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During an event at the United Nations Delegates Dining Room in New York City, IBM unveiled the winners to its annual  Call for Code Global Challenge. The competition, which is targeted at computing solutions for global problems, crowned five winners, ranging from first responders to health care info.

Prometeo took the top price for its Watson-based AI solution targeted at firefighters. The team, which is lead by a 33-year firefighting veteran, has developed a tool designed to monitor health and safety in the industry, both long term and in real-time. The Spanish startup developed a smartphone-sized device that straps onto the wearer’s arm to gauge things like temperature, smoke and humidity.

“If the color signal is green, the health of the firefighter is okay,” cofounder Salomé Valero explains on IBM’s site. “But if the color signal is yellow or red, the command center must do something. They must take immediate action in order to rescue or remove the firefighter from the fire.”

The team is working to roll out the device for testing in Spain, but is currently seeking funding for the project. The $ 200,000 prize from IBM ought to help out a bit.

The second place price went to India/China/US-based Sparrow, which has developed a platform for addressing physical and psychological health during natural disasters. U.C.L.A. team, Rove scored third place with a similar concept.

Call for Code is a five year program that aims to hand out $ 30 million for teams addressing widespread societal issues.


TechCrunch

Trucks and other large commercial vehicles and the biggest whales on the road today — are they also, by virtue of that size, some of the most dangerous and inefficient if they are driven badly. Today, a startup that has built a platform aimed at improving both of those areas has raised a large round of funding to continue fuelling (so to speak) its own growth: SmartDrive, a San Diego-based provider of video-based telematics and transportation insights, has snapped up a round of $ 90 million.

The company is not disclosing its valuation but according to PitchBook, it was last valued (in 2017) at $ 290 million, which would put the valuation now around $ 380 million. But given that the company has been growing well — it says that in the first half of this year, its contracted units were up 48%, while sales were up by 44% — that figure may well be higher. (We are asking.)

The funding comes at an interesting time for fleet management and the trucking industry. A lot of the big stories about automotive technology at the moment seem to be focused on autonomous vehicles for private usage, but that leaves a large — and largely legacy — market in the form of fleet management and commercial vehicles. That’s not to say it’s been completely ignored, however. Bigger companies like Uber, Telsa and Volvo, and startups like Nikola and more are all building smarter vehicles, and just yesterday Samsara, which makes an industrial IoT platform that works, in part, to provide fleet management to the trucking industry, raised $ 300 million on a $ 6.3 billion valuation.

The telematics market was estimated to be worth $ 25.5 billion in 2018 and is forecast to grow to some $ 98 billion by 2026.

The round was led by TPG Sixth Street Partners, a division of investment giant TPG (which backs the likes of Spotify and many others), which earlier this year was raising a $ 2 billion fund for growth-stage investments. Unnamed existing investors also participated. The company prior to this had raised $ 230 million, with other backers including Founders Fund, NewView Capital, Oak Investment Partners, Michelin and more. (NEA had also been an investor but has more recently sold its stake.)

SmartDrive has been around since 2005 and focuses on a couple of key areas. Tapping data from the many sensors that you have today in commercial vehicles, it builds up a picture of how specific truckers are handling their vehicles, from their control on tricky roads to what gears and speed they are using as they go up inclines, and how long they idle their engines. The resulting data is used both to provide a better picture to fleet managers of that performance, and to highlight specific areas where the trucker can improve his performance, and how.

Analytics and data provided to customers include multi-camera 360-degree views, extended recording and U-turn triggering, along with diagnostics on specific driver performance. The company claims that the information has led to more satisfaction among drivers and customers, with driver retention rates of 70% or higher and improvements to 9 miles per gallon (mpg) on trips, versus industry averages of 20% driver retention and 6 mpg.

“This is an exciting time at SmartDrive and in the transportation sector overall as adoption of video-based telematics continues to accelerate,” stated Steve Mitgang, SmartDrive CEO, in a statement. “Building on our pioneering video-based safety program, our vision of an open platform powering best-of-breed video, compliance and telematics applications is garnering significant traction across a diverse range of fleets given the benefits of choice, flexibility and a lower total cost of ownership. The investment from TPG Sixth Street Partners and our existing investors will fuel continued innovation in areas such as computer vision and AI, while also enhancing sales and marketing initiatives and further international expansion.”

The focus for SmartDrive seems to be on how drivers are doing in specific circumstances: it doesn’t seem to focus on whether there could have been better routes, or if better fleet management could have resulted in improved performance.

“SmartDrive is a market leader in the large and expanding transportation safety and intelligence sector and we are pleased to be investing in a growing company led by such a talented team,” noted Bo Stanley, partner and co-head of the Capital Solutions business at TPG Sixth Street Partners, in a statement. “SmartDrive’s proprietary data analytics platform and strong subscriber base put it in a great position to continue to capitalize on its track record of innovation and the broader secular trend of higher demand for safer and smarter transportation.”


TechCrunch

It’s hard at times not to feel sorry for Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, given all that he inherited when he became the ride-share giant’s top boss back in April 2017.

Among his many to-do items: take public a money-losing company whose private-market valuation had already soared past what many thought it was worth, clean-up the organization’s win-at-all-costs image, and win over employees who clearly remained loyal to Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick, an inimitable figure who Khosrowshahi was hired to replace.

Things are undoubtedly about to get worse, given the fast-upcoming publication of a tell-all book about Uber authored by New York Times reporter Mike Isaac. In just one excerpt published yesterday by the newspaper, Isaac outlines how Uber misled customers into paying $ 1 more per ride by telling them Uber would use the proceeds to fund an “industry-leading background check process, regular motor vehicle checks, driver safety education, development of safety features in the app, and insurance.”

The campaign was hugely successful, according to Isaac, who reports that it brought in nearly half a billion dollars for Uber. Alas, according to employees who worked on the project, the fee was devised primarily to add $ 1 of pure margin to each trip.

Om Malik, a former tech journalist turned venture capitalist, published a tongue-in-cheek tweet yesterday after reading the excerpt, writing, “Apology from @dkhos coming any minute — we are different now.”

Malik was close. Instead of an apology, Uber today sent some of its riders an email titled, somewhat ominously, “Your phone number stays hidden in the app.” The friendly reminder continues on to tell customers that their “phone number stays hidden when you call or text your driver through the app,” that “pickup and dropoff locations are not visible in a driver’s trip history,” and that “for additional privacy, if you don’t want to share your exact address, request a ride to or from the nearest cross streets instead.”

The email was clearly meant to reassure riders, some of whom might be absorbing negative press about Uber and wondering if it cares about them at all. But not everyone follows Uber as closely as industry watchers in Silicon Valley, and either way, what the email mostly accomplishes is to remind customers that riding in an Uber involves life-and-death risk.

Stressing that the company is “committed to safety” is the debating equivalent of a so-called negative pregnant, wherein a denial implies its affirmative opposite. It’s Uber shooting itself in the foot.

Uber

It would have been more effective for Uber to email riders that when it talks about safety, it really does mean business — and not the kind where it swindles its own customers for pure monetary gain.

Either way, the affair underscores the tricky terrain Uber is left to navigate right now. Though campaigns like Uber’s so-called “safe rides fee” was orchestrated under the leadership of Kalanick — who did whatever it took to scale the company — it’s Khosrowshahi’s problem now.

So is the fact that the company’s shares have been sinking since its IPO in early May; that Uber’s cost-cutting measures will be scrutinized at every turn (outsiders particularly relished the company’s decision to save on employees’ work anniversaries by cutting out helium balloons in favor of stickers); and that Uber appears to be losing the battle, city by city, against labor activists who want to push up the minimum wage paid to drivers.

And those are just three of many daunting challenges that Khosrowshahi has been tasked with figuring out  (think food delivery, self-driving technologies, foreign and domestic opponents). No doubt Isaac’s book will highlight plenty of others.

How Uber handles the inevitable wave of bad publicity that comes with it remains to be seen. We don’t expect Khosrowshahi to come out swinging; that’s not his style. But we also hope the company doesn’t take to emailing riders directly, without any context. It’s great if Uber is taking customer safety more seriously than it might have under Kalanick’s leadership, but reaching out to tell riders how to remain safe from their Uber drivers isn’t the way to do it, especially without acknowledging in any way why it’s suddenly so eager to have the conversation.


TechCrunch

Kitty Hawk, the flying car company backed by Google’s Larry Page and led by Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun, has struck a deal with aerospace giant Boeing.

The terms of the strategic partnership are vague. But it appears the two companies will collaborate on urban air mobility, particularly around safety and how autonomous and piloted vehicles will co-exist.

Kitty Hawk’s portfolio of vehicles includes Cora, a two-person air taxi, and Flyer, a vehicle for personalized flight. The partnership is focused on the fully electric, self-piloting flying taxi Cora, according to the announcement.

“Working with a company like Kitty Hawk brings us closer to our goal of safely advancing the future of mobility,” said Steve Nordlund, vice president and general manager of Boeing NeXt, an organization within the company focused on next-generation transport.

Thrun, who founded X, Google’s moonshot factory, also co-founded Kitty Hawk. The company is based in Mountain View, Calif., however much of its testing occurs in New Zealand. Last year, Kitty Hawk took the wraps off of Cora, a vertical take-off and landing aircraft that can take off like a helicopter and fly like a plane.


TechCrunch

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