ViaVan Is Launching an Uber-Like, On-Demand Bus Pilot Program

ViaVan, a joint venture of mobility company Via and Mercedes-Benz Vans, will launch an on-demand bus service in London. The venture was awarded rights to operate a one-year pilot program by Transport for London (TFL), the city's transportation agency.

Riders will be able to hail ViaVan vehicles using an app, just like Uber and Lyft, but the pilot program will use 14-passenger vans in order to get more people into a single vehicle. The program will operate in the borough of Sutton, which has some of the highest rates of private-car usage in London, and is underserved by public transit, according to ViaVan. The vans won't operate on set routes; they'll pick up and drop off passengers as requested. However, vans won't stop everywhere: passengers will be directed to "virtual bus stops" for pickup to increase efficiency.

The pilot program is intended to demonstrate an alternative to private-car use, as well as conventional ride-hailing services, where a single passenger typically occupies each vehicle. ViaVan, which already operates its own shuttle service in London using Mercedes vans, was the winning bidder in a tender process organized by TFL.

London officials have sought a transportation service that provides the convenience of ride hailing, but the efficiency of public transit. The city has butted heads with Uber, temporarily suspending the American company's operating license over what officials viewed as poor safety and security practices.

Via's model of using high-capacity vans makes sense in terms of efficiency. If more people can fit in one vehicle, then fewer vehicles need to be on the road. But this type of service hasn't proven as popular with customers as Uber-style ride hailing. Ford recently shut down its U.S. Chariot shuttle service due to low demand (Via continues to operate in some U.S. cities). After all, why share a van when you can have a car to yourself?

Lyft Is Motivating Customers to Share Rides by Offering Lower, Surge-Free Fares

Putting multiple passengers in the same ride-hailing car is more efficient, but no one likes fighting for rear-seat elbow room. Lyft is trying to make sharing cars more attractive with "Shared Saver," a new option the company claims will offer lower prices.

In a blog post, Lyft said Shared Saver will allow customers to "lock in the lowest prices," noting that Shared Saver rides won't be subject to surge pricing. As with all Lyft rides, though, actual pricing will vary based on the estimated time and distance of the trip.

The catch is that passengers have to both share a car with other Lyft customers, and walk to their pickup point. That's something Lyft instituted in 2017 in order to make pickups more convenient for drivers and to address the problem of stopped cars blocking traffic. It also makes coordinating pooled rides easier, since multiple passengers can be picked up and dropped off at central points. Lyft said riders will only be asked to walk "a few blocks, max." The drop-off point will also be a short walk from each rider's final destination.

Rides can select the Shared Saver option in the Lyft app. Once confirmed, the app will designate a pickup point and provide walking instructions. It will also provide walking instructions to get each passenger from the drop-off point to their destinations. The service launches in Denver and San Jose, with other markets to follow at a later date, according to Lyft.

Putting more than one person in each car can reduce the number of cars on the road, an important consideration for ride-hailing services like Lyft. But even pooled services can increase traffic in cities, according to a study by transportation consultant Bruce Schaller. According to the study, these services still pull too many riders away from the ultimate form of shared transportation: public transit.

Getting people to use pooled services is another issue. Ford recently shut down its Chariot service, which used vans to shuttle groups of commuters around cities, due to low demand. However, Via remains in operation using a similar business model and is bullish about the future of so-called "micro transit" services where passengers share vehicles.

Camper Powered by Used Nissan Leaf Batteries Gives New Meaning to ‘Off the Grid’

It appears that electric-car batteries can be used to power lots of other things, and that's something Nissan is eager to prove. The Japanese automaker has used batteries from its Leaf to power a Dutch stadium, and even its own North American headquarters in Tennessee. Now, Nissan has teamed up with Opus Campers to create a battery-powered pop-up camper.

Unveiled at the Caravan, Camping, Motorhome Show in Birmingham, England, the concept camper has a 700-kWh battery pack made from used Nissan Leaf battery cells. After they degrade too much for automotive use, these battery cells still have plenty of usable capacity for applications like this.

The battery pack provides enough onboard electrical power for about a week of camping, according to Nissan. The camper can be teamed with a 400-watt solar panel, which can provide a full recharged in two to four hours. The battery pack can also be removed and plugged into a household outlet for charging.

A 12-volt electrical circuit to power an air compressor, which inflates the tent-like camper and can accommodate up to six people. The camper also includes a European-standard 230-volt outlet for powering household appliances and USB ports for charging smartphones. And speaking of smartphones, an onboard 4G LTE WiFi hotspot can accommodate up to 10 devices. Because what's the point of escaping from the grind of everyday life if you can't post about it on Instagram?

The camper also features LED lighting, a refrigerator, a portable microwave, and two-burner gas stove for cooking. A rack for two bicycles and kayak carrier provide options for entertainment during the day, while a digital projector and screen allow campers to watch movies at night.

Nissan did not discuss production plans, but the concept camper is based on a production model currently available in Europe from Opus. Similar to Tesla, Nissan has been trying to make standalone battery packs a separate business alongside car sales. So it's not too hard to imagine Nissan fitting battery packs to a camper people can actually buy. The only question is: will a Leaf be able to tow it?

Arizona City Faces $10M Legal Claim Over Uber Self-Driving Car Fatality

The family of the woman killed by an Uber self-driving car last year has filed a $10 million legal claim against the city of Tempe, Arizona, reports AZCentral. The lawsuit argues that the city created a dangerous situation by paving a median where the fatal crash occurred.

Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old homeless woman, was the first known person to be killed by a self-driving car. On the night of March 18, 2018, she was pushing a bicycle across a street in Tempe outside a crosswalk when she was struck by one of Uber's autonomous test cars.

The claim was filed by the law firm Skousen, Gulbrandsen, and Patience on behalf of Herzberg's daughter, Christine Wood, and Herzberg's husband, Rolf Ziemann. The law firm told AZCentral that it is asking for $5 million for each family member. Uber announced last year that it had settled with family members of Herzberg, but did not provide any details. The City of Tempe does not comment on pending litigation.

The new lawsuit argues that Tempe is liable because the median where the crash occurred "has a brick pathway cutting through the desert landscaping that is clearly designed to accommodate people to cross at the site of the accident." This encouraged people to jaywalk, as Herzberg did, the lawsuit argues.

The city tore out the X-shaped brick path, located on the median of Mill Avenue south of Curry Road, in the fall, right around the time the city was hit the lawsuit, according to AZCentral. It was previously reported that the area had signs encouraging pedestrians to use a crosswalk. Lawyers consulted by AZCentral said the case is weak because the city generally isn't required to warn people of "open and obvious" dangers, and because crossing the street at a crosswalk may not have prevented the fatality.

An investigation of the nighttime incident indicated that the Uber vehicle did not detect Herzberg. The human safety driver, tasked with taking over control if the car encounters a problem, was reportedly streaming television on her phone at the time of the crash.

Uber suspended testing of self-driving cars on public roads after the crash. It recently resumed testing in Pittsburgh, albeit in a reduced capacity. Meanwhile, rival Waymo has scaled up its efforts. The Google spinoff is now picking up passengers with its prototype self-driving cars in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area—including Tempe.i

Audi’s Updated V2I Technology Helps Drivers Score All Green Traffic Lights

Every urban driver dreams of catching the "green wave," timing green lights perfectly in order to cruise through intersection after intersection without getting a red light. Now, Audi is using new technology to try to make that a reality. It claims to be the first automaker to offer a system that can coach drivers into catching more green lights.

Audi's Green Light Optimization Speed Advisory (GLOSA) gives speed recommendations to drivers based on when traffic signals are about to change. It's another manifestation of vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) tech, which allows cars to communicate with any piece of infrastructure equipped with the necessary sensors, including traffic lights.

Some of Audi's cars can already "talk" to traffic lights. The automaker already offers a Traffic Light Information (TLI) system in certain models, which gives drivers a countdown when a light is about to turn green. However, it doesn't work everywhere.

TLI is currently available only in certain U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C. Audi just added Northern Virginia, Denver, Gainesville, and Orlando, Florida, and White Plains, New York, a suburb of New York City. That brings the total number of cities to 13, encompassing more than 4,700 intersections, according to Audi.

Audi also uses V2I tech for an integrated toll transponder, which replaces the toll passes drivers typically stick to their windshields with velcro. Other companies are trying to exploit V2I as well: Aptiv uses the tech to help its prototype self-driving cars rear traffic signals in Las Vegas, and Continental is testing an "intelligent intersection" in Columbus, Ohio, aimed at reducing collisions with pedestrians.

Potential applications like these have made V2I one of the hottest buzzwords in automotive tech. But achieving a real benefit will require equipping large fleets of cars, and large swaths of infrastructure, with the necessary hardware. That will be expensive, and it will take time for drivers to replace their old cars with new, V2I equipped models. Those factors will likely slow the deployment of this tech.

Ford Is Testing a New Van Delivery Service Using Cloud-Based Software

The rise of Amazon and other online retailers has been a boon to delivery businesses, but that means more delivery vans crowding city streets. Ford is partnering with Gnewt, a rising British company in the sector, to test a new method of delivering packages that the automaker claims will reduce traffic congestion and emissions.

Ford is testing the concept, which it describes as a "warehouse on wheels," in London. Standard delivery vans are routed using cloud-based software. They collect packages from a central depot, just like in conventional delivery services, but instead of driving the entire way to a customer's door, the vans park in locations determined by the software. Couriers then pick up packages and complete deliveries on foot. Ford noted that bicycle couriers, or even drones, could be substituted in the future.

This type of service could have a number of benefits, according to Ford. Average travel times in London have increased 40 percent over the past three years, according to government statistics cited by the automaker. Limiting the amount of driving bulky delivery vans have to do on the British capital's narrow side streets could help address that. Fewer miles driven also means lower emissions, and vans wouldn't have to park inconveniently on the curb in front of buildings. It could even offer more convenient delivery windows for customers, Ford claims.

Ford's proprietary software coordinates the movement of each package, determining where a van should stop and hand packages off to couriers. While Ford did not discuss any specific plans to commercialize this software, a press release did note that the software could be used in both Ford vans and those of other automakers.

The London trial is one of many attempts at a "last-mile" delivery service, so named because the last mile is generally considered to be the most inefficient part of the delivery process. Having a driver repeatedly stop, get out of their vehicle, and bring individual packages to customers' doors really slows things down. Instead of using human couriers, Workhorse has tried to address this issue using drones.

Considering how important vans are to Ford's business, it's not surprising that the company is experimenting with new forms of delivery services. Ford is also testing autonomous delivery vehicles in partnership with Domino's and Postmates and is even using fake self-driving cars to test consumer reactions.

Uber Sues New York City to Overturn Cap on New Ride-Hailing Vehicles

Uber is the latest ride-hailing company to challenge new regulations enacted by New York City. The company has filed a lawsuit to block a one-year cap on new licenses for ride-hailing vehicles voted into law last summer, reports The Verge.

The cap was part of a package of legislation passed by the New York City Council last summer, which also included a law mandating a minimum wage for drivers. New York is the first major U.S. city to attempt to regulate companies like Uber. Ride-hailing has proven immensely popular, but that has led to concerns over traffic congestion and driver pay. The one-year cap was enacted to give officials time to study those and other issues related to the business.

In its lawsuit, Uber said the cap amounts to a "ban first, study later" approach that won't solve the problems officials claim to be addressing. Uber argued that the cap will impact residents outside Manhattan, which the company claimed are underserved by taxis and that there is no evidence a cap will "meaningfully impact congestion."

An Uber spokesperson told The Verge that the cap will also prevent new drivers from receiving the higher wages resulting from new regulations enacted as part of the same package of legislation. The spokesperson said Uber supports congestion pricing as a way to reduce traffic. Already in use in some European cities, this would add a fee for all vehicle entering the city center, and has been discussed as a possibility by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The number of ride-hailing vehicles in New York City from Uber and other companies increased from 63,000 in 2015 to over 100,000 today, and those vehicles have added significantly to the number of miles driven in the city, according to a recent study by transportation consultant Bruce Schaller.

Ride-hailing has also had a negative economic impact, advocates of regulation claim. Competition from Uber and other ride-hailing companies has seen the value of New York City taxi licenses, called medallions, plummet. Some heavily indebted drivers have committed suicide.

"Uber thinks it is above the law," Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said in a statement. "The company wants the right to add more and more cars to our streets without limit. But there is a very human cost to Uber's business practices."

Alongside the cap on new vehicles, city officials also passed a law setting a minimum wage for drivers. The law, which went into effect February 1, set the wage floor at $17.22 an hour after expenses, or $27.86 before expenses. Uber rival Lyft sued to block implementation of the law but later agreed to pay its drivers the higher wages.

Uber Lost $1.8 Billion in 2018 Despite Record Ride-Hailing, Food-Delivery Gains

Uber posted $50 billion in bookings for its ride-hailing and food-delivery services in 2018. However, the company still failed to turn a profit and its revenue growth slowed toward the end of last year, reports Reuters. That's bad news for Uber as the company looks to charm investors into an initial public offering (IPO) later this year.

Annual bookings were up 45 percent over 2017, according to Uber. Even then, the company's losses before taxes, depreciation, and other expenses still totaled $1.8 billion, down from the $2.2 billion loss the company posted in 2017. Uber's full-year revenue for 2018 was $11.3 billion, an increase of 43 percent from 2017.

Uber also said that gross bookings for the fourth quarter of 2018 reached a record $14.2 billion. That represents an increase of 11 percent over the previous quarter, and a major improvement from the single-digit increases posted over much of last year, noted Reuters. But Uber's reported fourth-quarter revenue of $3 billion was just two percent higher than the previous quarter, albeit also a 24-percent increase over the same period in 2017.

Uber has made a practice of publishing selected financial figures for the past several quarters rather than full financial results as it anticipates going public. The company filed for an IPO in December, shortly after Lyft made its own filing. The two rivals are now racing to become the first ride-hailing company to launch an IPO. The results of that first IPO will be a referendum on the ride-hailing industry.

Ride-hailing has been touted as the future of transportation, and Uber's reliance on freelance drivers eliminates many of the costs associated with more traditional transportation services. But despite not having to pay running costs for a fleet of cars or benefits for drivers, Uber is still losing money. The company also faces increased competition from Lyft and international rivals like China's Didi Chuxing and India's Ola, and is still working to rebuild its self-driving car program after a fatal crash.

Uber was the first ride-hailing company, and it remains the largest. That prominence, as well as past scandals, have made Uber a target for criticism. That being said, many of the issues related to Uber, such as driver wages and its services' contribution to traffic congestion, also apply to other ride-hailing companies. Uber's success or failure in going public could set a precedent for the entire industry.

MIT Claims New Tech Could Help Self-Driving Cars ‘See’ Through Fog and Dust

Most self-driving car testing takes place in places like California, Arizona, and Nevada, and there's a reason for that. The sensors these cars rely on to navigate are less reliable in poor weather and other low-visibility conditions. But MIT claims to be developing new tech that could help with that.

MIT's experimental sensor reads radiation at sub-terahertz wavelengths, which are between microwave and infrared radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum. That means they can be detected through fog and dust, according to MIT. The lidar sensors used in most autonomous cars currently testing on public roads rely on infrared wavelengths, which are more likely to be disrupted in those conditions, MIT claims.

But sub-terahertz sensors have some drawbacks. The sensors require strong signals to work, and this previously required bulky and expensive equipment, according to MIT. That's why the technology has never been tried in self-driving cars before.

Researchers developed a prototype sub-terahertz sensor that fits on a chip, yet is sensitive enough to provide useful information even in the presence of significant signal noise, MIT claims. That's thanks to what researchers call "decentralization," which relies on an array of individual pixels placed on the chip. They can be used to determine the distance to nearby objects, similar to lidar, but can also be "steered" in a certain direction to enable high-resolution images of the environment, MIT claims.

As with all research, it's worth noting that promising results in the lab may not scale up to a usable real-world product. This sensor tech is one of several recent MIT research projects relevant to self-driving cars. The university also developed an experimental algorithm to help cars execute lane changes and a navigation system for rural roads that may not be well mapped.

GM’s New E-Bike Brand Will Be Called AR?V, Will Launch in Europe First

General Motors announced a new e-bike brand in November 2018, as well as a crowdsourcing campaign to name it. The name the crowd chose is AR?V (as in "arrive"). The bikes will launch in Europe later this year, according to a GM press release.

GM will initially offer two models: Merge and Meld. As with other e-bikes, the rider pedals with assistance from an electric motor. Both bikes have a top speed of 25 kph (15.5 mph) with four levels of electric assist, according to GM. The onboard battery pack takes 3.5 hours to charge, and provides up to 64 km (39 miles) of range, the automaker said.

The bikes also include integrated, rechargeable front and rear LED safety lights, USB phone charger, and what GM calls "oversized" brake rotors. All cabling is routed through the frame to give the bikes a cleaner look. The bikes can be folded when not in use, and feature a "walk mode" that engages the electric motor when walking the bikes up hills. When riding, an algorithm adjusts the amount of motor assist for the easiest-possible ride, according to GM.

AR?V bikes will launch first in Germany, Belgium, and The Netherlands, as these countries have the most robust demand for e-bikes, according to GM. Deliveries begin in the second quarter of 2019, but GM is taking preorders through BikeExchange.com. The automaker hasn't announced a timeline for a U.S. launch.

Why is one of the world's largest automakers building bicycles? GM claims it can leverage its automotive engineering experience to design better bikes. A bike brand is also another way for GM to diversify beyond selling cars, joining projects like the company's Maven car-sharing brand and Marketplace, which allows drivers to buy things through their dashboards. Efforts like these ostensibly represent the future of GM and other automakers, but in the short term, GM continues to make deep cuts to staff and its vehicle lineup.