitive one. Self-driving cars will, say, always brake to merge, never cross a double yellow in normal traffic, and so on and so forth — and will crash themselves rather than hit a pedestrian. Regardless of the specifics and limitations of the model, that’s a behavior anyone can understand, including those who must consent to it.

Although even the most hard-bitten existentialist would be unlikely to support a systematic framework for suicide, it makes a difference when “suicide” is more likely to mean a fender bender and damage to one’s pocket rather than the death or injury of another. To destroy oneself is different when there is no self to destroy, and practically speaking the risk to passengers, equipped with airbags and seat belts, is far less than the risk to pedestrians.

How exactly would this all be accomplished in practice? Well, it could of course be required by transportation authorities, like seat belts and other safety measures. But unlike seat belts, the proprietary and complex inner workings of an autonomous system aren’t easily verifiable by non-experts. There are ways, but we should be wary of putting ourselves in a position where we have to trust not a technology but the company that administrates it. Either can fail us, but only one can betray us.

We should be wary of putting ourselves in a position where we have to trust not a technology but the company that administrates it. Either can fail us, but only one can betray us.

Perhaps there will be no need to rely on regulators, though: No brand of car wants to have its vehicles associated with running down a pedestrian. Today there are probably more accidents in Civics and Camrys than anything else, but no one thinks that makes them dangerous to drive — it just means more people drive them, and people make mistakes like anyone else.

On the other hand, if an automaker’s brand of self-driving vehicle hits someone, it’s obvious (and right) that the company will bear the blame. And consumers will see that — for one thing, it will be widely reported, and for another, there will probably be highly robust tracking of this kind of thing, including footage and logs from these accidents.

If automakers want to avoid pedestrian strikes and fatalities, they will incorporate something like this self-destruction protocol in their cars as a last line of defense, even if it leads to a net increase in autonomous collisions. It would be much preferable to be known as having a cautious AI than a killer one. So I think that, like other safety mechanisms, this or something like it will be included and, I hope, publicized on every car not because it’s required, but because it makes sense.

People deserve to know how things like self-driving cars work, even if few people on the planet can truly understand the complex computations and algorithms that govern them. They should, like regular cars, be able to be understood at a surface level. This case of understanding them at an extreme end of their behavior is not one that will be relevant every day, but it is a crucial one because it is something that matters to us at a gut level: knowing that these cars aren’t evaluating us as targets via mysterious and fundamentally inadequate algorithms.

To repurpose Camus: “These are facts the heart can feel; Yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.” Start with a simple solution we feel to be just and work backward from there. And soon — because this is no longer a thought experiment.

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Micromobility’s next big opportunities

Launching and operating shared bikes and scooters has lost its novelty. Worldwide, numerous companies are operating shared micromobility services — so many that the industry is well into a consolidation phase.

In Latin America, Grow Mobility formed as part of a merger between micromobility providers Grin and Yellow. In the U.S., Bird acquired Scoot. And, while not a traditional consolidation, Lime and Uber have partnered to include Lime’s scooters within the Uber app.

Meanwhile, we now have a handful of players operating in the direct-to-consumer model; Unagi, Boosted and even Bird has started selling direct to consumers.

Despite the over-saturation of the market, there are still opportunities for new players. Currently, there are two key areas that have yet to see a lot of action and are therefore ripe for disruption.

Those opportunities include creating a software ecosystem on top of bikes and scooters and improving unit economics by focusing on batteries.

As you may remember, business and mobility analyst Horace Dediu recently told me these micromobility vehicles have an opportunity to also be software hubs. In fact, he said it’s where he expects bigger players like Google and Apple to enter the space.

Already, at least one startup is taking steps to become the operating system for micromobility vehicles. Tortoise, a startup founded by former Uber executive Dmitry Shevelenko, is pursuing autonomous repositioning of scooters.

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