Ok Silicon Valley, you can save the world now

CXXIII

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Saving the world.

Silicon Valley always wants to save the world. To be a startup acolyte is to believe, fundamentally, that your company’s technology, be it virtual-reality headsets or finger-prick blood-testing machines or shared-office buildings with beer on tap and three kinds of freshly brewed kombucha, will make the world a better place, if not save humanity outright.

Well, great news guys. It’s time to actually save the world. We have roughly 11 years left to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to a grim report UN scientists released on Oct. 8. If countries in the Paris climate agreement met their existing pledges, the world would still warm by about 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. If we take no action, warming could reach 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.

Everything is secondary to climate change. Brett Kavanaugh, the Mueller probe, the Facebook data breach, Taylor Swift coming out as a Democrat. The never-ending news cycle distracts us from how close we’ve teetered to deep and irreversible trouble.

Yet in Silicon Valley, the self-professed epicenter of world-saving, you could be forgiven for not realizing this. Many companies there are preoccupied with other matters, like delivering takeout, disrupting death, selling flavored nicotine in brightly colored pods, and putting absolutely everything on the blockchain.

Silicon Valley’s elite, meanwhile, are less concerned with saving the world than saving themselves. The super-rich are buying survival bunkers and stashing them in New Zealand, with private jets to whisk them away at the first sign of trouble. In private Facebook groups, they “swap tips on gas masks, bunkers, and locations safe from the effects of climate change,” the New Yorker reported in 2016.

A handful of startups are tackling climate head on. Over the summer, Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV), a $1 billion energy fund helmed by Bill Gates, made its first two investments in companies pursuing radical reductions to carbon emissions. Last month, BEV added seven more companies to its publicly announced portfolio. Other promising signs include Apple investing in carbon-dioxide-sucking mangroves, carbon pricing gaining support, and Big Oil putting money behind low-emissions tech.

With other companies, it’s harder to know where they stand. Ride-hail services like Uber and Lyft, for example, promise to take cars off the road by getting people to share rides and give up their personal vehicles. But some studies have found that by making rides so cheap and accessible, ride-hailing has actually increased car volume, by leading people who would usually walk, bike, or take public transit to request a ride instead. WeWork banned meat at corporate functions, but has done little to conserve energy at an operating level, such as by only working with LEED-certified buildings.

Whether Silicon Valley can save the world is a real question, and one we’ve been asking for a long time. Now seems like as good a time as any to try.

Scooters!

They are officially back in San Francisco.

The city banned scooters in June as mayhem seemed ready to break out. In late August, Skip and Scoot each received permits to operate 625 scooters, after they outperformed 10 other applicants to the city’s scooter pilot program on metrics like safety, parking protocols, and worker training. Scoot and Skip deposited their vehicles on city streets yesterday (photo credit to my dad, who spotted these). Riders can rent a scooter through Scoot’s or Skip’s app for $1 to unlock plus $0.15 per minute. If things go well, the companies could double their vehicle count in six months.

The pilot program comes with a seven-page list (pdf) of parking rules and “general guidelines” for what the city is calling “powered scooters.” These include:

  • Do not park on narrow sidewalks that are less than 9 feet wide (approximately three times the length of one scooter).

  • Do not park against building facades.

  • Do make sure that your scooter is always parked upright.

The transit department specifically asks that scooters be parked in the “street furniture zone” which is “the area of the sidewalk where street furniture—such as light poles, sign posts, street trees, USPS mailboxes, trash cans, et cetera—is placed.” In case that isn’t entirely clarifying, they also provide this impressionistic diagram:

Of course, scooter drama doesn’t fade so easily. Last week, Lime, one of the electric scooter companies that was denied a spot in the pilot program, sued the city for denying it permission to operate and sought a temporary restraining order against the pilot program, arguing the selection process was unfair. (Lime received six grades of “poor,” five “fair,” and one “strong” in the application assessment. Scoot, by comparison, got one poor, five fairs, and and six strongs.)

The request, designed to stall the launch of Scoot and Skip service, was quickly denied by a San Francisco judge. But the judge also ordered five transit officials to testify, saying he wanted to get to the bottom of what happened in the selection process.

In the meantime, Lime and Bird, which have raised $467 million and $418 million, respectively, are both seeking additional funding. According to Bloomberg, Lime met with investors to discuss new funding that would value it above $3 billion. Bird has reportedly “scheduled talks with investors and is seeking an even more stratospheric valuation.” (The highest-flying bird ever recorded maxed out at 37,000 feet.)

Ubernomics.

I hung out with a bunch of Uber economists and wrote about how Uber is harnessing the prestige and soft power of academia to push its global policy agenda:

Uber offers access to the kind of data that, as recently as 10 years ago, an economist could only dream of. Uber’s more than 3 million drivers provide roughly 15 million trips, globally, every day. Uber’s researchers can test vital questions about driver pay, customer satisfaction, and urban transit with tiny tweaks to the company’s algorithms.

Uber doesn’t police what its collaborators write or publish, but it is choosy about who it works with. It’s no coincidence that Ubernomics tends to study the thorniest matters facing the company. The goal is to “build a body of evidence and then build a global policy framework around that,” said Amit Singh, Uber’s head of global public policy. Insofar as there’s bias in the research, it comes not in the results, but from the questions that are asked.

In 2015, when public officials condemned surge pricing as price gouging, Hall wrote a short paper that explained how surge moved drivers to where riders needed them most, using trip data from an Ariana Grande concert in New York. Uber policy operatives used the paper to talk down politicians who were interested in restricting how much it could lift prices during busy periods. Hall and Krueger’s original paper on driver satisfaction developed during a bitter legal battle over whether Uber had misclassified its workers as independent contractors. The study provided Uber with the perfect talking points to defend the contractor model, for example, that drivers liked to “be their own boss” and “set their own schedule.”

For more on Ubernomics, check out the story here.

Larry Page.

The focal points of the Uber-Waymo trial, or at least the sections of the trial that were open to the public, were Travis Kalanick and Anthony Levandowski. Unable to discuss actual trade secrets in open court, Waymo’s lawyers highlighted egregious text messages that Kalanick and Levandowski, Uber’s former head of autonomous vehicles, had exchanged. Lawyers painted Levandowski as a gifted engineer who went rogue after he grew frustrated with the slow pace of progress at Google’s driverless car unit, where he worked before quitting to launch his own startup and then join Uber.

But according to the New Yorker, Levandowski had a powerful ally urging him on. Larry Page, CEO of Google parent company Alphabet, overlooked Levandowski’s indiscretions and personally intervened to keep him from being fired after rumors circulated that Levandowski had met with Google competitors, and had threatened to leave to focus on the driverless car companies he had kept on the side. Page even expanded Levandowski’s role over protests from his colleagues:

Page was adamant. According to internal Google e-mails, he ordered executives to “make Anthony rich if Chauffeur succeeds.” Two months later, Google bought 510 Systems for twenty-two million dollars. It also purchased Anthony’s Robots; in return, Levandowski was guaranteed a future payment tied to the total value of Project Chauffeur. Google agreed to give him a claim on ten per cent of the division’s eventual worth—a kind of shadow equity that would vest in four years. The stake eventually paid him more than a hundred and twenty million dollars, one of the largest such payouts in Google’s history.

Page, the New Yorker writes, insisted Google needed people like Levandowski. “Anthony became who he is because Larry nurtured and protected him,” a former high-ranking Google executive told the New Yorker. “They were friends—they liked having dinner and geeking out.” Page intervened to protect Levandowski again in 2015, when he was caught recruiting employees to leave en masse for Uber:

Page’s decision was perhaps inflected with self-interest: he had recently founded an outside project of his own—a flying-car enterprise called Kitty Hawk—and had asked Levandowski to help him in his spare time. Other Google executives worried that, if Levandowski was fired, some of his allies in the hardware division might leave with him. Urmson was directed to do what was necessary to keep Levandowski.

Levandowski, of course, did leave, taking with him files that most people agree he should not have taken. Page declined to comment for the New Yorker article, and he also didn’t testify at the trial, so it’s hard to say how he feels about all of that.

Other stuff.

Uber IPO could value the company at $120 billion. Lyft hires bankers for IPO. Electric scooter startup Grin raises $45 million. Instacart raises $600 million at $7.6 billion valuation. Lime deploys standup electric scooters in New Zealand. New York City considers allowing electric scooters. Where Have All the Dockless Bicycles Gone? Uber asks SEC to let it give equity to drivers. Seattle is worried about scooters. Lime goes carbon free. How Jump built a one-size-fits-all bike. Uber, Lyft drivers live in fear of being deactivated. Indian food delivery company Zomato raises $210 million. Arizona establishes public-private autonomous vehicle research hub. Why Honda’s Waymo talks fell apart. US will allow driverless cars without steering wheels. Uber sets sights on becoming the “Amazon of transportation.” Thousands of Amazon delivery workers not eligible for $15 minimum wage. Self-driving cars need impossibly perfect maps. Ford doesn’t want to be first with driverless cars. Angi Homeservices buys Handy for an undisclosed price. A Genocide Incited on Facebook.


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Send tips, comments, and plans for saving the world to @alisongriswold on Twitter, or oversharingstuff@gmail.com.