Rampant umbrella theft, Uber to depose Larry Page, Instacart’s grocery algorithms

LXVI

Happy Amazon Prime Day from the dozens of PR people in my inbox, to me, to you.

Umbrellas.

The sharing economy has become the lost-and-stolen economy in China, where it took only a few weeks for an umbrella-sharing startup to lose all 300,000 of its umbrellas:

Only a few weeks after starting up operations in 11 cities across China, Sharing E Umbrella announced that it had lost almost all of its 300,000 umbrellas.

The Shenzhen-based company was launched earlier this year with a 10 million yuan investment. The concept was similar to those that bike-sharing startups have used to (mostly) great success. Customers use an app on their smartphone to pay a 19 yuan deposit fee for an umbrella, which costs just 50 jiao for every half hour of use.

Company founder Zhao Shuping reportedly said he was inspired by the success of China’s bike-sharing startups to believe that “everything on the street can now be shared,” given the right system. “Umbrellas are different from bicycles,” he said. “Bikes can be parked anywhere, but with an umbrella you need railings or a fence to hang it on.” Each lost umbrella costs the company about 60 yuan ($9), but Zhao, apparently undeterred, said he still plans to put 30 million of them into circulation across China by the end of the year.

A basic goal of Uber’s and Lyft’s is to make “sharing” a ride cheaper than owning a car. This can be an attractive proposition. Cars are expensive to own and also to maintain (in cities like New York you either pay a small fortune for parking or resign yourself to dealing with a dystopia of alternate-side parking rules). Most cars are also severely underutilized. As Lyft’s John Zimmer loves to say, the average vehicle is parked 96% of the time. For the relatively infrequent driver, it probably makes sense at some point to spend money on some combination of public transportation and ride-hailing apps instead a car that’s hardly ever used.

Bike-sharing can be appealing for similar reasons. Owning a bike obviously isn’t as expensive as owning a car, but the costs can add up, especially with repairs and maintenance, and the constant possibility that your bike might be stolen. The beauty of a program like Citi Bike in New York, or Ofo or Mobike in China, is that instead of investing in your own bike, you pay a small fee to use one and outsource the parking, caretaking, and risk of theft (already a problem for Ofo and Mobike) to someone else.

The same logic does not apply to umbrellas. An umbrella is not an expensive thing to buy and it doesn’t require any maintenance. You might rent one on-the-go if it started raining unexpectedly but hardly as an alternative to your own capital investment; umbrella-sharing seems unlikely to ever be cheaper in the long run than simply owning an umbrella. Add that to how easily they seem to go missing, and Sharing E Umbrella might want to reconsider its 30 million deployment before the end of the year.

Depositions.

Uber will get to depose Google co-founder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page in its lawsuit against Waymo. “Larry Page has first-hand non-repetitive knowledge of relevant facts,” US magistrate judge Jacqueline Scott Corley wrote in a ruling on July 7. Uber also may be able to depose Alphabet SVP of corporate development and former Uber board member David Drummond on conversations he had with former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Waymo “may avoid Mr. Drummond’s deposition if it stipulates that Mr. Drummond will not offer testimony on summary judgment or at trial and thus will not contradict any testimony of Mr. Kalanick or other Uber officials regarding Mr. Drummond’s statements or knowledge,” writes Corley, and I imagine the courtroom looks something like this:

The Page deposition and potential Drummond one are both limited to four hours. Page’s will likely touch on why Google didn’t partner with Uber on self-driving cars. Instead, it cut a deal with Lyft. Uber also recently sought to obtain the terms of that deal with a series of subpoenas that make it sound like Waymo’s jealous ex, which, in a lot of ways, it is. Specifically, Uber’s subpoena requests included:

  • All communications with Waymo about past, current, or potential competition with Uber

  • All documents relating to analysis of Lyft as a potential acquisition target by Waymo, including Lyft’s past, current, or potential competition with Uber

  • All agreements (including exhibits) with Waymo regarding autonomous vehicles, including the "deal" between Waymo and Lyft identified in the May 14, 2017 New York Times article titled "Lyft and Waymo Reach Deal to Collaborate on Self-Driving Cars”

  • Any term sheet relating to the "deal" between Waymo and Lyft identified in the May 14, 2017 New York Times article

  • Documents sufficient to identify all individuals at Waymo or Lyft who were responsible for negotiating or conducting due diligence relating to the "deal" between Waymo and Lyft identified in the May 14, 2017 New York Times article

That’s from a separate ruling filed by judge Corley on July 7 in which she quashed Uber’s subpoenas on the grounds that Uber had not “demonstrated a substantial need” for additional documents from Lyft. Waymo had less luck, with Corley also ruling that the self-driving car maker must disclose due diligence documents from the deal, to help Uber assess Waymo’s argument that it suffered monetary damages from Uber’s alleged actions. Meanwhile, Waymo also dropped three of its four patent claims against Uber. The patent claims were always the weaker part of Waymo’s lawsuit compared to the trade secrets claims, for which Waymo has amassed and continues to amass a mountain of evidence. In hearings they involved a lot of discussion about the technical specifications of lidar—“light radar”—technologies and had drawn skepticism from federal judge William Alsup. “There’s been a lot of—a lot of retreat on your side of the room,” Alsup told one of Waymo’s lawyers in May, while discussing a patent infringement claim. In June he was more blunt: “I want to reiterate to the plaintiff here that you should think a lot about just dropping the patent part of this case,” he said.

Inhospitable.

An Airbnb host in Amsterdam allegedly pushed his guest down the stairs after a dispute over the check-out time.

Sibahle Nkumbi was traveling with two other women and South African artist Zanele Muholi, who shared video of the incident on social media. (Reports differ on the spelling of Nkumbi's first name, which have been printed elsewhere as “Steve” and “Siba.”)

In the 34-second video, Nkumbi appears to tell the host “don’t be emotional” and asks why he is throwing her things out of the apartment. The shaky video shows the host, who is wearing a black T-shirt, repeatedly say “out” as he pushes Nkumbi against a wall. He then says “out now” more emphatically, while pushing Nkumbi toward the stairs. The video follows Nkumbi as she plunges headfirst down the narrow staircase. The host runs down the stairs, as Nkumbi lies motionless on the floor, before the video stops.

There is a short video in that story from the Washington Post that shows a man shoving a woman down a flight of stairs and running down behind her dragging several bags. Airbnb diversity director David King has issued a strongly worded statement:

Appalling and unconscionable behavior against members of our community runs counter to everything Airbnb stands for. Our CEO Brian Chesky and I are reaching out to the affected guests. We will take the strongest actions we can against such abhorrent conduct, including banning people for life from our platform and assisting law enforcement with their investigation and potential prosecution. Nobody should ever be treated like this and it will not be tolerated.

This, of course, is the classic Airbnb challenge. To get the platform to work, they have to be just hands-off enough that Airbnb hosts aren’t employees and Airbnb not so controlling that it deters people from listing their homes online. But they also have to be hands-on enough that guests feel as safe staying in an Airbnb as they would in a traditional hotel. Incidents like the one in Amsterdam certainly aren’t the norm, but they can still damage the brand, which is built largely on trust. Airbnb’s slogan is “belong anywhere” for a reason. The last thing the company needs is for people to associate its name with “that woman who got pushed down a flight of stairs.”

Automating away distractions.

Instacart hasn’t gotten rid of humans yet, but it’s giving more power to machines:

Underneath the hood is a combination of machine-learned algorithms that monitor millions of grocery orders, looking at how consumers search, what they’re searching for, what decisions they make. The algorithms are then able to organize searches so that your preferred products are at the top of your searches, and surface the items you never knew you needed but now will probably die without.

The explanation from Instacart VP of data science Jeremy Stanley is that shoppers—the people Instacart hires to physically pick groceries from the shelves in stores—are busy and algorithms can help. “A part of the role of machine learning is to simply automate things so that we don’t have to pester the customer and distract the shopper,” he says. Automating away distractions is one way to look at it, but minimizing the role of humans is another. Instacart is a far cry from replacing its human workers, since it operates in real grocery stores rather than Amazon-esque warehouse, but who knows! Amazon is working on Go, a futuristic shop that carries grocery staples and would have hardly any human help at all. Instacart and its machine learning algorithms seem like a step in that direction.

Other stuff.

Uber rolls out tipping. Uber suspends UberPop service in Finland. MPs float stricter labor rules for Uber. Airbnb wanted laxer rules in Paris. UrbanYou raises $1 million. Side raises $5.7 million for “staffing as a service.” Chinese coworking startup URWork raises $30 million. Tencent invests $100-$150 million into Indonesia’s Go-Jek. Ofo Raises $700 Million Led by Alibaba. China’s On-Demand Bicycles Have Now Become Advertising Space. Conflict Simmers on Uber’s Board. Consumer sues Postmates over alleged spam texts. Uber driver cancels fare to help couple elope. Republican state senator allegedly sexually assaulted his Uber driver. Ben Sasse drives for Uber after losing college football bet. You Won’t Make Much Driving for Uber. Why Are There More Potatoes in My Blue Apron Box? Gig workers fight for employees’ rights. Protecting the flexibility of gig economy jobs. Uber for garbage. Uber for toilets. User/Subscriber Economics: An Alternative View of Uber’s Value.