The Station: Starship expands, AutoX opens up shop and a big moment for e-bikes

Hi and welcome back to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to the future (and present) of transportation. I’m your host, Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch.

What you’re reading now is a shorter version of the newsletter, which is emailed every weekend. If you want to subscribe, go here and click The Station.

The transportation industry has seen an influx of “disruptors” in the past 15 years, including car sharing and ride-hailing apps and later shared e-bikes and scooters. Now autonomous vehicle technology developers and flying car startups are working for that title.

COVID-19 could turn out to be the transportation disruptor of this new decade. Yes, yes I know — it’s still early days. However, COVID-19 is already changing how we get around. Public transit has taken a hit and shared scooters have been pulled off streets. Meanwhile, e-bike sales are booming and some cities are experimenting with how to provide transportation (and even space) that we need to move around without spreading the disease.

Shall we explore further? Read on. Before we dig in, here’s one more friendly reminder to reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips, or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

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Electric bikes are having a moment. While shared micromobility companies have pulled scooters and bikes off streets, there is evidence that private sales are growing. Meanwhile, cities are taking action to make this means of transportation more available.

Here are three examples:

  • New York’s tentative budget agreement reached April 1 includes a provision that would legalize throttle-based bikes and scooters.
  • Lectric eBikes, an Arizona-based startup that launched in May 2019, told TechCrunch it has seen a spike in sales since mid-March. The company was selling an average of 25 bikes a day before COVID-19. By mid-March sales jumped to about 48 bikes a day. The following week, the company averaged daily sales of 55 e-bikes. Lectric sold 175 bikes the week of March 7th. A month later, weekly sales hit 440.
  • Portland is trying to make its shared bike system, known as Biketown, more accessible and a helluva a lot cheaper. The city has reduced pay-as-you-go plans to a $0.10 one-time sign up fee and then $0.01 a minute. Yes, 1 cent a minute.

Autonomous delivery

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COVID-19 has put a new focus on autonomous vehicle delivery. There aren’t fleets of delivery bots at the ready, but progress is being made.

Starship Technologies launched this month a robot food delivery service in Tempe, Ariz., as part of its expansion plans following a $40 million funding round announced last August.

Starship Technologies, which was launched in 2014 by Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, has been ramping up commercial services in the past year, including a plan to expand to 100 universities by late summer 2021. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing traditional restaurants to close and placing more pressure on gig economy workers, Starship Technologies has an opportunity to accelerate that growth. The company recently launched in Washington, D.C and Irvine, Calif., and says it plans to roll out to more cities in the coming weeks.

Nuro’s next milestone

Meanwhile, Nuro has been granted permission to begin driverless testing on California’s public roads. Nuro’s low-speed R2 vehicle isn’t designed for people, only packages.

And it’s well-positioned to actually scale commercially in California. Under state law, AV companies can get a separate permit that allows them to operate a ride-hailing service. But they can’t charge a fee.

Nuro can’t charge a delivery fee either. However, it can generate revenue by working with local retailers to launch a commercial delivery business using the autonomous vehicles.

Other autonomous vehicle news

AutoX has opened an 80,000-square-foot Shanghai Robotaxi Operations Center, following a 2019 agreement with municipal authorities to deploy 100 autonomous vehicles in the Jiading District. The vehicles in the fleet were assembled at a factory about 93 miles outside of Shanghai.

AutoX, which is developing a full self-driving stack, has operations in California and China. It has been particularly active in China. The company has been operating a fleet of robotaxis in Shenzhen through a pilot program launched in 2019 with BYD. Earlier this year, it partnered with Fiat Chrysler to roll out a fleet of robotaxis for China and other countries in Asia.

The Shanghai operations center marks an escalation of AutoX’s ambitions. The company plans to unveil a ride-hailing app that will let users in Shanghai request rides from one of the vehicles at the new operations center.

Trend Watch

Trend Watch is meant to be a bookmark that we can look back on in a few weeks, months or even years and see if it actually caught on.

I’ll mention two this week.

Nauto is an automotive tech startup that combines cameras, motion sensors, GPS and AI algorithms to understand and improve driver behavior. The company’s platform is used in commercial fleets and some fresh data shows an uptick in last-mile driving and more distracted driving.

Nauto’s distribution and last-mile fleets averaged 41 miles driven every active driving hour in March, a 46% increase from the same month last year.

Meanwhile, distracted driving incidents increased. Nauto said that its distribution and last-mile fleets averaged 1.54 distraction events every active driving hour in March compared to 0.98 events per hour in the same month last year.

Now onto cities. Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf launched Saturday the Oakland Slow Streets initiative to help folks maintain physical distancing. The city has shut down down 74 miles of streets to through traffic to give people space to recreate.

Streets are open to local traffic only and residents are able to drive home. Fire, police, deliveries and other essential services won’t be impacted by street closures either.

Other cities are experimenting with similar efforts. While streets will likely open back up after the pandemic passes, this could change how people, including planners, business owners and city officials view how we should use streets.

From you

Over the past few weeks, I’ve shared comments from readers about how COVID-19 has affected their business or how they use transportation. This week, I thought I’d share some advice from Laurie Yoler, a new partner at Playground Global, board member of Zoox and adviser to multiple companies. She was an early adviser and former board member at Tesla .

Here’s what she shared:

This is a time of deep reflection. Instead of viewing ‘social distancing’ as a prison, we can focus on the people we care about and reflect on our work and what gives us joy. Look at this time as an opportunity to be compassionate with yourself and the people around you, and pursue your curiosity. That doesn’t mean forcing yourself to complete a list of tasks with urgency and focus, but rather using this time for gentle creative exploration.

If your business needs to rethink its plans or is facing a substantial slowdown, as so many are, remember you can only be effective by focusing on one thing at a time. I have five “F’s” I run through with entrepreneurs I advise. Friends and family first, then physical facilities, in order to ensure business continuity. After that, you can move to finances, cutting costs and creatively thinking about your business model in order to give your company the best chance of survival. Next, it’s about planning for the future. Scenario planning is essential for all critical areas of your business. Ask yourself, “can I use this crisis to make the company stronger?” Lastly, we turn to faith in the world’s scientists and innovators to see us through this difficult time.

Remember, even amid the devastation around us, there is still space for optimism. This could be a catalyst for the sweeping innovation in healthcare and education that we so desperately need. Use this time of stillness to restore yourself. Watch inspirational TED talks, exercise, meditate, and check in with friends and colleagues often.”

— Laurie Yoler