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. Regional lawmakers have said they want to improve working conditions for people who provide labor via platforms which EU digital policy chief, Margrethe Vestager, accepted in a speech today can be “poor” and “precarious”.

Yet she also made it clear the Commission’s agenda vis-a-vis the issue of gig work is to find some kind of “balance” between (poor) platform work and, er, good and stable (rights protected) employment.

There’s no detail yet on how exactly regional lawmakers plan to square the circle of giving gig platforms a continued pass on not providing good/stable work — given that their sustainability as businesses (still with only theoretical profits, in many cases) is chain-linked to not shelling out for the full suite of employment rights for the thousands of people they rely upon to be engaged in the sweating toil of delivering their service off the corporate payroll.

But that, presumably, is what the Commission’s consultation process is aimed at figuring out. Baked into the first stage of the process is getting the two sides together to try to hash out what better looks like.

“The platform economy is here to stay — new technologies, new sources of knowledge, new forms of work will shape the world in the years ahead,” said Vestager, segueing into a red-line that there must be no reduction in the rights or the social safety net for platform workers (NB: The word ‘should’ is doing rather a lot of heavy lifting here): “And for all of our work on the digital economy, these new opportunities must not come with different rights. Online just as offline, all people should be protected and allowed to work safely and with dignity.”

“The key issue in our consultations is to find a balance between making the most of the opportunities of the platform economy and ensuring that the social rights of people working in it are the same as in the traditional economy,” she also said, adding: “It is also a matter of a fair competition and level playing field between platforms and traditional companies that have higher labour costs because they are subject to traditional labour laws.”

The Commission’s two-stage consultation process on gig work starts with a consultation of “social partners” on “the need and direction of possible EU action to improve the working conditions in platform work”, as it puts it.

This will be open for at least six weeks. It will involve platforms talking with workers (and/or their representatives) to try to come up with agreement on what ‘better’ looks like in the context of platform working conditions, either to steer the direction of any Commission initiative. Or — else — to kick the legislative can down the road on said initiative if they can come up with stuff they can agree to implement themselves.

The second phase — assuming the “social partners” don’t agree on and implement a way forward themselves — is planned to take place before the summer and will focus on “the content of the initiative”, per Vestager. (Aka: what exactly the EU ends up proposing to square the circle that must be squared.)

The competition component of the gig work conundrum — whereby there’s also the ’employer fairness’ dynamic to consider, given platforms aren’t playing by the same rules as traditional employers so are potentially undercutting rivals who are offering those good and stable jobs — explains why the Commission is launching a competition-focused parallel consultation alongside the social stakeholder chats.

“We will soon start a public consultation on this initiative that has another legal base since it is about competition law and not social policies. This is the reason why we consult differently on the two initiatives,” noted Vestager.

She said this will aim to ensure that EU competition rules “do not stand in the way of collective bargaining for those who need it” — suggesting the Commission is hoping that collective bargaining will form some part of the solution to achieving the sought for (precarious) balance of ‘better’ platform work.

Albeit, a cynical person might predict the end goal of all this solicitation of views will probably be some kind of fudge — that offers the perception of a plug for the platform rights gap without actually disrupting the platform economy which Vestager has sworn is here to say.

Uber for one has scented opportunity in the Commission’s talk of improving “legal clarity” for platforms.

The ride-hailing giant put out a white paper last week in which it lobbied lawmakers to deregulate platform work — pushing for a Prop-22 style outcome in Europe, having succeeded in getting a carve out from tightened employment laws in California.

Expect other platforms to follow with similarly self-serving suggestions aimed at encouraging Europe’s social contract to be retooled at the points where it intersects with their business models. (Last week Uber was accused of intentionally stalling on improving conditions for workers in favor of lobbying for deregulation, for example.)

The start of the Commission’s gig work consultation come hard on heels of a landmark ruling by the UK’s Supreme Court (also last week) — which dismissed Uber’s final appeal against a long running employment tribunal.

The judges cemented the view that the group of drivers who sued Uber had indeed been erroneously classified as ‘self employed’, making Uber liable to pay compensation for the rights it should have been funding all along.

So if the EU ends up offering a lower level of employment rights to platform workers vis-a-vis the (post-brexit) UK that would surely make for some uncomfortable faces in Brussels.

While it may be unrealistic to talk about striking a ‘balance’ in the context of business models that are inherently imbalanced, given they’re based on dodging existing employment regulations and disrupting the usual social playbook for profit, he Commission seems to think that a consultation process and a network of overlapping regulations is the way to rein in the worst excesses of the gig economy/big tech more generally.

In a press release about the consultation, it notes that platform work is “developing rapidly” across various business sectors in the region.

“It can offer increased flexibility, job opportunities and additional revenue, including for people who might find it more difficult to enter the traditional labour market,” it writes, starting with some of the positives that are, pesumably, feeding its desire for a ‘balanced’ outcome.

“However, certain types of platform work are also associated with precarious working conditions, reflected in the lack of transparency and predictability of contractual arrangements, health and safety challenges, and insufficient access to social protection. Additional challenges related to platform work include its cross-border dimension and the issue of algorithmic management.”

It also notes the role of the coronavirus pandemic in both accelerating uptake of platform work and increasing concern about the “vulnerable situation” of gig workers — who may have to choose between earning money and risking their health (and the health of other people) via working and thus potential viral exposure.

The Commission reports that around 11% of the EU workforce (some 24 million people) say they have already provided services through a platform.

Vestager said most of these people “only have platform work as a secondary or a marginal source of income” — but added that some three million people do it as a main job.

And just imagine the cost to gig platforms if those three million people had to be put on the payroll in Europe…

In the bit of her speech leading up to her conclusion that platform work is here to stay, Vestager quoted a recent study she said had indicated that 35% to 55% of consumers say they intend to continue to ask for home delivery more in the future.

“We… see that the platform economy is growing rapidly,” she added. “Worldwide, the online labour platform market has grown by 30% over a period of 2 years. This growth is expected to continue and the number of people working through platforms is expected to become more significant in the years ahead.”

“European values are at the heart of our work to shape Europe’s digital future,” she also went on, taking her cue to point to the smorgasbord of digital regulations in the EU’s pipeline — and perhaps illustrating the concept of an overlapping regulatory net that the Commission intends to straightjacket platform giants into more socially acceptable and fair behavior (though it hasn’t yet).

“Our proposals from December for a Digital Services Act and a Digital Markets Act are meant to protect us as consumers if technology poses a risk to fundamental rights. In April we will follow up on our white paper on Artificial Intelligence from last year and our upcoming proposal will also have the aim to protect us as citizens. The fairness aspect and the integration of European values will also be a driver for our upcoming proposal on a digital tax that we plan to present before summer.

“All these initiatives are part of our ambition to balance the great potential that the digital transformation holds for our societies and economies.”

 

Y Combinator company Axle Health is bringing on-demand home testing services to telehealth providers

While usage of telehealth services have surged during the COVID-19 epidemic, there are some times when health professionals need to be around in person to conduct diagnostics tests. To help those telehealth companies bridge that gap is Axle Health, a company currently enrolled in the latest cohort from the Y Combinator accelerator.

“In terms of the professionals that we send in home, they’re phlebotomists, NAs, RVNs, and RNs as well,” said Axle co-founder Connor Hailey.

In a sad reflection of the times, most of the calls the company’s getting are COVID-19 related, Hailey said.

And while the company currently doesn’t accept insurance, many of the companies on the platform choose a price they want to charge their patients and then seek reimbursement from insurers from those costs, according to Hailey.

“There are very few patients that are paying cash. Our services in the home are what would come out of pocket,” Hailey said. Those fees vary by the licensure level of the visiting health care worker. An in-home COVID-19 test could be $40 and a phlebotomist providing a blood draw would cost about the same amount, said Hailey.  

The company launched its service at the end of January and is seeking to expand its treatment options to more than just COVID-19 testing, but for now, it’s simply responding to market demand.

Hailey launched the business after spending a few years working at ZocDoc and then spending some time at Uber. What motivates Hailey and company co-founder Adam Stansell is providing similar concierge services at lower costs for a broader base of patients, Hailey said.

“The rich have access to in-home care can we make it economical enough so that we can bring it to everyone,” he said. 

Daily Crunch: Uber loses UK legal challenge

Uber loses a legal battle over driver classification, we survey mobility investors and new data suggests a COVID-19 vaccine should be easier to transport. This is your Daily Crunch for February 19, 2021.

The big story: Uber loses UK legal challenge

The United Kingdom’s Supreme Court has reaffirmed earlier rulings that the Uber drivers who brought the case — which dates back to 2016 — are workers, not independent contractors.

“Drivers are in a position of subordination and dependency in relation to Uber such that they have little or no ability to improve their economic position through professional or entrepreneurial skill,” the court said in a statement. “In practice the only way in which they can increase their earnings is by working longer hours while constantly meeting Uber’s measures of performance.”

Uber, while acknowledging the decision, emphasized that it applies to the specific group of drivers who brought the case, many of whom are no longer driving through the app.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Ex-General Catalyst and General Atlantic VC announces $68M debut fund — New York-based Avid Ventures is launching its $68 million debut venture capital fund.

With $20M A round, Promise brings financial flexibility to outdated government and utility payment systems — Promise integrates with official payment systems to offer more forgiving terms for fees and debts that people can’t handle all at once.

Acast acquires podcasting startup RadioPublic — RadioPublic spun out of public radio marketplace PRX in 2016.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Ten investors predict MaaS, on-demand delivery and EVs will dominate mobility’s post-pandemic future — The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t just upend the transportation industry, it laid bare its weaknesses and uncovered potential opportunities.

A fraction of Robinhood’s users are driving its runaway growth — A closer look at payment for order flow, a controversial practice in which Robinhood is paid by market makers for executing customer trades.

Three strategies for elevating brand authority in 2021 — Advice from Fractl marketing director Amanda Milligan.

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

Everything else

Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine just got a lot easier to transport and distribute — There’s new stability data collected by Pfizer and BioNTech, which has been submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Dizzying view of Perseverance mid-descent makes its ‘seven minutes of terror’ feel very real — NASA has just shared a hair-raising image of the rover as it dangled from its jetpack above the Martian landscape.

Will the Texas winter disaster deter further tech migration? — It’s too early to tell the exact toll the storm has taken in loss of life, property damage and economic activity.

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.

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.

Uber loses gig workers rights challenge in UK Supreme Court

Uber has lost a long running employment tribunal challenge in the UK’s Supreme Court — with the court dismissing the ride-hailing giant’s appeal and reaffirming earlier rulings that drivers who brought the case are workers, not independent contractors.

The case, which dates back to 2016, has major ramifications for Uber’s business model in the UK — and likely regionally, as similar challenges are ongoing in European courts.

European Union lawmakers are also actively eyeing conditions for gig workers, so policymakers were already facing pressure to clarify the law around gig work — today’s ruling only increases that.

The UK Supreme Court judgement can be found here.

We’ve reached out to Uber for comment.

The court rejected Uber’s argument that it merely acted akin to a booking agent for drivers, noting that the company would have no means of performing its contractual obligations to passengers (nor complying with its regulatory obligations as a licensed private hire vehicle operator) — “without either employees or subcontractors to perform driving services for it”.

The court also weighed how Uber’s business operates in light of UK employment law which provides for a ‘worker’ status — a classification which is neither employed nor self-employed — considering other case law and the detail of the drivers’ relationship with Uber in coming to its interpretation of the legislation.

Its conclusion is that “the transportation service performed by drivers and offered to passengers through the Uber app is very tightly defined and controlled by Uber”.

“Although free to choose when and where they worked, at times when they are working drivers work for and under contracts with Uber (and, specifically, Uber London),” the court wrote, noting its agreement with the earlier tribunal ruling.

In the judgement it has emphasized a number of aspects of that ruling as important — namely: Pay/renumeration (since Uber drivers are not free to set the price of rides); the contractual terms of the performance of the service (again, drivers are not free to set these; Uber does); and Uber’s control over service provision, such as via the use of algorithmic management of logged in drivers and through its ownership of the technology infrastructure.

The court also noted how Uber restricts communications between driver and passenger to a minimum.

In a discussion of how Uber uses driver ratings as another tool of control, the court noted that these are never disclosed to passengers (i.e. to help them inform/choose their choice of driver) — but are exclusively for Uber’s use “purely as an internal tool for managing performance and as a basis for making termination decisions where customer feedback shows that drivers are not meeting the performance levels set by Uber”.

“This is a classic form of subordination that is characteristic of employment relationships,” it added.

This story is developing… refresh for updates… 

In recent days — and likely in anticipation of this verdict — Uber has kicked off a lobbying effort in Europe calling for deregulation of platform work.

Uber argues that without a carve out from employment laws platforms’ hands are tied over how far they can go to offer workers a better deal.

It says it’s pushing for some of the same ‘principles’ that featured in the Prop 22 ballot initiative which ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft spend hundreds of millions of dollars pushing in California, going on to win a carve out for delivery and transport work from employment reclassification there last year.

However, responding to Uber’s EU white paper this week, the academic research group, Fairwork, accused it of downplaying its ability to make changes to improve working conditions on its platform.

Instead, it said the tech giant is trying to legitimize a lower level of protection for platform workers than most European workers benefit from — urging lawmakers to focus on expanding and strengthening employment protections, not watering them down.

Uber extends work from home policy through mid-September

Uber today notified employees that it will extend its work from home policy through September 13.

“In considering the extension, we took into account the latest scientific data and experts’ views; the fact that different countries are at different stages of recovery; and the start of the school year,” Uber Chief People Officer Nikki Krish wrote in an email, viewed by TechCrunch, to employees. “[…] We know that some CommOps, IT, or other roles require physical presence in an office, so please continue to work within the policies your teams have developed—however, as always, we won’t force anyone to go into the office if they have medical concerns.”

Uber is also encouraging employees to get vaccinated when it’s possible to do so. In the email, Krish said Uber employees will be able to take time off in order to get vaccinated.

In August, Uber notified employees that they should expect to work from home through June 2021. As for other tech companies, Google in July extended its work from home policy through the end of June 2021, while Facebook in August extended its remote work policy until July 2021.

Post-COVID, Uber will likely have a hybrid work model, Krish said, but it’s still a work in progress.

“We’re taking a number of aspects into consideration, such as how being physically together benefits or reduces productivity, collaboration, and engagement,” she wrote. “We’ll update you on where things stand in a few weeks, and along the way as we make progress.”

Uber could give gig workers a better deal but it’s lobbying EU to lower standards, says Fairwork

Uber has been accused of downplaying its influence over working conditions in the gig economy after the ride-hailing giant published a white paper earlier this week in which it lobbied for a ‘Prop 22’ style deregulation of Europe’s labor laws.

Fairwork, an academic research project that benchmarks gig platforms against a set of fairness principles to  encourage these intermediaries to improve conditions for workers, said today that Uber’s call for special rules for the gig economy is an attempt to “legitimize a lower level of protection for platform workers than most European workers benefit from.”

“Uber asserts that it recognizes the need for improved conditions but is dependent on regulatory change to realize that goal. The company’s recognition of dissatisfaction among drivers is commendableHowever, it is already well within their locus of control to address this dissatisfaction and improve conditions for its drivers under existing legal frameworks,” the platform work research group wrote in a response to Uber’s ‘Better Deal‘ white paper. 

Uber’s focus on policy change, furthermore, downplays the company’s significant influence over conditions in the gig economy. By calling for new regulations, the company is shifting responsibility for workers’ conditions to other actors, when it could step up to the plate and provide an exemplar of how a platform can treat its workers.” 

“Whilst we applaud Uber’s awareness of the need for change, we urge them to live up to their call,” Fairwork added. “The company has long set the blueprint for the gig economy, and, perhaps more than any other actor, is positioned to enact immediate change to improve the lives of their workers under current legal frameworks.

Fairwork noted that Uber has repeatedly fallen short of its (independent) benchmarks of ‘fair’ platform work. (NB: We covered the start of its initiative here back in 2019).

As we reported earlier this week, Uber is pushing for a ‘Prop 22’-style outcome in Europe, following its win in California last year when it convinced voters to exempt delivery and transport platform workers from employment classification laws — and as regional lawmakers are actively looking at how to improve the lot of gig workers.

In the white paper Uber has fired at EU lawmakers it argues that conditions for gig workers can only improve if regulators grant platforms a carve out from labor laws — lobbying for what it dubbed a “new standard” for gig work. However Fairwork argues this a blatant attempt to water down European employment standards, as Uber seeks to apply the same playbook it successfully deployed to reconfigure Californian legislation in its business interests.

Yet Europe is not California. And as Fairwork points out courts across the region have begun to roll back self-serving classifications of gig workers as ‘self-employed’ — with a number of these challenges going against Uber in recent years.

A major verdict is also looming for Uber Friday when the UK Supreme Court is expected to give the last word on an employment tribunal which it has been losing since 2016.

“The white paper reproduces the strategy taken by Uber in California where, after the state introduced new regulation that would have extended employee benefits to platform workers, they and several other prominent platforms successfully pushed for a watered-down alternative,” said Fairwork, noting that platforms (Uber and Lyft) spent some $200M persuading voters in California to back their ballot measure (“which exempted delivery and transport platform workers from classification laws in exchange for stripped-back versions of workplace benefits that have already been shown to be inadequate”, as the group tells it). 

“It is no surprise to see the company extending this strategy to Europe shortly in advance of a February 19 ruling in a UK Supreme Court case challenging the classification of drivers and the European Commission’s consultation with workers and employer representatives to inform gig economy regulation on February 24,” Fairwork also said, calling for regional lawmakers to engage with a process to strengthen and expand existing labor protections rather than get on board with Uber’s drive to lower European standards. 

“All workers, regardless of how their work is arranged, deserve decent wages and safe working conditions. Laboulaw provides these basic rights; and work arranged via a platform does not require a radical new approach. The benefits proposed in Uber’s white paper, like those provided under Proposition 22, represent weakened versions of those afforded to employees,” it added.

“We need to strengthen and expand existing labour protections in order to improve conditions, not create additional exclusions and exemptions that leave millions behind.” 

We’ve reached out to Uber for any comment.

The European Commission has yet to decide what kind of regulatory intervention it might make as regards gig work. But it has signalled an intention to do something in this area — and that’s likely been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic spotlighting the individual and public health risks when gig workers lack employment protections like sick pay.

In a 2019 mission letter, the EU president told the incoming jobs commissioner to look at ways to improve the lot of platform workers, writing that: “Dignified, transparent and predictable working conditions are essential to our economic model.”

Uber vet raises $5.2M for blue-collar logistics marketplace

After working as a general manager for Uber in Nevada, Jason Radisson realized the need for a way to connect blue-collar workers to companies looking to employ them.

So in late 2018, the idea for Shift One — a marketplace aimed at pairing workers and employers — was born. The startup is focused on last-mile logistics and delivery, e-commerce fulfillment and large-scale event management.

Since formally launching in 2019, Shift One has grown to have 25,000 workers on its platform — many of whom it says were unemployed at the time of hire. And it has about 50 clients in the U.S. and Colombia, including Amazon, NASCAR, Weee!, Mensajeros Urbanos and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

It matches employers with workers, and also helps them with tasks such as time, taxes, attendance, productivity and work-order management.

To help it grow and further expand its reach, Shift One just raised a $5.2 million seed round led by City Light Capital, with participation from K50 Ventures, Ventura Investments and Human Ventures, as well as Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen’s JAM fund and angel Felipe Villamarin.

On the operations side, all of Shift One’s original team either worked for Uber or Lyft, according to founder and CEO Radisson. The early technical team were all previously Uber employees.

Radisson says the impetus behind starting the company was the desire “to correct and improve some of the things in Gig 1.0.”

“We wanted it to be more balanced for workers, and break some negative flywheels where people were cycling through a lot of logistics jobs and not getting paid well,” he told TechCrunch. “We wanted to give them stability.”

At the same time, Radisson said, he knew that companies on the logistics side were struggling to find good workers. Shift One works with a range of skill levels, from entry-level employees to supervisors and warehouse managers.

Knowing that many logistics workers are used to working as contract employees with no benefits, Shift One gives all the workers on its platform full benefits with “low contributions” from the first day of hire. It also provides them with checking accounts and debit cards.

“A lot of these workers are unbanked and didn’t have the ability to even get a paycheck,” Radisson said.

It also aims to give them “full schedules” and have them work on whole teams as much as possible.

“It’s part of our value prop that our teams are cohesive and really high functioning,” he added.

Until now, San Francisco-based Shift One has been bootstrapped. It is “slightly” profitable and has been re-investing that money into growing the business. It saw its revenue climb by tenfold in 2020 from an admittedly “small base.” The startup has offices in Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Bogotá and Bucharest. 

Looking ahead, it plans to use its new capital to expand into new markets (it’s currently operating in about 12 states), boost its headcount of 20 and accelerate its tech roadmap.

“In the last four to five months, we’ve moved very strong into last mile” as the COVID-19 pandemic has continued, Radisson said. “We want to give opportunities to millions that didn’t go to college and that have seen stagnant wages for years. We want to give them opportunities to get ahead.”

JAM Fund principal and Tinder co-founder Mateen believes Shift One is turning the labor problem of “adverse selection” on its head.

“Gig work has been defined by seasonality and availability — neither are particularly good for workers,” he said. 

Even Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has thoughts, pointing out that blue-collar jobs have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19.

With Shift One, “workers receive fairly compensated jobs with the opportunity to grow and develop,” he said in a written statement. “Companies get access to a steady, predictable source of high-quality labor. And Miami benefits from the virtuous circle of higher employment and strong local businesses.”

The Station: Archer Aviation’s two big scores, a boost for ebikes and how Uber defines adjusted EBITDA

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.

There is quite a bit to get to this week, so let’s charge forward.

Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

The spike in electric bike sales was one of the rosier outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, new legislation introduced this past week by U.S. representatives Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) could push sales even higher. The Electric Bicycle Incentive Kickstart for the Environment (E-BIKE) Act proposes creating a consumer tax credit that would cover 30% of the cost of an electric bicycle up to a $1,500 credit. The proposed bill applies to new electric bicycles that cost less than $8,000 and is fully refundable, allowing lower-income workers to claim the credit, according to Panetta’s announcement.

Individuals can use the credit once every three years, or twice for a joint-return couple buying two electric bicycles. The bill also mandates that the IRS provide a report after two years to help lawmakers understand how the credit is being distributed across income tax brackets. There is an existing tax credit for two-wheeled plug-in electric vehicles. However, that tax credit only applies to motorcycles that travel at least 45 miles per hour, not bicycles.

While support from bicycle advocacy groups have poured in (my inbox overflowth), it’s unclear if the Ebike Act will gain enough support within Congress to actually become law. PeopleForBikes, one of several groups that supports the legislation, noted that studies show a 15% increase in electric bicycle mode share in the United States will cause carbon emissions to fall 11%.

There is at least one other effort to deliver tax benefits to bicyclists. Blumenauer is also working to reinstate the bicycle commuter tax benefit, which was axed in 2018 under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The original benefit let employers reimburse workers up to $20 per month for bicycle commuting expenses. Blumenauer introduced last month the Bicycle Commuter Act of 2021, which would extend benefits to commuters who use e-bikes, bike share and more traditional bicycles.

Meanwhile, on the micromobbin’ SPAC front …

Helbiz, the micromobility startup that offers e-scooters, e-bicycles and e-mopeds and operates across Europe and in several U.S. cities, announced it will merge with a special purpose acquisition company to become a publicly listed company. The deal with GreenVision Acquisition Corp. is expected to close in the second quarter. The combined entity, which will be named Helbiz Inc. and listed on the Nasdaq exchange under HLBZ, will have a valuation of $408 million.

Notably, the company is going to use capital from this deal to expand into “cloud” or “ghost” kitchens as part of a move into food delivery.

Taking a tour of the companies’ SEC filings, it looks like that valuation is based off of the more than $4 million in revenue that Helbiz generated in 2020. About 96% of that revenue came from its mobility rentals and the remaining 4% from advertising through its app and at charging docks. Helbiz is projecting that by 2025 (just four years from now) it will have $449 million in revenue from its mobility and advertising streams as well as “new verticals.” Presumably, this is the ghost kitchens.

I’ll be curious to see if other micromobility SPACs follow Helbiz’ announcement and if this activity helps push up valuations of rivals like Lime. (You might recall that last May Lime raised $170 million at a reduced valuation of $510 million. However, Lime CEO Wayne Ting has more recently painted a more positive financial picture of the company.)

I’ve also heard plenty of SPAC rumors swirling around Bird. But what about the others?

Deal of the week

money the station

Electric aircraft startup Archer Aviation landed two deals this past week that helped it earn “deal of the week” status. The company, which is targeting the urban air mobility market, reached an agreement to merge with special purpose acquisition company Atlas Crest Investment Corp. for an equity valuation of $3.8 billion.

It also snagged United Airlines as a customer and an investor. United placed an order for $1 billion of Archer’s aircraft and has the option to buy an additional $500 million of aircraft, according to Archer.

On the SPAC side of things, Archer said it expected to receive $1.1 billion of gross proceeds, including $600 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE, from investors such as United Airlines, Stellantis and the venture arm of Exor, Baron Capital Group, the Federated Hermes Kaufmann Funds, Mubadala Capital, Putnam Investments and Access Industries. Ken Moelis and affiliates, along with Marc Lore, who is one of Archer’s primary and initial backers, are investing $30 million in the PIPE.

The combined company will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange with ticker symbol “ACHR.”

Archer has yet to mass produce its electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, which is designed to travel up to 60 miles on a single charge at speeds of 150 miles per hour. The company has said it plans to unveil its full-scale eVTOL later this year and is aiming to begin volume manufacturing in 2023.

Other deals that got my attention …

BusUp, the bus commuter platform startup raised $6 million in a Series A round led by Latin American mobility investment firm Proeza Ventures. Autotech Ventures and IESE’s Business School venture fund Finaves V also participated. BusUp has focused on the Europe and LatAm markets. This new funding will be used to expand operations in the United States and consolidate other existing markets in response to growing interest in employer-provided commuter benefits and mobility services. You might recall that just last week, I wrote about a similar company called Hip.

Chowbotics, a Bay Area-based robotics best known for its salad-making robot, Sally, is about to be gobbled up by delivery service Doordash. Terms of the deal aren’t known yet. Chowbotics has raised around $21 million to date, including an $11 million round back in 2018. The company’s vending machine-style salad bar robot was already well-positioned for the pandemic, removing a human element from the food preparation process — not to mention the fact that salad bars and buffets tend to be open air affairs. In October, the startup added a contactless feature to the robot, letting users order ahead of time, via app, per TechCrunch hardware editor Brian Heater.

Joby Aviation is in talks to go public in a SPAC deal that would value the electric plane manufacturer at nearly $5.7 billion, the Financial Times reported. You might recall that Joby recently picked up Uber’s air taxi unit Elevate. Last year, the company raised $590 million from investors in a round led by Toyota.

Kargo, a smart loading dock platform startup founded in late 2019, raised $6 million in seed money from Founders Fund, Accomplice, Sozo Ventures and other unnamed investors. Kargo is a hardware and software company. Kargo sells sensor towers, which are mounted to a loading dock. The computer vision sensor is able to automatically identify and verify all incoming and outgoing freight in real time. The accompanying software platform, which Kargo offers as a subscription, takes in all of that data. Customers use the platform to take a macro or micro view of its supply chain.

Hyzon Motors, a hydrogen fuel cell startup focused on commercial vehicles, reached an agreement to go public via a merger with special purpose acquisition company Decarbonization Plus Acquisition Corporation at a $2.7 billion valuation.

Instabox, the Sweden-based startup that focuses on last-mile deliveries for e-commerce, raised $90 million in a Series B funding round was led by EQT Ventures, Sifted reported.

Plus.ai, the self-driving truck technology startup that operates in China and the United States, raised $200 million in a round led by new investors Guotai Junan International, CPE and Wanxiang International Investment. Existing investors including FTA also participated. The company plans to use the new funds to “accelerate the global commercialization and deployment of its automated trucking system.” The company is developing a sales and support network to help fleets integrate the Plus automated trucking system into their daily operations. Plus will also scale deployments in the U.S. and China, and expand internationally to Europe and other parts of Asia, CEO and co-founder David Liu told me in a recent interview. I may run snippets of our chat in next week’s newsletter so stay tuned.

Siemens is preparing to sell off Intelligent Traffic Systems, its traffic light technology and equipment unit, Reuters reported. The company is targeting a valuation of between $604 million and $725 million.

A little bird

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Veoneer reported during its earnings call February 3 that it had lost an existing lidar production contract with an autonomous vehicle customer. Veoneer indicated that this unknown OEM customer had chosen a different path for it lidar core technology. This is actually a loss for Velodyne as well since Veoneer announced back in 2019 that it was leveraging the lidar company’s technology for a contract to supply the sensor to this same unnamed AV customer.

Veoneer CEO Jan Carlson said during the call that volumes from this OEM customer have decreased over time and emphasized it would not affect its order book. “But we are seeing a big shift in Lidar technologies overall over-time,” Carlson said.” Our strategy, as I mentioned before is to be a strong integrator. We provide, of course, experience in cyber-security. We provide automotive-grade experience. We can provide functional safety to start-up companies that have a tech know-how, but not really or into the automotive environment.”

So who is this AV customer? Emmanuel Rosner, over at Deutsche Bank, said his educated guess is Ford(Argo). His explanation: “Ford has been an early investor in Velodyne, and it stands to reason it had placed a contract to use Velodyne sensors in its Argo robo-taxis, but it has now canceled the order. It’s unclear whether Argo will now be using another LiDAR supplier, or if it will use its own sensors developed in-house through Argo’s acquisition of Princeton Lightwave.”

My own sources confirm that this is indeed Ford/Argo. It seems that the intention was to use Velodyne for its autonomous vehicles, but that was scrapped in large part because Argo made faster progress on its own in-house lidar from Princeton Lightwave.

Update: This newsletter ran over the weekend. On Monday, Ford reported via an SEC regulatory filing that it no longer held any shares of Velodyne. Apparently it sold off its remaining stake by the end of 2020. Ford had held almost 13.1 million shares — a value of about $244 million — in Velodyne at the close of the third quarter of 2020.

Speaking of Argo, I missed an interesting tweet from the company in early February that explains it has expanded its operating domain to include highways. This means that Argo is now testing and operating in urban and suburban areas as well as highway environments. That highway piece is important for any aspiring robotaxi as airports are a common drop off and pick up point for today’s ride-hailing customers (ok, well at least in pre-COVID times).

Notable reads and other tidbits

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A bunch of other transportation-related news happened, so let’s dig in.

Automotive tech

Analyst firm LMC said that the semiconductor shortage cost the auto industry at least 450,000 units of lost production in January and February, an issue that will likely continue through the first half of the year, Automotive News reported. But there might be some good news in LMC’s report.

LMC forecasts that vehicle production will fall 10% globally in the first quarter from 2019 figures. That means an overall loss of 1.1 million units with 600,000 to 700,000 due to the chip shortage and the remainder from renewed COVID-19 lockdowns.

Luminar, the lidar startup that recently became a publicly traded company via a SPAC, has added Dr. Mary Lou Jepsen and Katharine A. Martin to its board of directors. Jepsen is the CEO, founder and Chairman of Openwater, a company focused on replacing the functionality of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). She’s also currently serves on the board of Lear Corporation. Martin is the chair of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati’s board of directors and a partner in the firm’s Palo Alto office. Jepsen and Martin will join existing board members Austin Russell (founder and CEO), Alec Gores, Matthew Simoncini, Scott McGregor, and Ben Kortlang.

Autonomous vehicles

Aurora reached a deal with Toyota and auto-parts supplier Denso to develop and test vehicles equipped with the self-driving startup’s technology, beginning with a fleet of Toyota Sienna minivans. Engineering teams from Aurora and Toyota will work together to design and build the self-driving Sienna minivans with an aim to start testing a fleet by the end of 2021, according to the companies.

Lest you forget, Aurora acquired in December Uber Advanced Technologies Group, the self-driving vehicle unit that spun out from Uber in 2019 after raising $1 billion in funding from Toyota, Denso and SoftBank’s Vision Fund. Aurora’s acquisition, which closed January 20, was actually a pretty complex deal in which Uber handed over its equity in ATG and invested $400 million into Aurora. Uber now holds a 26% stake in the combined company. Toyota also has a minority stake in Aurora as a result of the acquisition.

Aurora co-founder and chief product officer Sterling Anderson emphasized that this is a new partnership and not just an extension of Toyota’s agreement with Uber ATG. However, there are a lot of similarities to an agreement reached in 2018 between Toyota and Uber to bring an on-demand autonomous ride-hailing service to market. Under that deal, which included a $500 million investment by Toyota, the companies agreed to integrate Uber ATG’s self-driving technology into the Sienna minivans for use in Uber’s ride-hailing network. The vehicles later could be owned and operated by third-party fleet managers, Toyota and Uber ATG said at the time.

Hyundai Motor Group showed off a new version of its “walking car” robot concept that can use its wheels to roll along a path or stand up and navigate tougher terrain on its legs. This time, the concept is designed to carry cargo and is small enough to be carried by a drone. The TIGER robot — short for transforming intelligent ground excursion robot — is the first “uncrewed” ultimate mobility vehicle (UMV) concept to come out of New Horizons Studio, the Mountain View, California facility that is home to Hyundai Motor Group’s UMV development.

While concepts oftentimes never become a reality, New Horizons Studio head John Suh told me that his aim is to bring Tiger to life “as soon as possible,” adding that it would likely be a five-year process. Suh said the team will spend the next two years focused on solving some core technical problems to establish a baseline design. In 2023 and 2024, the team will get to the beta-product stage and advanced testing will begin before finally becoming a product customers can buy.

Delivery

Cajoo, a new French startup that raised a $7.3 million (€6 million) funding round, launched in Paris this week. The company’s pitch: to make it easier to order groceries from your phone and receive them 15 minutes later. The company was founded by CEO Henri Capoul, who previously was at Bolt, along with Guillaume Luscan and Jeremy Gotteland. As Techcrunch’s Romain Dillet reported, Cajoo wants to differentiate itself with a full-stack approach. The startup operates its own micro-fulfillment centers. It has its own inventory of products. It manages the fleet of delivery people as much as possible. And, of course, it sells directly to customers.

Electric

Audi revealed the 2022 e-tron Quattro GT and its higher-performing sibling the RS e-tron GT — flagships of the German automaker’s growing electric vehicle portfolio and its first departure from the crossovers and SUVs that have so far dominated the lineup.

Royal Dutch Shell Group laid out a five-pillar plan that outlines how it will survive in a zero-emission, climate conscious world. The plan includes installing 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, the continued development of hydrogen and natural gas assets while slashing oil production by 1% to 2% per year, a greater emphasis on lubricants, chemicals and biofuels, expanding its renewable energy generation portfolio and carbon offsets and investing in carbon capture and storage. As TechCrunch climate editor Jon Shieber noted, Shell’s plan to rollout 500,000 EV charger in just four years is the latest sign of an EV charging infrastructure boom that has prompted investors to pour cash into the industry and inspired a few companies to become public companies in search of the capital needed to meet demand.

Tesla has been in talks with a group of Chinese authorities, including the country’s top market regulator, cyberspace watchdog and transportation authority, after consumers complained about acceleration irregularities, battery fires, software upgrade failures and other vehicle problems, according to a government notice posted late Monday.

Tesla said on microblogging platform Weibo that it “sincerely accepts the government departments’ guidance” and will “strictly comply with Chinese laws.” It will also work to strengthen its “internal operational structure and workflow” under the direction of the regulators in order to ensure safety and consumer rights. It’s hard not to notice the differences in Tesla’s tone between its dealings with China and the United States.

Toyota Motor North America said it will bring three new electrified vehicles to the U.S. market, as the automaker seeks to win over customers by offering a variety of lower emission and zero-emission cars and SUVs. Two of the new vehicles will be all electric and one will be a plug-in hybrid, the company said Wednesday. Sales of the vehicles are expected to being in 2022.

Flight

Aerion, which has been working on commercial supersonic flight for nearly a decade, signed a new partnership with NASA on supersonic point-to-point travel. The new collaboration comes via the Space Act Agreement, which allows NASA to enlist the aid of private companies to help it achieve its various goals.

Ride-hailing

Uber and Lyft lost a lot of money in 2020. As TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm noted this week (sub required), that’s not a surprise, considering the COVID-19 headwinds that caused many ride-hailing markets to freeze as demand fell. Wilhelm unpacked both companies’ full-year earnings, which were reported this past week. Uber’s revenue fell from $13 billion in 2019 to $11.1 billion in 2020. Lyft’s fell from $3.6 billion in 2019 to a far-smaller $2.4 billion in 2020.

Using normal accounting rules (which we like here), Uber lost $6.77 billion in 2020, an improvement from its 2019 loss of $8.51 billion. However, if you lean on Uber’s definition of adjusted EBITDA, its 2019 and 2020 losses fall to $2.73 billion and $2.53 billion, respectively.

So what is this magic wand Uber is waving to make billions of dollars worth of red ink go away? Answer: an adjusted EBITDA definition with 12 different categories of exclusion. Hey-o!

Wilhelm continues … if investors get what Uber promises, they will get an unprofitable company at the end of 2021, albeit one that, if you strip out a dozen categories of expense, is no longer running in the red. This, from a company worth north of $112 billion, feels like a very small promise.

And yet Uber shares have quadrupled from their pandemic lows, during which they fell under the $15 mark. Today Uber is worth more than $60 per share, despite shrinking last year and projecting years of losses (real), and possibly some (fake) profits later in the year. Wild.

Check out the rest of his piece at Extra Crunch, which reveals some of the good news that came out of Uber’s earnings as well as a dive into Lyft’s results.