AWS reorganizes DeepRacer League to encourage more newbies

AWS launched the DeepRacer League in 2018 as a fun way to teach developers machine learning, and it’s been building on the idea ever since. Today, it announced the latest league season with two divisions: Open and Pro.

As Marcia Villalba wrote in a blog post announcing the new league, “AWS DeepRacer is an autonomous 1/18th scale race car designed to test [reinforcement learning] models by racing virtually in the AWS DeepRacer console or physically on a track at AWS and customer events. AWS DeepRacer is for developers of all skill levels, even if you don’t have any ML experience. When learning RL using AWS DeepRacer, you can take part in the AWS DeepRacer League where you get experience with machine learning in a fun and competitive environment.”

While the company started these as in-person races with physical cars, the pandemic has forced them to make it a virtual event over the last year, but the new format seemed to be blocking out newcomers. Because the goal is to teach people about machine learning, getting new people involved is crucial to the company.

That’s why it created the Open League, which as the name suggests is open to anyone. You can test your skills and if you’re good enough, finishing in the top 10%, you can compete in the Pro division. Everyone competes for prizes, as well, such as vehicle customizations.

The top 16 in the Pro League each month race for a chance to go to the finals at AWS re:Invent in 2021, an event that may or may not be virtual, depending on where we are in the pandemic recovery.

Walmart drops the $35 order minimum on its 2-hour ‘Express’ delivery service

In a move designed to directly challenge Amazon, Walmart today announced it’s dropping the $35 minimum order requirement for its two-hour “Express” delivery service, a competitor to Amazon’s “Prime Now.”  With Walmart Express Delivery, customers can order from Walmart’s food, consumables or general merchandise assortment, then pay a flat $10 fee to have the items arrive in two hours or less.

The service is useful for more urgent delivery needs — like diapers or a missing ingredient for a recipe, SVP of Customer Product, Tom Ward, noted in an announcement. They’re not meant to sub in for larger shopping trips, however — Express orders are capped at 65 items.

Today, Express Delivery is available in nearly 3,000 Walmart stores reaching 70% of the U.S. population, Walmart says. It builds on top of stores’ existing inventory of pickup and delivery time slots as a third option, instead of giving slots away to those with the ability to pay higher fees.

Like Walmart’s grocery and pickup orders, Express orders are shopped and packaged for delivery by Walmart’s team of 170,000 personal shoppers and items are priced the same as they are in-store. This offers Walmart a potential competitive advantage against grocery delivery services like Instacart or Shipt, for example, where products can be priced higher and hurried or inexperienced shoppers aren’t always able to find items or search the back, having to mark them as “out of stock.”

In theory, Walmart employees will have a better understanding of their own store’s inventory and layout, making these kind of issues less common. It will also have direct access to the order data, which will help it better understand what sells, what replacements customers will accept for out-of-stocks, when to staff for busy times, and more.

In addition to grocery delivery, Express Delivery competes with Amazon’s Prime Now, a service that similarly offers a combination of grocery and other daily essentials and merchandise. Currently, Prime Now’s 2-hour service has a minimum order requirement of $35 without any additional fees in many cases — though the Prime Now app explains that some of its local store partners will charge fees even when that minimum is met, and others may have higher order minimums, which makes the service confusing to consumers.

Walmart’s news comes at a time when Amazon appears to be trying to push consumers away from the Prime Now standalone app, too.

When you open the Prime Now app, a large pop-up message informs you that you can now shop Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh from inside the Amazon app. A button labeled “Make the switch” will then redirect you. Meanwhile, on Amazon’s website touting Prime’s delivery perks, the “Prime Now” brand name isn’t mentioned at all. Instead, Amazon touts free same-day (5 hour) delivery of best sellers and everyday essentials on orders with a $35 minimum purchase, or free 2-hour grocery delivery from Whole Foods and Fresh.

When asked why Amazon is pushing Prime Now shoppers to its main app, Amazon downplayed this as simply an ongoing effort to “educate” consumers about the option.

Walmart, on the other hand, last year merged its separate delivery apps into one.

After items are picked, Walmart works with a network of partners, including DoorDash, Postmates, Roadie, and Pickup Point, as well as its in-house delivery services, to get orders to customers’ doorsteps. This last-mile portion has become an key area of investment for Walmart and competitors in recent months — Walmart, for example, acquired assets from a peer-to-peer delivery startup JoyRun in November. And before that, a former Walmart delivery partner, Deliv, sold to Target.

This is not the first time Walmart has dropped order minimums in an attempt to better compete with Amazon and others.

In December, Walmart announced its Prime alternative known as Walmart+ would remove the $35 minimum on non-same day orders. But it had stopped short of extending that perk to same-day grocery until now.

To some extent, Walmart’s ability to drop minimums has to do with the logistics of its delivery operations. Walmart has been turning more its stores into fulfillment centers, by converting some into small, automated warehouses in partnership with technology providers and robotics companies, including Alert Innovation, Dematic and Fabric.

And because its stores are physically located closer to customers than Amazon warehouses, it has the ability to deliver a broad merchandise selection, faster, while also turning large parking lots into picking stations — another thing that could worry Amazon, which is now buying up closed mall stores for its own fulfillment operations. 

Walmart today still carries a $35 minimum on other pickup and delivery orders and same-day orders from Walmart+ subscribers.

The Station: Lucid Motors, Joby Aviation take the SPAC path and Sergey Brin’s airship ambitions

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox

Hi friends and new readers, welcome back to The Station, a newsletter dedicated to all the present and future ways people and packages move from Point A to Point B.

In last week’s newsletter, I described some of the changes coming to TechCrunch’s transportation coverage, including “market maps.” These articles, which run will always run in Extra Crunch, focus on a particular slice of the transportation industry, along with other mobility-related analysis.

The first of these took a deep dive into the solid state battery industry. As Mark Harris reported: For the last decade, developers of solid state battery systems have promised products that are vastly safer, lighter and more powerful. Those promises largely evaporated into the ether — leaving behind a vapor stream of disappointing products, failed startups and retreating release dates.

A new wave of companies and technologies are finally maturing and attracting the funding necessary to feed batteries’ biggest market: transportation. Keep reading here: Can solid state batteries power up the next generation of EVs?

This week look out for our revamped automotive reviews, an interview with Joby Aviation founder JoeBen Birt, Paul Sciarra, the company’s executive chair and co-founder of Pinterest and Reid Hofffman, whose SPAC merged with Joby as well as a chat with Lucid CEO and CTO Peter Rawlinson. Two new reporters, who will be helping to expand and deepen our transportation coverage, are also starting this coming week.


the station scooter1a

Micromobbin’ is short and sweet this week. I wanted to flag this upcoming panel.

A free panel called Women on Wheels: Making Micromobility Safer for Female Riders will be held 12 p.m. to 12:45 p.m. ET on March 8. The panel will focus on women and safety. Reservations are required to join. Visit the Eventbrite link here to register.

Speakers include ScootRoute Founder and CEO Meghan Braley, who is hosting the event, SomEV co-founder and battery engineer Natasha George and Saturday Night Bike Club’s director of cyclist engagement, Ashley Ndiaye.

Deal of the week

money the station

After weeks of speculation, Lucid Motors finally announced it would become a publicly traded company through a merger with special-purpose acquisition company Churchill Capital IV Corp.

A string of EV automakers and charging infrastructure companies have taken the SPAC merger path to public markets over the past 10 months, including ArrivalCanoo, ChargePoint, EVgo, Fisker and Lordstown Motors. But this one is by far the largest.

The combined company, in which Saudi Arabia’s sovereign fund will continue to be the largest shareholder, will have a transaction equity value of $11.75 billion. Private investment in the public equity deal is priced at $15 a share, putting the implied pro-forma equity value at $24 billion.

I interviewed CEO and CTO Peter Rawlinson after the deal was announced. Watch out for an article based on what he said this coming week.

Meanwhile, another deal worth noting was Joby Aviation’s announcement that it would become a public company through a merger with Reinvent Technology Partners, a special purpose acquisition company from well-known investor and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Zynga founder Mark Pincus. The combined company, which will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange, will have a pro forma implied valuation of $6.6 billion.

Joby Aviation has spent a more than a decade developing an all-electric, vertical take-off and landing passenger aircraft. Joby plans to use the capital to fund the launch of passenger service, which is expected to begin in 2024. The company still must complete certification of its aircraft and develop manufacturing facilities, but it is already on its way to achieving both.

Other deals that got my attention …

Aurora, which recently closed its acquisition of Uber’s self-driving subsidiary, bought its second lidar startup in less than two years. Aurora acquired OURS Technology, a 12-person startup the founded in 2017 by a team of University of California-Berkeley researchers and PhDs. Two years ago, Aurora acquired Blackmore, a Montana-based lidar startup. 

Gettacar, an online used-vehicle startup, raised $25 million in new funding. The company has raised  $48 million over three funding rounds in more than two years.

Gophr, a U.K.-based last-mile delivery startup, raised £4 million ($5.5 million) in a funding round led by pan-European B2B investor Nauta Capital.

Manbang, the Chinese truck-hailing company backed by Tencent Holdings Ltd., confidentially filed for an initial public offering that could raise at least $1 billion, Bloomberg reported.

Nyobolt, the Cambridge, UK-based battery company previously known as CB2Tech, raised $10 million in Series A funding round led IQ Capital.

WiTricity, the EV wireless charging company, announced an additional $18 million to its previously announced fund raise of $34 million. The extension included investments from Tony Fadell’s Future Shape and other private investors. Fadell is also joining the board.

Xos, the commercial electric vehicle manufacturer, plans to go public through a merger with a blank-check company, NextGen Acquisition Corp., in a deal valued at $2 billion.

Zomato, the Indian food delivery startup, has raised $250 million, just two months after closing a $660 million Series J financing round.

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

Back in October, the city of New York released its request for interest in its electric scooter pilot, officially kicking off what promised to be a competitive battle among companies vying for a chance to operate their businesses in there.

The city also released a request for expressions of interest, or “RFEI,” for companies that provide ancillary services to the electric scooter industry, such as data aggregation and analysis, on-street charging and parking vendors, safe-riding training courses as well as scooter collection and impound services.

New York is one of two large markets — London being the other — that has yet name the companies that will receive these highly coveted permits. My sources are telling me that New York will announce this week which companies landed permits for the pilot. It’s possible London will make a similar announcement.

Last week, the New York City Department of Transportation announced the geographic boundaries for the e-scooter pilot will be in eastern Bronx neighborhoods from Eastchester and Co-op City to Throggs Neck and Soundview, an 18-square-mile area home to 570,000 residents. The pilot is expected to launch in the late spring, will run for a minimum of one year. The pilot is estimated to bring as many as 2,000 to 3,000 scooters to the East Bronx during Phase 1 with an increase to as many as 4,000 to 6,000 in a potential second phase in 2022.

A quick history lesson

the station autonomous vehicles1

Remember the ID Buzz, the reimagined microbus that Volkswagen first showed off as a prototype at the 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit? The vehicle has been in development since then and on Friday, we received another update on its future.

Volkswagen said it is aiming to have a Level 4 autonomous ID.Buzz in service for commercial use by 2025. Argo AI, the self-driving startup backed by Ford and Volkswagen, is providing the autonomous driving technology that will allow these microbuses to navigate urban environments without a human behind the wheel.

The company is conducting field trials in Germany this year.

The idea is to use these microbuses for a ride-hailing and sharing service similar to what Moia offers today in Germany. VW noted that its commercial vehicle division will develop and build Special Purpose Vehicles (SPV), such as robotaxis and vans.

The announcement suggests that progress is being made. However, it’s important to note VW’s previous timelines and intentions.

In 2016, VW Group launched Moia as a separate company focused on providing mobility solutions, including fleet-based commuter shuttles and, eventually, autonomous on-demand transportation.

Ole Harms, who was Moia’s CEO when it launched, was on the TechCrunch stage in London back in 2016. At the time, he said the first pilots of autonomous driving deployments would come earlier than the 2021 date cited by many competitors for the arrival of self-driving tech.

VW Group tapped self-driving startup Aurora and in January 2018 announced plans to launch commercial fleets of self-driving electric vehicles in two to five cities beginning in 2021. Volks­wagen said at the time that it planned to launch two types of test fleets using Aurora tech, including one for ride-pooling that would use Moia shuttles and another for door-to-door ride-hailing service in the U.S. and Germany.

Aurora and VW’s partnership ended 18 months later.

VW’s launch date — along with the timelines from virtually every other AV developer — was pushed back. This time around, will VW aided by Argo, meet its deadline?

Notable reads and other tidbits


A few more items to note this week.

Foxconn Technology Group reached a tentative agreement with electric vehicle startup-turned-SPAC Fisker to develop and eventually manufacture an EV that will be sold in North America, Europe, China and India. The deal isn’t done yet though.

This is just a memorandum of understanding agreement. Discussions between the two companies will continue with the expectation that a formal partnership agreement will be reached during the second quarter of this year.

Speaking of Fisker, The Verge reported that the electric vehicle startup has dropped plans to create a solid-state battery and that last July it quietly settled a previously unreported trade secret lawsuit with Volkswagen-backed solid-state battery company QuantumScape.

Flipkart said it will deploy more than 25,000 electric vehicles in its supply chain by 2030 as the Walmart-owned e-commerce giant looks to achieve a 100% transition to electric mobility in the next 10 years. The Bangalore-headquartered firm said it partnered with leading EV makers including Hero Electric, Mahindra Electric and Piaggio to build vehicles for its first and last-mile delivery fleets across the country.

Amazon said just a day before the Flipkart announcement that it partnered with Mahindra Electric to develop “close to hundred” electric three-wheelers in India. The American e-commerce giant last year pledged to deploy 10,000 electric vehicles in the country by 2025.

Nikola, the controversial electric truck maker, is trying to make fresh start, admitting in a recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing that nine statements made by founder Trevor Milton were “inaccurate.” Milton, you might remember, resigned from Nikola in September, after a report from noted short-seller Hindenburg Research accused the company of fraud.

The company is also narrowing its focus, getting rid of the various side projects that Milton started. The SEC filing showed the company took a $14.4 million impairment expense after discontinuing the Powersports business unit.

Sergey Brin’s secretive airship company LTA Research and Exploration is planning to power a huge disaster relief airship with an equally record-breaking hydrogen fuel cell, according to a job listing spotted by TechCrunch’s Mark Harris.

United States Postal Service awarded a 10-year, $485-million contract to Oshkosh Defense to deliver between 50,000 and 165,000 Next Generation Delivery Vehicles, Ars Technica reported. The first trucks are due on the road in 2023. Only 10% of the new delivery trucks will be battery electric, which seems to conflict with the new Biden Administration’s plans to replace the entire federal fleet with EVs. The news sent shares of Workhorse Group Inc. into a free fall.

Early Stage is the premiere ‘how-to’ event for startup entrepreneurs and investors. You’ll hear first-hand how some of the most successful founders and VCs build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios. We’ll cover every aspect of company-building: Fundraising, recruiting, sales, legal, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session also has audience participation built-in – there’s ample time included in each for audience questions and discussion.

What Can Amazon’s Product Managers Do About All Of Those Boxes?

Is there any way that Amazon can ship fewer boxes?
Is there any way that Amazon can ship fewer boxes?
Image Credit: Harlem Photograpy Inc

Ok, so I’m willing to make a confession here. I get a little thrill each and every time I come to the front door and see an Amazon box sitting there waiting for me to bring it into the house and open it up. It’s almost like Christmas day all over again! However, the product managers at Amazon have come to a realization that they need to find a way to save money. What they want to do is to find ways to ship things to their customers in fewer and smaller containers. Are they going to be able to do this?

Amazon Loves Boxes

So if you can remember all the way back to the start of this century, back then online sales only represented 1% of retail sales in the U.S. However, things have significantly changed since then. Last year alone, online sales accounted for 17% of retail sales if you ignore the purchase of cars and gas. That kind of increase in sales would look good on anyone’s product manager resume. As you might well image, there is a relationship between the amount of online shopping we all do and the need for paper packaging (boxes).

The need for cardboard boxes has grown as the mail order / e-commerce sector has grown. Last year, roughly half of all domestic retail corrugated-box shipments were used for both e-commerce and mail-order deliveries. It turns out that 80% of the increase in demand for boxes has come from the mail-order and e-commerce sectors. Somewhat surprisingly, it turns out that mail-order and e-commerce sites use roughly seven times as many boxes per dollar spent as traditional bricks and mortar stores do.

All of this would make you think that it must be a great job to be a product manager for one of those companies that makes boxes. The reality turns out to be a bit more complicated. Profits for the box industry have grown very slowly over the past few years. The reason for this slow growth is because the product that box companies make is a generic and easily copied product. This has led to intense competition in the box manufacturing business. In the box industry, the average profit margin increased from 5% of revenue back in 2014 by 5.8% this year. The number of players in the box industry has decreased. In 2001 there were 300 companies in this business. Now there are only 255 companies. This decrease has been attributed to streamlining – the remaining companies are able to produce more boxes.

Can Amazon Use Fewer Boxes?

The Amazon product managers think that the future is going to be different from the present. They believe that the relationship that exists between boxes and e-commerce is going to become weaker. They want to find ways to change their product development definition in order to use fewer boxes. Already alternatives to boxes such as plastic mailers and efforts to try to “right size” packages by doing away with oversize boxes are going to change things. Likewise, the Amazon product managers want to put a halt to what is called “overboxing” which occurs when a product has to be placed in a second box because its original packaging is too flimsy to be able to survive shipping to the customer.

Let’s face it, customers who have to open multiple boxes just to get to the product that they ordered are never happy. There is even a term for how this makes customers feel: wrap rage. The Amazon product managers want to find ways to prevent their customers from ever having to feel this way. If the Amazon product managers were able to find ways to reduce the number of boxes that they used, then they’d be able to reduce their shipping and transportation costs. Last year Amazon spent US$27.2B on shipping and transportation.

The Amazon product managers have come up with new rules for their suppliers. Going forward, products that are larger than 18x14x8 inches or which weigh 20 pounds or more have to be certified as being ready to ship without the need for additional packaging. The challenge that the Amazon product managers are facing is that even as they are trying to reduce the amount of packaging that the company uses, they are at the same time trying to increase their sales. In the end what this is going to mean is that they may end up using even more boxes than they did before!

What All Of This Means For You

Success can be a great thing, but too much success can start to cause problems for product managers. The Amazon product managers have had great success with customers calling them up and ordering products. However, as they ship products to customers they’ve discovered that they are shipping more and more boxes. Those boxes cost money to purchase and to ship. The Amazon product managers need to look at their product manager job description in order to find ways to reduce the cost of all of those boxes.

As we are all well aware, online sales have exploded over the past few years. As more items have been bought online, more boxes have been used to ship products to customers. Mail-order and e-commerce are the ones who are using all of the boxes, not retail stores. In fact, the online firms use seven times as many boxes as retail stores do. Life has not been easy for box product managers. The market for boxes has a great deal of competition and their product is both generic and easily copied. The Amazon product managers want to break the link between rising sales and the increasing use of boxes. They want to use other packaging and to start to use the packaging that products come in to ship them. The Amazon product managers are looking for ways to reduce the number of boxes that they are using. They are starting to require vendors to make their product packaging strong enough to allow their products to be shipped without boxes. However, as Amazon sells more and more products, they will still need more and more boxes.

The Amazon product managers have a real problem on their hands. They need boxes in order to get their products into the hands of their customers. However, as they use more and more boxes, their costs keep going up. What they need to do is to find ways to get products to customers using fewer boxes. The idea of getting vendors to do a better job of packing their products is a great first step. Now Amazon just needs to find ways to package more products together. We’ll have to watch carefully as Amazon tries to keep growing without having to use even more boxes.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: How could Amazon ship fewer boxes and still deliver products to customers the next day?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

When you are thirsty, what kind of drink do you reach for? A lot of us will grab a soda, a water, or maybe even a coffee or a tea. However, just a few years ago a new option showed up: favored bubbly water. The leader in this market category was a brand called LaCroix. The LaCroix product managers did very well for a long time. However, the popularity of their product has attracted new competitors and now the LaCroix product managers have to take a look at their product development definition and find ways to defend their market share. What should they do to keep the fizz in their product sales?

The post What Can Amazon’s Product Managers Do About All Of Those Boxes? appeared first on The Accidental Product Manager.

Robotics roundup

Robotics took a small step into the wild world of SPACs this week, as Berkshire Grey announced its plan to go public by Q2. Setting aside some of the bigger issues with using the reverse merger route we’ve discussed plenty, BG is an ideal candidate for this next major step for a number of reasons.

First, the company’s got a track record and a ton of interest. I visited their HQ early last year, before the country shut down. Their plans were already fairly aggressive, with the wind of a recently raised $263 million Series B at their back. Retailers everywhere are already looking to automation as a way of staying competitive with the ominous monolith that is Amazon.

The mega-retailer has already acquired and deployed a ton of robots in fulfillment centers across the world. The latest number I’ve seen is 200,000. That comes from early 2020, so the number has no doubt increased since then. As Locus Robotics CEO Rick Faulk told me the other week, “There are investors that want to invest in helping everyone that’s not named ‘Amazon’ compete.” As with so many things these days, it’s Amazon versus the world.

Image Credits: Berkshire Grey

Beyond its knack for raising money by the boatload, Berkshire Grey is the company you go to when you’re looking to automate a factory from the ground, up. The company says current warehouse automation is somewhere in the neighborhood of 5%. It’s a figure I’ve seen tossed around before, and certainly points to a ton of opportunity. BG’s offering isn’t lights-out automation, but it’s a pretty full-feature solution.

Locus, which just raised a healthy $150M Series E, represents a different end of the spectrum. Similar to offerings from companies like Fetch, it offers a more plug-and-play approach to automation. The lowered barrier of entry means a far less costly on-ramp. It also means you don’t have to shut down your warehouses for an extended period to implement the tech. It’s a more workable solution for situations with contract-based clients or temporary seasonal needs.

The company uses a RaaS (robot-as-a-service) model to deploy its technology. That’s something you’re going to be hearing more and more of around the industry. Like the HaaS (the “h” being hardware) model, the company essentially rents out these super-pricey machines, rather than selling them outright. It’s another way to lower the barrier of entry, and it gives the robotics companies the opportunity to offer continuous service upgrades.

Image Credits: Future Acres

It’s a model Future Acres, a Southern Californian agtech startup, is exploring as it comes out of stealth. Things are still early days for the company, which spun out of Wavemaker Partners (which also developed food service robotics company Miso). Among other things, the company is looking toward a crowdfunded raise by way of SeedInvest. I’ve not seen a lot of robotics companies take that route, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Like logistics, agtech is shaping up to be a pretty massive category for robotics investments. FarmWise was ahead of that curve, announcing a $14.5 million round back in 2019 (bringing its total to north of $20 million). This week the Bay Area startup added crop dusting functionality to its weed-pulling robot.

Animated image showing how Perseverance could travel and retravel certain routes to bring items to a central location.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Perseverance understandably grabbed the biggest robotics headlines of the week. Landing with a parachute sporting the JPL motto, “Dare mighty things,” the rover sent back some of the best and most stunning images of Mars to date.

MSCHF’s livestream, on the other hand, was a bit more spotty. But aside from a fair number of interruptions with the feed, I suspect the company’s 40th drop went about as well as it could have hoped. Prior to announcing that it would mount a remote-control paintball gun to the back of Spot, Boston Dynamics issued a statement condemning the move:

Our mission is to create and deliver surprisingly capable robots that inspire, delight & positively impact society. We take great care to make sure our customers intend to use our robots for legal uses. We cross-check every purchase request against the U.S. Government’s denied persons and entities lists, prior to authorizing a sale.

Image Credits: MSCHF

MSCHF seemed to bask in the attention, even before its name was revealed to the public. At the very least, the stunt was a success from the standpoint of having ignited a conversation about the future of robotics. Boston Dynamics intrinsically understands that its robots sometimes freak people out — it’s a big part of the reason we get viral videos from the company, like the recent one featuring various robots dancing to The Contours.

Among other things, the company is pushing back against the dystopian optics of shows like Black Mirror. Of course, a paintball gun isn’t a weapon, per say. But for the moment, optics are also important. A rep from the company told me, “I turned down a customer that wanted to use Spot for a haunted house. Even putting it in that context of using our technology to scare people was not within our terms of use and not how we imagined the product being beneficial for people, and so we declined that initial sale.”

The ACLU notably raised concern last year after footage from one of our events featuring Spot being used in the field by the Massachusetts police made the rounds. This week, the NYPD deployed a Spot robot yet again — this time at the scene of a home invasion in the Bronx (not to mention a new paint job and the name “Digidog” for some reason). Your own interpretation of those particular optics will likely depend on, among other things, your feelings about cops.

Certainly police departments have utilized robotics for decades for bomb disposal. It’s true that Boston Dynamics (along with much of the robotics industry) got early funding from DARPA. Spot in its current form isn’t much as far as war machines go, but I think these are important conversations to have at this stage in robotic evolution. Certainly there are military drones in the world, and have been for more than a decade.

That’s an important ethical conversation. As is the responsibility of robotics manufacturers once their machines are out in the world. Boston Dynamics does due diligence when selling its robots, but does it continue to be responsible for them once it no longer owns them? That’s certainly not a question we’re going to answer this week.

Daily Crunch: We review the Amazon Echo Show 10

We check out Amazon’s new smart home device, Airbnb adds flexible search and Hopin is raising even more money. This is your Daily Crunch for February 24, 2021.

The big story: We review the Amazon Echo Show 10

Brian Heater spent some time with Amazon’s new smart home device, paying particular attention to the screen that rotates based on the user’s location. He reports that the screen works smoothly and silently, but also feels “unnecessary,” and in some cases “downright unnerving” (especially from a privacy perspective).

Ultimately, Brian concludes that the $249 device is “a well-constructed, nice addition to the Show family and one I don’t mind moving around the old-fashioned way.”

The tech giants

Airbnb plans for a new kind of travel post-COVID with flexible search — The feature will allow users to forgo putting in exact dates when they look to book lodging on the platform.

YouTube to launch parental control features for families with tweens and teens — YouTube announced a new experience for teens and tweens who are now too old for the schoolager-focused YouTube Kids app, but who may not be ready to explore all of YouTube.

Google Cloud puts its Kubernetes Engine on autopilot — This new mode turns over the management of much of the day-to-day operations of a container cluster to Google’s own engineers and automated tools.

Startups, funding and venture capital

VCs are chasing Hopin upwards of $5-6B valuation — According to multiple sources who spoke with TechCrunch, the company may be nearing the end of a fundraise in which it’s seeking to raise roughly $400 million.

Primary Venture Partners raises $150M third fund to back NYC startups — The firm’s portfolio includes (acquired by Walmart for $3.3 billion), Mirror (acquired by Lululemon for $500 million) and Latch (which is planning to go public via SPAC).

Joby Aviation takes flight into the public markets via a SPAC merger — Joby has spent more than a decade developing an all-electric, vertical take-off and landing passenger aircraft.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Four essential truths about venture investing — Observations from Alex Iskold of 2048 Ventures.

Dear Sophie: Which immigration options are the fastest? — The latest edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

Can solid state batteries power up for the next generation of EVs? — For the last decade, developers of solid state battery systems have promised products that are vastly safer, lighter and more powerful.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Europe kicks off bid to find a route to ‘better’ gig work — The European Union has kicked off the first stage of a consultation process involving gig platforms and workers.

The Equity podcast is growing — More Equity!

Techstars’ Neal Sáles-Griffin will join us at TechCrunch Early Stage 2021 to talk accelerators — Neal has seen this industry from just about every angle — as a teacher, advisor, investor and repeat co-founder.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Amazon Echo Show 10 review: Unmoved

Every new smart home device invites new questions. Questions of privacy, security and what we’re willing to give up for the sake of convenience. It’s not an anti-technology stance to welcome these conversations and assess new products as we invite them into our homes.

For my part, my apartment is fairly limited when it comes to smart home tech. I own two large smart speakers and a third smaller one, mostly for the convenience of networking streaming music across different rooms. My smoke detector is connected, for the peace of mind that comes with knowing that my home wasn’t on fire back when I used to leave it for extended stretches. Oh, and a couple of connected lightbulbs, mostly because why not?

Back when Google announced its first-party smart screen, the Home (now Nest) Hub, I thought it was a savvy decision to leave the camera off. Of course, the company included one on its larger Max device, so the option is there, if you want it. Of course, for most of these products, video cameras are a given — and understandably so, with smart screens like the new Echo Show 10 edging into the teleconferencing space as the line between work and home has become far more fuzzy for many.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Amazon’s gotten the message here, with the addition of a large physical shutter button on the top of the device. When slid to the right, the camera on the top right is covered by a white lens cap, contrasted against the black bezel, so it’s easy to spot across the room. Doing so will pop up a notification: “Camera off. Disabling motion.”

The “motion” here refers to the rotating screen — the headline feature of Amazon’s latest take on the Echo Show format. The company is positioning the new tech as a game changer for the category, and while I will say it’s done a good job implementing the feature in a way that works well and quietly, it’s precisely this new addition that reignites the privacy question.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The notion of creating a home device that fades into its surroundings is really out the window with that feature. The Echo uses figure tracking to make sure the display is facing you at all times when using it, drawing attention to itself in the process. One can inherently know and passively understand that a device is using imaging and AI for tracking, but largely effectively ignore it. After all, we’ve got cameras on pretty much everything now. These things are a part of the social media and services we regularly use. When the device physically follows you around the room, however, this stuff is top of mind.

Having used the product for several days, I would say the feature feels unnecessary in most cases — and downright unnerving in some. I’ve placed the Show on my desk next to the computer where I’m typing this, and I’ve mostly disabled the feature. It’s probably something I could get used to over time, but with the relatively limited amount I’m going to spend with it, I prefer to use the product in a stationary manner, manually swiveling the display and flipping the screen angle up and down as needed. I adjust screens all of the time. It’s fine.

Amazon will walk you through the feature during setup, including which direction you want the screen facing as a default and how much rotation it offers on either side. Keep in mind, the system really has no notion of what constitutes “straight ahead, until you adjust the setting sliders accordingly. You can adjust these later in settings, as well. There’s also a “Motion Preferences” option. Here you can limit the applications it will use to follow you, require voice to use the feature or disable it entirely.

Of course, I’m also someone who prefers to keep the camera shutter on while not in use, so that works out just fine. You can’t shutter the camera and have the device continue to move, since it needs to know what it’s seeing to move along with it. I will say that the moving screen has the unexpectedly nice side effect of reminding me when I’ve forgotten to disable the camera.

Amazon’s understandably — and thankfully — been talking up the privacy aspects since the Echo Show 10 was announced. There are eight mentions of “privacy” on the product page, but here’s the key graf:

Built with multiple layers of privacy controls, including a mic/camera off button and a built-in shutter to cover the camera. Easily turn on/off motion at any time by voice, on-device, or in the Alexa app. The processing that powers screen motion happens on device – no images or videos are sent to the cloud to provide the motion feature.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Notably, the tracking feature uses a vague outline of a person, rather than any sort of facial tracking. The image it processes looks more like a blotchy heat map than anything recognizable as an individual or even, generally, a human (though it’s able to distinguish human figures from pets). That, in particular, has been a hot button topic for the company.

The rotating feature is primarily a way to reduce user friction. Amazon notes that existing Echo Show owners will swivel their devices around when they’re, say, using it in the kitchen to cook. The front-firing audio also moves as the screen does. That’s in keeping with the company’s move away from 360-degree audio in recent Echo models. This is either a plus or a minus, depending on how you use the device, and how many people are around. It can also be used to follow you as you move around while video calling (a feature the competition has offered through zooming and cropping).

Amazon’s taken pains in recent generations to improve the audio on these device, prioritizing the “speaker” part of smart speaker, and the new Show certainly benefits from that. I wouldn’t use it as my primary sound system, but sitting here on my desk, it delivers a nice, full sound for its size, even with the screen obscuring a big portion of the front.

The 10.1-inch screen is a nice size, as well. Again, I wouldn’t use it to replace a TV or even a good laptop, but it’s good size for quick videos. It’s a shame Amazon and Google haven’t been able to play nice here, because YouTube has the market cornered on short-form videos that are perfect for this form factor. (If you’re so inclined, you can still access YouTube via the built-in browser, though it’s not exactly an elegant solution.)

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Amazon Prime Video certainly has its share of good long-form content and series (it has a ton of trash, as well, but sometimes that’s fun, too), but Amazon’s best play is partnering with third-parties to bolster its offerings. And that’s another spot where Amazon has been improving the Echo experience. Netflix and Hulu are now available on the device for video, and Apple Music and Spotify have been added on the music side.

There are still a number of third-party apps that would be nice additions, but that’s a pretty solid starting point. Not to mention that services like Spotify can be set as the default for music playback. That’s one of those additions that genuinely reduces friction (and honestly, Amazon Music is a far less compelling service than Prime Video at the moment).

Zoom — arguably the most compelling addition from a software standpoint — is coming later. For now, calls are limited to other Alexa devices. Zoom and other third-party teleconference software has the opportunity to create an entire new dimension for these products, especially with the aforementioned blurring of home and work life.

Honestly, where the Show is currently sitting on my desk is really the perfect placement to use it for calls while working on my computer. I’m cautiously optimistic about the implementation. At the very least, it would give me a compelling reason to get more use out of that 13-megapixel camera on a regular basis.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

For the time being, I think the most compelling case to be made for both the camera and automatic screen swiveling is as a makeshift security camera. This is another “Coming Soon” feature that requires a Guard Plus subscription. With it, you can set a geofence, with the Show doubling as a smart security camera when you leave home. The system will send an alert if a person is detected in your home while you’re out.

This month has seen rumors that Amazon is working on a wall-mounted smart home hub. The form factor certainly makes sense, essentially serving as an Alexa-enabled touchscreen control for your various connected devices. For the time being, between Show and the Alexa mobile app, I think the bases are covered pretty well — though such a device could certainly lend a more premium experience to the space.

A well-placed Show will address that need for many. Certainly it does the job for my one-bedroom apartment. You can use voice or touch to control lighting, and the screen can monitor feeds from security cameras, including, naturally, Amazon-owned Ring. Additions like these have really made the smart screen category a much more compelling and capable one.

At $249, it’s $20 pricier than the 2018 Show. It’s hard to say how much of the increase is due to the new mechanical turning mechanism, but Amazon offered up a cheaper model without the functionality that’s almost certainly the one I would go for, for reasons outlined above. Again, not everyone will have the same misgivings.

And all told, it’s a well-constructed, nice addition to the Show family and one I don’t mind moving around the old-fashioned way.

Walmart’s Flipkart to deploy over 25,000 electric vehicles in India by 2030

India’s Flipkart said on Wednesday it will deploy more than 25,000 electric vehicles in its supply chain by 2030 as the Walmart-owned e-commerce giant looks to achieve a 100% transition to electric mobility in the next 10 years.

The Bangalore-headquartered firm said it has partnered with leading EV makers including Hero Electric, Mahindra Electric, and Piaggio to build vehicles for its first and last mile delivery fleets across the country.

The announcement comes a day after rival Amazon said it had partnered with Mahindra Electric to develop “close to hundred” electric three-wheeler in India. The American e-commerce giant last year pledged to deploy 10,000 electric vehicles in the country by 2025.

Flipkart said its electric fleet will include two-wheeler, three-wheeler, and four-wheeler vehicles, all of which will be designed and assembled in India. The company said it has already started to pilot two-wheeler and three-wheeler electric vehicles in “multiple locations” in India including Delhi, Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Guwahati.

In recent years, New Delhi has pushed to replace gasoline and diesel vehicles in India with environmentally friendly electric vehicles. Reuters reported in 2019 that the Indian government was planning to order ride-hailing firms such as Ola and Uber to convert 40% of their fleets to electric by April 2026.

“Electrification of the logistics fleet is a key part of Flipkart’s larger sustainability goal and in line with our commitment to the Climate Group’s EV100 initiative,” said Amitesh Jha, SVP of Ekart and Marketplace at Flipkart, in a statement.

“In this journey of making our logistics fleet completely electric by 2030, we will collaborate and work with leading local players to procure and deploy electric vehicles while supporting the required infrastructure growth. We understand the relevance of electric mobility in achieving both business and sustainability goals and are committed to paving the way for greater adoption of EVs across the country,” he added.

The company said over the past year it has worked to create a network of ecosystem partners across charging providers, skill development agencies, aggregators, and original equipment manufacturers.

The company, which is expected to publicly list later this year, identified three models that will feature in its electric vehicles fleet: Nyx series by Hero Electric, which offers extended driving range of up to 150 kilometers (93.2 miles) per charge; Treo Zor by Mahindra Electric, which features “highest-in-class payload of 550kg (1212.5 pounds)”; and Ape’ E Xtra FX by Piaggio.

India’s Zomato valued at $5.4 billion in new $250 million investment

Zomato has raised $250 million, two months after closing a $660 million Series J financing round, as the Indian food delivery startup builds a war-chest ahead of its IPO later this year.

Kora (which contributed $115 million), Fidelity ($55 million), Tiger Global ($50 million), Bow Wave ($20 million) and Dragoneer ($10 million) pumped the new capital into the 12-year-old Gurgaon-headquartered startup, Info Edge, a publicly listed investor in Zomato, disclosed in a filing (PDF) to a local stock exchange. The new investment gives Zomato a post-money valuation of $5.4 billion, up from $3.9 billion in December last year, said Info Edge, which owns 18.4% stake in the Indian startup.

The new investment reinforces the strong confidence investors have in Zomato, which struggled to raise money for much of last year. Zomato, which acquired the Indian food delivery business of Uber early last year, competes with Prosus Ventures-backed Swiggy (valued at about $3.6 billion) in India. Together they work with over 440,000 delivery partners, a larger workforce than that employed by Indian Department of Posts.

A third player, Amazon, also entered the food delivery market in India last year, though its operations are still limited to parts of Bangalore.

At stake is India’s food delivery market, which analysts at Bernstein expect to balloon to be worth $12 billion by 2022, they wrote in a report to clients. With about 50% of the market share, Zomato is the current leader among the three, Bernstein analysts wrote.

“We find the food-tech industry in India to be well positioned to sustained growth with improving unit economics. Take-rates are one of the highest in India at 20-25% and consumer traction is increasing. Market is largely a duopoly between Zomato and Swiggy with 80%+ share,” wrote analysts at Bank of America in a recent report, reviewed by TechCrunch.

Zomato and Swiggy have improved their finances in recent years, which is especially impressive because making money with food delivery is very often more challenging in India. Unlike Western markets such as the U.S., where the value of each delivery item is about $33, in India, a similar item carries the price tag of $3 to $4, according to research firms.

Both the startups eliminated hundreds of jobs last year as the coronavirus pandemic hit their businesses. Zomato co-founder and chief executive Deepinder Goyal said in December that the food delivery market was “rapidly coming out of COVID-19 shadows.”

“December 2020 is expected to be the highest ever GMV month in our history. We are now clocking ~25% higher GMV than our previous peaks in February 2020. I am supremely excited about what lies ahead and the impact that we will create for our customers, delivery partners and restaurant partners,” he said.

In an email to employees in September last year, Goyal said Zomato was working on its IPO for “sometime in the first half” of 2021 and was raising money to build a war-chest for “future M&A, and fighting off any mischief or price wars from our competition in various areas of our business.”

Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine just got a lot easier to transport and distribute

The COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech now has less stringent and extreme transportation requirements than it debuted with. Originally, the mRNA-based vaccine had to be maintained at ultra-low temperatures throughout the transportation chain in order to remain viable – between -76°F and -112°F. New stability data collected by Pfizer and BioNTech, which has been submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for review, allow it to be stored at temps between 5°F and -13°F – ranges available in standard medical freezers found in most clinics and care facilities.

The vaccine should remain stable for up to two weeks at that temperature, which vastly improves the flexibility of its options for transportation, and last-mile storage in preparation for administration to patients. To date, the vaccine has relied largely on existing “cold-chain” infrastructure to be in place in order for it to be able to reach the areas where it’s being used to inoculate patients. That limitation hasn’t been in place for Moderna’s vaccine, which is stable at even higher, standard refrigerator temperatures for up to a month.

This development is just one example of how work continues on the vaccines that are already being deployed under emergency approvals by health regulators across the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. Pfizer and BioNTech say they’re working on bringing those storage temp requirements down even further, so they could potentially approach the standard set by the Moderna jab.

Taken together with another fresh development, study results from Israeli researchers that found just one shot of the ordinarily two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could be as high as 85 percent effective on its own, this is a major development for global inoculation programs. The new requirements open up participation to a whole host of potential new players in supporting delivery and distribution – including ride-hailing and on-demand delivery players with large networks like Amazon, which has offered the President Biden’s administration its support, and Uber, which is already teamed up with Moderna on vaccine education programs.

This also opens the door for participation from a range of startups and smaller companies in both the logistics and the care delivery space that don’t have the scale or the specialized equipment to be able to offer extreme ‘cold-chain’ storage. Technical barriers have been a blocker for some who have been looking for ways to assist, but lacked the necessary hardware and expertise to do so effectively.