All posts in “Transportation”

Twitter is trolling Elon Musk for thinking he invented the subway

Musk, supes casual, describing his invention.
Musk, supes casual, describing his invention.

Image: The Boring company

Ahh, tech industry hubris. It never ceases to inspire.

On Thursday, Elon Musk held an information session to discuss the progress of his Boring Company, and share his vision for the future of transportation in Los Angeles. What that amounts to is … wait for it …. a series of tunnels! That pedestrians can access through a magnitude of street-level stations, no larger than — hang on — a parking spot!

Sound familiar? The good citizens of Twitter thought so.

Musk’s proposed solution to Los Angeles traffic is basically a high-speed subway system. He recently completed 2.7 miles of track for a proof of concept. And on Thursday, he got approval from the city of Los Angeles to run tests. If expanded, Musk said that his transportation tunnels would use individual cars that travel at 150 mph, and provide rides at just $1 a pop. 

Those high speeds and low costs would certainly be an improvement on the current state of mass transit in the US, and in Los Angeles. But the underlying concept is not exactly revelatory. 

The wonder with which Musk announced these visionary plans is what really got Twitter all riled up. Twitter users criticized him for not realizing that he was basically describing a subway, but also for the all-too-common tech industry attitude his plans represent: that he, a tech businessman, is fit to ~revolutionize~ transportation. Not urban planners, not community members, certainly not public transit experts. But Musk.

Los Angeles actually is in the midst of expanding its subway and light rail system, and has made considerable progress. But the decades-long project has faced budgetary stall after community opposition after roadblock. Which is why some Angelenos were taken aback when the city allowed Musk to drill, baby, drill without so much as an environmental impact study

This is also far from the first time a tech company has announced a new product or service like it was The Second Coming, only to have the internet point out (in hilarious and glorious fashion) that what they’d invented was something extremely basic that already exists. 

Take, for example, a startup that “let neighbors pool their money to invest in their communities.” The internet helpfully noted that they’d invented taxes. Or the much-maligned Bodega bros, who created…. a vending machine.

And, of course, who can forget the advent of the Lyft shuttle, Uber Express Pool, and Chariot — inventors of the bus.

But hey, if Musk’s charm and vision can cut through the bureaucracy that’s kept Los Angeles gridlocked for decades, that’s awesome. Let’s just maybe do it with a *bit* of perspective, and an ego check.

You’re right, that’s asking too much.

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Elon Musk’s ultra-high-speed hyperloop will cost just $1 to ride

Elon Musk is sick of Los Angeles traffic.

The Boring Company, Tesla and SpaceX CEO said he was late to his own tunnel company’s information session at a synagogue in Los Angeles on Thursday night because of traffic on a major freeway. He called the congested highway “the seventh or eighth level” of hell.

To tackle “soul-destroying traffic” plaguing most major U.S. cities, Musk said, “There’s a few ways to skin this cat.” Instead of building more roads and highways or heading into the sky, as Uber envisions with its flying cars, Musk wants to go below ground — like 30 to 100 feet below ground — with an autonomous highway-like high-speed tunnel hyperloop system.

Best bit? Musk says city hyperloop trips will only cost $1.

The Boring Company has been working on test tunnels in LA, and at the info session Musk laid out what this will look like. It’s not certain exactly when this is happening, but Musk likes things to come together quickly. State, city, and county officials not so much. LA city officials recently gave the OK for 2.7 miles of test track, which Musk revealed in a video last week. Just before Thursday’s info session Musk said the LA Metro system had agreed to work with the tunnel company.

Musk laid out what would eventually be miles of underground track all over LA with small mini stations, approximately the size of a parking spot, that take passengers from street level to the underground tunnel system in high-speed pods. He promised eight-minute trips from downtown LA to the airport and Dodger Stadium — all for $1 a trip.

Musk talks about tunnels and high-speed travel with The Boring Company's mascot, Gary the snail.

Musk talks about tunnels and high-speed travel with The Boring Company’s mascot, Gary the snail.

Musk also highlighted a vast system of small stations that would take about 16 passengers at a time, a weatherproof system (it’s all the same this far down), and minimal impact on neighborhoods and communities since no divisive highways or roads will pave over areas.

“For tunnels you can have hundreds of lanes, there’s no real limit,” he said. The tunnel system could also continue deeper and deeper with more demand. Here, Musk made sure to include a dig directed at UberAir, the ambitious electric passenger drone system dreamed up by the ride-hailing app. Uber plans to demo flights in LA by 2020. 

“You can’t fly the quietest helicopters through neighborhoods without bothering people,” Musk said. He promised that all the digging and boring required to build the hyperloop will go undetected because it’s so far down. 

“It’s quite difficult to detect when a tunnel is being dug,” he said. “We’re invisible.”

The LAX hyperloop station will be bigger than the stations all over the city.

The LAX hyperloop station will be bigger than the stations all over the city.

Image: the boring company

Eventually Musk wants the hyperloop to connect cities — San Francisco to LA, New York to Baltimore — and for those trips he’s tapping into his SpaceX rocket techniques to build vacuum tunnels that go 300 mph. 

For more urban experiences, for example, commutes throughout LA, Musk envisions 150 mph trips. And yes, it’ll apparently only cost you that dollar.

Musk spent a hefty portion of the info session explaining the boring process itself using electric motors and battery packs, and what he plans to do with the massive amounts of dirt, including building seismically sound bricks and life-size Lego kits.

For all those patiently waiting for your “not-flamethrowers” from the Boring Company — Musk said the company would start personally delivering the highly flammable devices in two weeks. 

With Musk everything’s at hyper-speed.

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Boosted Boards founders launch heavy-duty scooter renter Skip

All electric scooters are not created equal. I’ve found ones from Spin, Bird, and Lime to often be broken, shaky, or out of battery. But now the founders of Boosted Boards, which makes the steadiest and safest-feeling electric skateboards, are bringing their rugged hardware expertise to the scooter world. Today, they’re coming out of stealth with a supposedly stronger and longer-lasting dockless electric scooter rental startup called Skip. And the surprise is they’re hoping to only operate where permitted unlike their backlashed competitors [but no guarantees], with a deployment today in partnership with Washington D.C. and plans for San Francisco.

Formerly known by its Y Combinator codename Waybots, the company is exclusively announcing its funding and rebrand to Skip today on TechCrunch. The startup has raised a $6 million seed round led by Initialized Capital via Alexis Ohanian and Ronny Conway’s A Capital, with SV Angel joining in.”High integrity, thoughtful founders with all the relevant experience, demonstrated success, and an eye toward safety make this exactly the kind of investment I love” says Ohanian.

“We think the vehicle matters” Skip and former Boosted co-founder/CEO Sanjay Dastoor tells me. “It’s not the same as rideshare where two or more companies are all using the same car. There’s a big spectrum of quality in the base vehicles. A lot of these companies are buying off the shelf vehicles that are designed for personal ownership. I think these vehicles will need to be designed for a different level of use and upkeep.”

That’s why Skip is modifying bigger pre-made scooters to be more durable, and plans to build its own custom scooters. For the same $1 plus $0.15 per minute price as other services, you get a wider riding platform, full suspension, and head/tail/brake lights. The strategy is that if people feel safe and steady riding Skips, they’ll choose them over the competition. And while low-grade scooters might feel too unstable for the bike lane, leading to complaints about sidewalk riding, Skips are meant to feel secure enough to cruise next to cars.

With so much well-funded competition, Skip will have to hope customers really notice the difference. And its focus on permits could constrain growth. But if riders and cities decide they want a more reliable scooter service, Skip could carve out a solid business while being a better citizen.

Trusting Your Life To A Startup

My Boosted Board was perhaps my favorite gadget ever. After a decade as an unpowered longboard rider, I tested its electric skateboard in 2012 and loved the smooth rides so much I bought one of the first 10 of the Kickstarter. It felt like being able to effortlessly surf uphill. I tried many others and consistently found them to feel much more jerky, wobbly, and unpredictable. That’s not what you want when you’re riding a handle-less vehicle in traffic, and essentially betting your life on some startup’s hardware.

But then I crashed. The human body is not equipped for a 22mph meeting with the pavement. The board performed perfectly, I just hit a gravel patch at full-speed, shattered my ankle, and couldn’t walk for 5 months. In conclusion, even the safest electric skateboards are risky because at high speeds, the form factor’s small hard wheels are too vulnerable to obstructions, and you’ve got no handle to save you. I haven’t skated the two years since.

Yet that’s why I think Skip has a real opportunity. There’s demand for these vehicles. Skip says it sees seven rides per day per scooter. They’re a natural complement to more expensive Ubers that have to wade through traffic. But the whole industry will fall apart if everyone’s getting injured. You can absolutely feel the lack of stability and smoothness when riding a janky or half-broken scooter. I think consumers will choose the safer device if one’s available.

Skip To A New Startup

Skip co-founder and CEO Sanjay Dastoor

“We noticed that small personal portable electric vehicles weren’t only awesome alone” but as an option alongside ridesharing, ridepooling, and car ownership, says Dastoor. “The future of transportation is a combination of these.”

Boosted co-founder Matt Tran left the company two years ago, while Dastoor exited a year ago. They wanted to try an electric vehicle service model, but “Boosted wasn’t really the right place to do that, because the company is still focused on building great hardware for people to buy.” Tran was running marketing and also craved his engineering roots. So together with Mike Wadhera, a founding team member of Involver which sold to Oracle, they formed Waybots.

Last summer, the company tried out a docked scooter sharing model in SF, but didn’t see great results. When they got accepted to YC, like Boosted before it, they started experimenting with a dockless version. Meanwhile, Washington D.C. had opened a pilot program for permitted dockless bikeshare, and Waybots convinced the city to give it the greenlight too. Those scooters now have Skip branding slapped on.

“We’re the first permitted [dockless electric scooter] system operating anywhere” Dastoor believes. “A lot of the story around dockless scooters has come from SF, and from companies that have launched without informing anyone or working with anyone.” That’s led SF to ban unpermitted dockless scooter rentals. “What we saw in DC was the opposite. We’re working with the cities to deploy, share data with them, and engage with the community, and we’ve seen none of the backlash that we’ve seen in SF.” Still, the startup wouldn’t guarantee it won’t go rogue and launch unpermitted in the future.

As for why Ohanian chose to fund Skip amongst the slew of scooter startups, he tells me “I’ve been looking for an answer that is going to be a high-quality, collaborative, and sustainable solution to the urban congestion crisis that is already upon us (and getting worse) — then Sanjay told me about Skip. Here was not only a last-mile solution, but also a company providing it that understands how to work with cities as well as deliver a best-in-class software and hardware experience.”

Designed To Deter Complaints

Skip could get along better with cities because it’s built the scooters to discourage a lot of the most annoying scooter behaviors. The Speedway Mini4 36V 21Ah scooters Skip modifies can get up to 30 miles at 10mph per charge, which means they’re less likely to have dead batteries by the afternoon like the useless vehicles-turned-paperweights from competitors that I commonly stumble across in SF. To keep them charged and off the streets at night, Skip has a crowdsourced charging program where people can get paid to pick up, plug in at home, and drop off scooters.

The durable hardware is meant to need less service so you’re less likely to rent a broken, or worse, half-broken-but-I’m-late-so-I’ll-ride-it-anyway scooter. You can adjust the handlebar height, they go up to 18mph and dual-suspension flattens road bumps.

As for keeping Skips from getting strewn in the sidewalks and obstructing pedestrians, Dastoor claims his company’s vehicles have more precise location tracking than competitors. That could help it tell the edge of a build from the center of the walkway. Combined with requiring users to photograph the scooter standing upright, and hardware in the vehicles, Skip is hoping to force users to park them properly. “They have to have the intelligence in them to give info back to the city or back to the operator to make sure they operating correctly” Dastoor says.

Unfortunately, Skip hasn’t solved the lack of helmets problem. Dastoor tells me “We’ve been looking at a bunch of ways to improve access to helmets” but for now there’s no on-vehicle compartment for them and the company merely encourages users to wear them.

Personally, I think that’s crap. Sure, Citi Bike and other scooter companies don’t offer them either. But if these are meant to be serendipitously rented for short periods, it’s crazy to think anyone other than regular commuters will bring their own helmets. I think cities should demand them. And if they don’t, an inevitable scooter fatality that could have been prevented will make permitters more cautious. At least Skip says you have to be over 18 and plans to add ID verification for that soon.

“I don’t really have a comment about our unit economics” Dastoor sidestepped, but notes how much cheaper a $1.50 or $3 ride is than hailing a car. We’ll have to see if competition spurs a scooter price war. For now, though, the well-equipped Skips have led customers to “want to use it over and over.” Still, with Lime reportedly trying to raise $500 million and Bird recently closing $100 million as they race to invade the world, Skip is starting late with a much smaller piggybank.

Competition aside, Dastoor cites maintaining relationships with cities as the startup’s biggest threat. Luckily, he says it will soon announce some big-name talent with experience here. I expect it’s hired someone like former Uber policy chief David Plouffe who already has connections.

Scoot To The Future

Where the dockless vechicle rental market goes is a mystery. Maybe it turns into a fundraising war, with the most aggressive deployers locking up markets, and the losers vaporizing in giant money bonfires. Maybe the cities get fed up, kick out the unpermitted, and only issue approvals to those with the best glad-handing or the best safety. Maybe users get tons of options on price, quality, and availability to choose from.

But absent the bad behavior spurring backlash, many who try dockless electric scooter and bike rentals love them. With traffic-jammed city streets and scarce parking, we could use ways to get cars off the road.

Eventually, I think we’ll see a ton of short rideshare trips turn into scooter cruises. And at today’s super low price point, walking could turn into a luxury depending on how you value your time. Even at minimum wage, you might save money paying $1.75 for a five-minute, one-mile Skip rather than walking for 20. Dastoor concludes, “It becomes part of their transportation routine and I think anything that does that is around to stay.”

Elon Musk’s Boring Company is ‘a few months’ from offering free rides beneath L.A.

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Elon Musk’s Boring Company (how many companies does this guy run now?) has officially completed its first tunnel underneath Los Angeles, paving the way for pods to shuttle pedestrians and cyclists at fast speeds.

Musk shared the news of the completed 2.7-mile tunnel through social media with a timelapse video posted to Instagram, showing a ride from beginning to end.

The tunnel’s completion is a major milestone for The Boring Company, but it’s still pending regulatory approvals. In the Instagram post, Musk thanked “strong support from public, elected officials & regulators.”

If approved, Musk says the tunnel will offer “free rides to the public in a few months” (that’s demo rides for free). Regular ride fares will be “less than the cost of a bus ticket.” 

Finally, Musk reminded everyone the tunnel’s purpose: to transport pedestrians and cyclists. Musk originally shared a video of the tunnel’s use to shoot cars around underground, but clarified in March that cars would take a backseat to pedestrians and cyclists. 

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