China’s Didi Chuxing continues its international expansion with Australia launch

Didi Chuxing, China’s dominant ride-hailing company, is continuing its international expansion after it announced plans to launch in Australia this month.

The company — which bought Uber’s China business in 2016 — said it will begin serving customers in Melbourne from June 25 following a month-long trial period in Geelong, a neighboring city that’s 75km away. The business will be run by a Didi subsidiary in Australia and it plans to offer “a series of welcome packages to both drivers and riders” — aka discounts and promotions, no doubt. It began signing up drivers on June 1, the company added.

The Australia launch will again put Didi in direct competition with Uber, but that is becoming increasingly common, and also Ola which counts Didi as an investor — more on that below. This move follows forays into Taiwan, Mexico and Brazil this year as Didi has finally expanded beyond its China-based empire.

Didi raised $4 billion in December to develop AI, general technology and to fund international expansion and it has taken a variety of routes to doing the latter. This Australia launch is organic, with Didi developing its own team, while in Taiwan it has used a franchise model and it went into Brazil via acquisition, snapping up local Uber-rival 99 at a valuation of $1 billion.

It is also set to enter Japan where it has teamed up with investor SoftBank on a joint-venture.

“In 2018, Didi will continue to cultivate markets in Latin America, Australia and Japan. We are confident a combination of world-class transportation AI technology and deep local expertise will bring a better experience to overseas markets,” the company added in a statement.

This international expansion has also brought a new level of confusion since Didi has cultivated relationships with other ride-hailing companies across the world while also expanding its own presence internationally.

The Uber deal brought with it a stock swap — turning Didi and Uber from competitors into stakeholders — and the Chinese company has also backed Grab in Southeast Asia, Lyft in the U.S., Ola in India, Careem in the Middle East and — most recentlyTaxify, which covers Europe and Africa.

In the case of Australia, Didi will come up against both Uber and Ola, with the India firm currently present in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney via an expansion made earlier this year. Uber vs Didi is to be expected — that’s a complicated relationship — but in taking on Ola (so soon after it came to Australia), Didi is competing directly with a company that it funded via an investment deal for the first time.

That might be a small insight into Didi’s relationship with Ola. Unlike Grab, which has seen Didi follow-on its investments, the Chinese firm sat out Ola’s most recent fundraising last year despite making an investment in the company back in 2015.

Ola declined to comment. Didi did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its new rivalry with Ola Down Under.

The move into Australia comes at a time when Didi is under intense pressure following the death of a passenger uses its ‘Hitch’ service last month.

The company suspended the Hitch service — which allows groups people who are headed in the same direction together — and removed a number of features while limiting its operations to day-time only. This week, it said it would resume night-time rides but only for drivers picking up passengers of the sex.

Uber is looking to buy the bike-share company behind Citi Bike and Ford GoBike

Uber is reportedly looking into buying Motivate, the company that makes Ford GoBike’s in the San Francisco Bay Area and Citi Bike over on the East Coast. This comes following reports of Lyft getting close to purchasing Motivate in a $250 million deal.

Uber bought bike-share startup JUMP, a dockless, electric bike-share service, earlier this year, for about $250 million. In April, Motivate deployed electric bikes in San Francisco. Once JUMP’s 18-month pilot program with the city is up next June, we can expect to see companies like Motivate, Lime and others apply to deploy their own dockless bikes in the city.

I’ve reached out to Uber and will update this story if I hear back.

Just this week, both Uber and Lyft applied to deploy electric scooters in San Francisco. You can read more about that here.

Silicon Valley scooter wars

Electric scooters have become the hot new area for startups and “innovation.” For those who haven’t been keeping track, there are three main players in the Silicon Valley scooter wars: Bird, Lime and Spin. Bird first launched in Venice, Calif. before expanding into San Francisco in March. It’s worth pointing out that Bird, for now, is strictly an electric scooter company. That’s not the case for Lime and Spin, which both have their own bike-share services deployed throughout various parts of the country and world.

That same month — almost in complete lockstep — Lime and Spin deployed their own electric scooters in the city. Fast forward to June and the city of SF has placed a temporary hold on electric scooters until it can review permit applications. As part of a new city law, which went into effect June 4, scooter companies are not able to operate their services in SF without a permit.

Twelve companies (Uber/JUMP, Lyft, Skip, Spin, Lime, Scoot, ofo, Skip, Razor, CycleHop, USSCooter and Ridecell) have applied for permits in SF, but the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency will issue permits for no more than five companies during the 24-month pilot program. The program would grant up to 2,500 scooters to operate in total, but it’s not yet clear how many scooters each company would be allowed to deploy.

Uber and Lyft’s entrance into the electric scooter space was expected, given that Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told me in April that he had his eyes on electric scooters, and Lyft had reportedly been in talks with the SFMTA about its permitting process. But it became more official this past week when both companies applied for permits to operate in SF. Both Uber and Lyft, which have both recently announced public transit integration, are clearly vying to become the one-stop shop for all transportation needs.

The SFMTA said it’s aiming to notify companies of their permit status by the end of June. If issued a permit, companies must then pay an annual permit fee of $25,000, as well as a $10,000 public property repair and maintenance endowment. Companies must also share trip data with the city.

But the scooter moratorium in SF has little effect on the state of scooters as a whole. The last week alone has been filled with multimillion-dollar investments in electric scooter companies like Bird and Lime. Bird authorized a new $200 million funding round that could value the company at around $1 billion post-money, and Bird competitor Lime is also reportedly raising $250 million. 

Below, you can see where some of these newer players stack up in comparison to each other. This is just a look at companies that have deployed electric scooters in the United States.

Where the scooters at

California is the main hot spot for scooters in the U.S., but they have also popped up in Texas, Washington D.C., North Carolina and other states throughout the country. Unsurprisingly, regulation has proved to be an issue for many of these companies. In SF, the MTA is currently reviewing permit applications from electric scooter companies looking to operate in the city. The permit process came as a result of Bird, Lime and Spin deploying their electric scooters without permission in the city in March.

Over in Austin, dockless electric scooter startup GOAT says it’s working with the city to ensure its service meets the criteria laid out by regulators. Moving forward, GOAT says it’s actively working with other cities to pursue additional operating permits. In D.C., Skip, which is trying to differentiate itself by being more heavy-duty, worked with city officials and lawmakers to ensure it had the greenlight before launching.

Here’s an overview of where you can expect to see electric scooters throughout the country.

Outside of the U.S., Bird is looking at deploying scooters throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa. In February, Bird brought on Patrick Studener, a former international growth product manager at Uber, to serve as head of EMEA at Bird, according to Studener LinkedIn. Earlier this week, TechCrunch also spotted a job posting for a general manager in Europe to lead market management.

Meanwhile, a source sent us a Lime on the streets of Zurich, Switzerland. It turns out Lime is working with the city around some pilot programs with private businesses.

Building scooters

Many companies aren’t actually building their own scooters. Instead, they’re slapping stickers and logos on scooters that have been around for years. Lime, Bird and Spin launched using scooters from Ninebot, a Chinese scooter company that has merged with Segway. Ninebot is backed by investors including Sequoia Capital, Xiaomi and ShunWei. But Lime, Skip, Spin and Bird are looking to change that.

In May, Lime partnered with Segway to launch its next generation of electric scooters. These Segway-powered Lime scooters are designed to be safer, longer-lasting via battery power and more durable for what the sharing economy requires, Lime CEO Toby Sun told TechCrunch last month. Now, instead of a maximum distance of 23 miles or so, Lime scooters can go up to 35 miles.

“A lot of the features in the past on scooters were made for the consumer market,” Sun said. “Not for the shared, heavy-duty markets.”

Lime scooter built in partnership w/ Segway

Bird is also experimenting with some new scooter models, but they seem to modified versions of a Segway ES2. When reached for comment, Bird said it didn’t have many details to provide. Meanwhile, Skip does have plans to build its own custom scooters but currently modifies the Speedway Mini4 63V 21Ah scooters.

Skip scooter deck

With Spin, the company does have plans to build its own scooters but isn’t ready to announce details. What Spin CEO Euwyn Poon would share with me is that the company has spun up a custom production line and supply chain.

GOAT, on the other hand, is deliberately taking the partnership route, having developed GOAT on top of a Segway scooter since the beginning.

“This decision was based not only on a superior quality scooter and the ability to maintain this quality at scale, but also our ability to work side-by-side with the Segway team in Changzhou, China and remotely here in Austin,” GOAT co-founder Jennie Whitaker told TechCrunch in an email. “We believe that it’s important to focus on what you’re the best at, which means allowing Segway to produce superior electric scooters while we focus on building technology to solve mobility problems for the world.”

A new side hustle

Just like ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft created new jobs, electric scooter companies seem to be doing the same. During some March public hearings in SF, companies touted how their respective services create jobs for people in low-income communities. Given that each player’s scooters need to be charged, they’re relying on everyday people to scoop up these scooters at night, charge them and then drop them off early the next morning.

Lime, for example, has its Juicer program. Bird has its Charger program, Spin has its Squad program and Skip has street team chargers. Spin pays $5 per scooter, Bird pays between $5 to $25 per scooter charged, depending on how hard it is to find the scooter. And Lime pays up to $12 per scooter, depending on the location.

In March, Harry Campbell over at The Rideshare Guy documented what it was like to be a charger for Bird. The TL;DR is that he had a good time and he could see how it would make sense for people looking to make some extra cash.

Scooter parking

Austin scooter parking

Moving forward, companies are looking at ways to ease some of its effects on sidewalk congestion, which has been a primary concern for city dwellers and legislators. In March, SF Supervisor Jane Kim said she didn’t envision handing out permits until the city could figure out a better way to dock the scooters. At the time, the SFMTA said the onus is on the companies to ensure proper docking and that it’s willing to work with each company around that process.

But over in Austin, the city has taken matters into its own hands. In May, the city adopted new rules that require riders to park in designated areas. This decision was inspired by some action Seattle took around dockless bicycles.

Each city will, of course, regulate in whatever way they think is best. But these designated scooter parking areas do seem like a solid way to ensure people aren’t tripping over scooters left in the middle of the street.

A fallen Bird in SF

In addition to figuring out a way to handle scooter parking, companies also have to worry about vandalism and theft. In SF, before the temporary ban, it wasn’t uncommon to see scooters with graffiti, cut wires or with dismembered parts.

Companies, of course, account for things like this and are keeping tabs. Lime told me lost scooters and vandalism affects less than one percent of its overall fleet across markets.

If you’ve made it this far in the story, I tip my hat off to you. Be sure to holler at me if you see scooters behaving badly, launching in new markets or yelling at people on the streets.

Uber and Lyft apply for electric scooter permits in SF

Uber and Lyft have officially put their respective names into the electric scooter competition. Uber and Lyft are among the eleven companies that applied to operate an electric scooter sharing service within San Francisco city limits. The city, however, will only offer up to five companies permits to operate as part of a one-year test program.

Uber declined to comment but confirmed that it has applied for a permit via JUMP, the bike-share startup Uber acquired for about $200 million in April. Once Uber is cleared to operate electric scooters, the plan is to integrate them into the Uber app and continue fleshing out Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s vision for a full-fledged multi-modal transportation platform.

Lyft also confirmed to TechCrunch that the company applied for a permit, but declined to share any further details. Here’s the full list of companies that applied, via the SF Chronicle:

  1. Bird
  2. CycleHop
  3. JUMP via Uber
  4. Lime
  5. Lyft
  6. ofo
  7. Razor (yes, *that* Razor)
  8. Ridecell
  9. Scoot
  10.  Spin
  11.  USSCooter

San Francisco’s permit process came as a result of Bird, Lime and Spin deploying their electric scooters without permission in the city in March. As part of a new city law, which went into effect June 4, scooter companies are not able to operate their services in San Francisco without a permit. The SFMTA said it’s aiming to notify companies of their permit status by the end of June.

For more information about electric scooter regulation in San Francisco, be sure to check out my previous coverage.

US gig economy: data shows 16m people in ‘contingent or alternative’ work

Government data shows scale of freelance or temporary economy as American workers try to navigate changing work environment

How big is the “gig economy”? On Thursday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics gave the first official reading of how many Americans rely on temporary work, freelancing, and on-demand apps to make ends meet. And the answer is: a lot.

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Grab drivers in Southeast Asia are now convenience stores, too

Drivers of Southeast Asia-based Grab can now become mini convenience stores. That’s because the ride-hailing company, which bought out rival Uber’s local business earlier this year, has teamed up with U.S. startup Cargo to sell a selection of items to passengers during their ride.

New York-based Cargo claims it can help drivers earn up to $300 in additional wages per month by selling items like snacks, drinks, beauty items, phone chargers and more.

Drivers add a Cargo box which includes free samples and paid products to their car for free. (Refills are free, too.) They make a 25 commission on all paid sales, plus $1 every time a passenger places an order or free sample request via the Cargo website.

That’s about it.

Cargo has done deals with Lyft and Uber drivers in the U.S., but this marks its first move overseas. For now the partnership takes effect in Singapore but a Grab representative told TechCrunch that, all being well, it will expand across Southeast Asia, where Grab serves eight countries.

Cargo is targeting 100,000 cars this year, in January it claimed to have 2,500 cars on the road in New YOrk Chicago, Boston and Minneapolis, with 20,000 driver signups from all 50 states. The company raised $5.5 million this year to facilitate that growth.

Lyft is reportedly close to buying the company behind Ford GoBike and Citi Bike

Lyft is getting close to acquiring Motivate, the company responsible for Ford GoBike in the San Francisco Bay Area and Citi Bike in the New York City area, The Information reports. The deal will reportedly be worth at least $250 million.

Lyft declined to comment and Motivate wasn’t available for comment at the time of publication. This deal would put Lyft ahead of Uber in terms of bike-sharing. Uber bought bike-share startup JUMP, a dockless, electric bike-share service, earlier this year for about $250 million. JUMP’s footprint is currently much smaller than Motivate’s, but Uber is certainly working to grow Jump’s presence.

Photo by MRD/TC

In April, Motivate deployed electric bikes in San Francisco. Once JUMP’s 18-month pilot program with the city is up next June, we can expect to see companies like Motivate, Lime and Scoot apply to deploy their own dockless bikes in the city.

Just this month, for example, Scoot launched its take on dockless, lock-to electric bikes in Barcelona. Scoot CEO Michael Keating told me he wants to deploy in San Francisco, but currently can’t due to the exclusive permit the city has with JUMP.

This comes shortly after news hit that Lyft is also looking to get into electric scooters. Lyft has reportedly been in talks with San Francisco city officials to discuss applying for a permit, and has drafted some prototypes of scooter designs. Uber is also eyeing the electric scooter, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi previously told me.

What’s happening right now is that both Uber and Lyft are aggressively trying to become multi-modal transportation companies. That means they no longer just want to offer ride-hailing, but seek to become a one-stop shop for all your transportation needs. Uber, however, is a bit ahead of the game at this point, given its recent partnership with public transit company Masabi, car rental service Getaround, active deployment of electric bikes and plans for uberAIR.

Uber’s European rival Taxify raises $175M led by Daimler at a $1B valuation

There’s a new unicorn in the global ride-hailing space after Taxify, a startup born in Estonia that does battle with Uber across Europe and Africa, closed $175 million in new funding that takes it valuation to the $1 billion mark.

Daimler, the German automotive giant which owns Mercedes-Benz among other things, led the round. The investment also featured participation from new backers Europe-based Korelya Capital and Taavet Hinrikus, founder of billion-dollar Estonian fintech startup Transferwise. Taxify said that China’s Didi Chuxing was among the returning investors to join.

The company said it plans to deploy the capital to develop its technology and make further expansions in Europe and Asia.

Beyond its automotive business, Daimler has taken a role in ride-hailing already. Its investments in the space include the acquisition of car-sharing business car2Go and German car-pooling startup Flinc, while it has put money into Europe-based car-pooling company Via and Turo, another car-sharing service which took on Daimler’s rival service Croove. More widely, Daimler and BMW consolidated their mobility businesses — which include parking apps, charging solutions, ride-hailing and more — in a consolidation move made in March of this year. Now, added to that, Daimler will take a seat on the Taxify board.

Given its extensive interest in mobility, it makes sense that Daimler is backing Taxify, which has emerged as the main contender battling Uber in Europe and Africa, while it has also forayed into Australia, too. Surprisingly, the round is the first major fundraising moment for Taxify, which had raised just €2 million ($2.4 million) prior to Didi’s undisclosed investment last year.

“We’re on a mission to build the future of mobility, and it’s great to have the support of investors like Daimler and Didi,” said CEO and co-founder Markus Villig in a statement. “This is just the beginning as more and more people give up on car ownership and opt for on-demand transportation.”

The ride-sharing space has homogenized somewhat in recent years with most companies offer the same services, so against that backdrop Taxify has something of a unique story. The startup was founded in Estonia in 2013 — the home of tech giant Skype — but brothers Markus Villig, then 19 years old, and his brother Martin, who had worked for Skype.

Villig junior is now just 24 years old which makes him one of the youngest heads of a billion-dollar company in the world, although OYO founder Ritesh Agarwal is slightly younger and led a unicorn at an even younger age. Still, it’s quite an achievement.

His original vision was to build a service for his native Estonia using money borrowed from his parents, but that vision expanded and the service is now present in over 25 countries, predominantly in Europe and Africa. Markus Villig said today that the company has more than 100,000 drivers and over 10 million users, a big jump on the 2.5 million users it claimed back in August. Villig added that Taxify’s ride volumes grew ten-fold last year, although he did not provide a raw figure.

Taxify CEO and co-founder Markus Villig

Markus has explained in the past that Taxify’s strategy focuses on being the second mover, most often behind Uber .

“We go into markets where ride-sharing is already a proven concept… we come in and we improve on that by having just cheaper commissions and giving more back to the riders and drivers. We don’t want to get into this regulatory troubles and be wasting millions in lobby battles,” he told Bloomberg in an interview last year.

A key moment for Taxify was snagging investment from Didi Chuxing, the Chinese firm that acquired Uber’s China business and removed it from the country.

Didi backed Taxify via an undisclosed “eight-figure U.S. dollar sum” in August 2016 but, beyond capital, gave it access to its network of knowledge and experience, particularly around operations.

This kind of deal is common for Didi, which raised a $4 billion investment at the end of last year for expansion purposes and has backed Uber rivals across the world with capital and mentoring. Didi’s investments include Lyft in the U.S., Grab in Southeast Asia (which recently bought out Uber’s local business), Ola in India, Careem in the Middle East and 99 in Brazil, which Didi itself acquired in January 2018 for its first international expansion move.