Boom’s chief test pilot on the thrill and challenge of going supersonic (again)

“There’s nothing like it out there,” says Retired Commander Bill “Doc” Shoemaker, chief test pilot for Boom Supersonic, the startup aiming to make a passenger airliner for transoceanic flights at speeds (as you might guess from the name) faster than sound. Shoemaker, a former Navy aviator, fighter pilot, and aeronautics engineer, will have the daunting privilege of being the first to fly the company’s proof of concept single-seater during tests next year.

That there’s nothing like Boom is not exactly a controversial opinion — there aren’t a lot of companies out there trying to resurrect supersonic flight. The Concorde is, after all, so well known a cautionary tale of engineering ambition exceeding the constraints of reality that it verges on hackneyed. But Shoemaker isn’t a silicon valley startup commentator, he’s a test pilot, and his perspective is that of someone who has worked on and flown dozens of aircraft, including supersonic ones, over his decades-long career.

The first question I asked (though not entirely a serious one) when I had a chance to chat with Shoemaker was whether it was a bit premature to have a chief pilot at a company that doesn’t yet have a plane to fly.

“There’s a good reason to have a pilot at this point,” Shoemaker said. As he delicately put it: “Among the team, the pilots are… uniquely committed to the outcome.”

Among other things, test pilots seem to have a knack for understatement. But it’s certainly true.

“You want the operator’s perspective, like how to build the cockpit, how you’ll operate the aircraft. The designer will come to me for that perspective — he’ll say, ‘how can I tweak the design to be more suitable for you?’ You want that cross-industry expertise.”

Boom is making a supersonic airliner, but it’s still mostly a paper plane, if you will. The company’s test craft, the XB-1, however, is being built and should be taking to the air about a year from now. That’s where many of the components, materials, and design choices will be flight-proven. Interestingly, however, actually flying the test craft is a rather analog affair.

“The aircraft is definitely designed around a philosophy, which ‘keep it simple.’ We’re not trying to introduce any more tech than we really need to. The flight controls are not fly-by wire, they’re mechanical,” explained Shoemaker. “It’s going to be an interesting airplane to fly. It goes from 150 knots up to Mach 2.2, and up to 45,000 feet. It’ll be a challenge because of that mechanical stuff, but with what we’re trying to do, keeping it simple makes a lot of sense.”

That’s not to say nothing has changed over the last few decades of aeronautics, a topic in which, if you’ll recall, Shoemaker has a doctorate. Although he said he considers his role as being separate from the flight test engineers who put the craft he’s flown together, he’s still an important part of the team.

He suggested a few areas where he’s seen or expects improvements to the aircraft creation and testing process.

“One is composite materials. That’s huge,” he said, referring to things like carbon fiber and more exotic weaves and alloys that combine a number of desirable characteristics. “The strength and weight improvements offer new opportunities. You know, the Concorde would contract like a foot during flight temperatures, then expand again. Composites don’t do that. All these things make the aircraft lighter, faster, and stronger.”

Second, he briefly noted, engine technology these days is “brisk,” especially combined with the materials advances.

“Last,” he said, “the Concorde design was wind tunnel based, but a lot of the work we do is computation. We can do all the testing they did for the Concorde in a couple days.”

Wind tunnels are still involved, of course, but the models are so good that it’s more for verification than testing. But it also lets designers speed through ideas, evaluating but skipping wild ones without wasting time: “You can look at all these weird corner cases, and explore those very quickly.”

Basic advances in tech mean the team can avoid quirks like the Concorde’s drooping nose, which was there so that pilots could see the runway. “You can all the mechanical complexity that comes with that,” said Shoemaker. “For us we’ll be going with a direct camera or some kind of vision system that’s integrated with all the systems.”

“The airliner itself,” he said, “will be highly augmented [compared to the test jet]. It’ll be fly by wire. Its handling qualities are really quite benign across the envelope. It’s surprising but the way the aircraft handles on one side of the speed of sound isn’t so different from how it handles on the other side.”

Ultimately Shoemaker was optimistic about the whole enterprise, both the company and the prospect of supersonic passenger flight.

“As far as an ambitious project with an ambitious goal, there’s nothing like it out there,” he said. “That’s the value and reward of working with a team this size, a team that really believes they can reinvent and do it better. And it’s well within what we can do with technology — we can do it better than Concorde did, possibly by orders of magnitude.”

As for his part, the test flights set to take place next year, he’s more than a little excited.

“It’ll be a challenge to fly for sure — but it’ll be nice to go that fast again.”

Uber fires up its own traffic estimates to fuel demand beyond cars

If the whole map is red and it’s a short ride, maybe you’d prefer taking an Uber JUMP Bike instead of an UberX. Or at least if you do end up stuck bumper-to-bumper, the warning could make you less likely to get mad mid-ride and take it out on the driver’s rating.

This week TechCrunch spotted Uber overlaying blue, yellow, and red traffic condition bars on your route map before you hail. Responding to TechCrunch’s inquiry, Uber confirmed that traffic estimates have been quietly testing for riders on Android over the past few months and the pilot program recently expanded to a subset of iOS users. It’s already live for all drivers.

The congestion indicators are based on Uber’s own traffic information pulled from its historic trip data about 10 billion rides plus real-time data from its drivers’ phones, rather than estimates from Google that already power Uber’s maps.

If traffic estimates do roll out, they could make users more tolerant of longer ETAs and less likely to check a competing app since they’ll know their driver might take longer to pick them up because congestion is to blame rather than Uber’s algorithm. During the ride they might be more patient amidst the clogged streets.

Uber’s research into traffic in India

But most interestingly, seeing traffic conditions could help users choose when it’s time to take one of Uber’s non-car choices. They could sail past traffic in one of Uber’s new electric JUMP Bikes, or buy a public transportation ticket from inside Uber thanks to its new partnership with Masabi for access to New York’s MTA plus buses and trains in other cities. Cheaper and less labor intensive for Uber, these options make more sense to riders the more traffic there is. It’s to the company’s advantage to steer users towards the most satisfying mode of transportation, and traffic info could point them in the right direction.

Through a program called Uber Movement, the company began sharing its traffic data with city governments early last year. The goal was to give urban planners the proof they need to make their streets more efficient. Uber has long claimed that it can help reduce traffic by getting people into shared rides and eliminating circling in search of parking. But a new study showed that for each mile of personal driving Uber and Lyft eliminated, they added 2.8 miles of professional driving for an 180 percent increase in total traffic.

Uber is still learning whether users find traffic estimates helpful before it considers rolling them out permanently to everyone. Right now they only appear on unshared UberX, Black, XL, SUV, and Taxi routes before you hail to a small percentage of users. But Uber’s spokesperson verified that the company’s long-term goal is to be able to tell users that the cheapest way to get there is option X, the cheapest is option Y, and the most comfortable is option Z. Traffic estimates are key to that. And now that it’s had so many cars on the road for so long, it has the signals necessary to predict which streets will be smooth and which will be jammed at a given hour.

For years, Uber called itself a logistics company, not a ride sharing company. Most people gave it a knowing wink. Every Silicon Valley company tries to trump up its importance by claiming to conquer a higher level of abstraction. But with advent of personal transportation modes like on-demand bikes and scooters, Uber is poised to earn the title by getting us from point A to point B however we prefer.

Lyft hires yet another ex-Tesla employee

Lyft is on a bit of a Tesla poaching spree while Tesla employees are exiting in droves. The latest ex-Tesla employee to join Lyft is Cal Lankton, who most recently led the development of Tesla’s electric vehicle charging network up until May. At Lyft, Lankton will serve as VP of infrastructure operations where he will focus on the next generation of Lyft’s driver hubs.

“I came to Lyft because I believe in the company’s priorities of driver care and environmental sustainability, and I know that our retail footprint can effectively marry the two through smart design and deployment,” Lankton said in a statement.

Lyft is also bringing on board Geoffrey Bain from Unilever to serve as the company’s senior director of retail operations. Both will work with Lyft VP of Driver Experience Operations Karim Bousta, who joined the company in July from Tesla.  All of the aforementioned people report to Lyft COO Jon McNeill, who joined Lyft — also from Tesla — in February.

“With Cal and Geoffrey leading our retail strategy, I am confident that our next-generation service centers will exceed driver expectations, and they will see the results of this team’s dedication reflected in their earnings,” McNeill said in a statement.

In May, Lyft committed $100 million to better support its drivers by specifically putting the money toward cheaper oil changes, basic car maintenance, serviced car washes and more. Lyft also will almost double its operating hours at its driver hubs in 15 cities throughout the nation.

The idea with that commitment is to help drivers make more money and maximize their earnings by offsetting the costs of driving. Other benefits will include car and SUV rentals, tax education and more.

Lyft also says it expects to more than double its driver base in the next five years. Currently, Lyft has 1.4 million drivers, according to its latest economic impact report.

Uber is investing $150M in Toronto to expand self-driving car efforts

Months after an Uber self -driving vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, the ride-hailing giant has announced it’s adding a new engineering hub in Toronto and expanding its autonomous research team as it refocuses its self-driving car efforts.

In his first visit to the Canadian tech hub since becoming CEO of Uber last year, Dara Khosrowshahi announced plans to invest $150 million in Toronto over the next five years. Uber will bring on 300 new employees, bringing the company’s total headcount in Toronto to 500. The new engineering hub is expected to open early next year.

We’ve reached out to Uber for comment.

“At Uber, we recognize Canada’s commitment to innovation and the vibrancy of Toronto’s tech ecosystem,” Khosrowshahi said in a statement provided to the Toronto Star. “We want to support the innovation coming out of this great, diverse region.”

Uber opened the Toronto Advanced Technologies Group office last May. It’s led by local AI researcher Raquel Urtasun, a University of Toronto professor and the Canada Research Chair in Machine Learning and Computer Vision.

The company initially suspended all efforts to get self-driving cars on the road following the fatal crash and opted not to renew its self-driving car permit in the state of California. Its vehicles have returned to public roads, but in manual mode.

Uber has been testing self-driving cars in Toronto since last year and has said the company remains “very committed” to beefing up its AV research in the region.

Boring Company approved to build a tunnel entrance inside a residential garage

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The Boring Company recently purchased a parcel of land close to SpaceX Headquarters, on 120th St. near Prairie Avenue. Now, the small residence in an industrial neighborhood could house a private, prototype garage, according to The Beach Reporter.

Elon Musk’s young tunneling company was granted approval from the Hawthorne City Council today to build a shaft on the property. The shaft would go down to a tunnel that The Boring Company had built as a sort of tunneling laboratory. The shaft would one day house an elevator that could lower a car down into the tunnel without leaving the garage.

Although The Boring Company still needs to provide more detailed plans to the city of Hawthorne before it can start building, the initial plans suggest that the company is looking to test different ways that its tunnels could be accessed (and perhaps paid for).

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Uber is getting a new look

Uber has broken up with the bits and atoms logo it unveiled in 2016. This morning, the company updated their website and app with a brand spankin’ new logo as part of a rebrand it’s rolling out in the coming months.

The move comes two days after Uber tapped former Coca-Cola executive Rebecca Messina to lead marketing efforts.

Characterized by its use of all-caps and thick, bold strokes, the ride-hailing giant’s branding has always felt a bit hostile. Its new font, also unveiled today, is much more modern and friendly. And finally, Uber has done away with UBER and welcomed Uber.

The latest logo is the company’s simplest yet. A spokesperson told TechCrunch they want to be “easily recognizable,” which is why they are dumping the symbol and going for the most straightforward imagery possible.

“We’re excited to unveil a new, simplified logo for the Uber app that brings back the U, is easily recognizable, and is scalable across the 660 plus cities we serve,” they said.

This is at least the fourth logo Uber has cycled through in its roughly nine-year history (even the company spokesperson wasn’t quite sure how many logos they’ve had). The first I can remember was just the U, then it was the bits and atoms logo. Here’s a look, from newest to oldest. 

Uber has been working on the updates for the last nine months, presumably under CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s lead. He’s been at the company as CEO for just over a year now and has spent a good chunk of that time cleaning up founding CEO Travis Kalanick’s mess. A rebrand only makes sense when you are trying to shed a company of its less-than-stellar reputation.

Worth $62 billion, Uber is the most valuable private company in the world.

Tesla just lost its head of global finance

Tesla’s head of global finance is leaving the automaker, the latest high-level executive departure that comes just days after chief accounting officer Dave Morton resigned after barely a month on the job.

The departure was first reported by Bloomberg. Tesla confirmed to TechCrunch that Justin McAnear, whose official title was vice president of worldwide finance and operation, is leaving after three years. His last day is October 7.

“Several weeks ago, I announced to my team that I would be leaving Tesla because I had the chance to take a CFO role at another company,” McAnear said in a statement provided by Tesla. “I’ve truly loved my time at Tesla, and I have great respect for my colleagues and the work they do, but this was simply an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Any other speculation as to why I’ve left is simply inaccurate. I’ve been working with the team to ensure a smooth transition prior to my last day on October 7th, and a number of members of the team are stepping up to fill my role.”

A string of executives have left the company since the beginning of the year, including chief people officer Gaby Toledano, Sarah O’Brien, who headed up Tesla’s communications team, and the company’s senior vice president of engineering Doug Field.

Tesla has hired some executives in recent months such as a global director of vehicle delivery and CFO for China operations, but gaps still remain. Some high-level positions haven’t been filled, while others have been restructured.

CEO Elon Musk  style=”font-size: 1.125rem; letter-spacing: -0.1px;”>announced a series of promotions and job updates earlier this month that put more responsibility on a few key people. For instance, Kevin Kassekert, previously headed up infrastructure development, a job that included leading the construction and development of Tesla’s  gigafactory near Reno, Nevada. His new title is vice president of people and places, a position that gives him responsibility of human resources — a job that was once filled by Toledano — as well as facilities, construction and infrastructure. Tesla has more than 37,000 employees and facilities all over the world, including its factory in Fremont, California.

Musk also promoted Jérôme Guillen to president of automotive. Guillen will oversee all automotive operations and program management, as well as coordinate Tesla’s supply chain. Guillen previously headed up Tesla’s truck program and worldwide sales and service.

Comma.ai’s George Hotz ousts George Hotz as CEO

Comma.ai’s board, of which founder George Hotz is the only member, is making changes at the autonomous driving startup: Hotz is no longer CEO of the company.

A new CEO, who Hotz declined to name, is expected to be announced Friday via the company’s Medium blog. He confirmed that the CEO is indeed a human and a “very talented one,” Hotz told TechCrunch.

Hotz, who gained worldwide fame under the hacker alias “geohot” when he cracked the iPhone and PlayStation 3 as a teenager, isn’t leaving the company he founded. Instead, Hotz and two others are part of a new division called Comma.ai research that will focus on building out behavioral models that can drive cars.

Comma.ai found the “right product market fit” during his three-year tenure as CEO, Hotz said.

“We have very good growth numbers, now it’s time to get the slope on growth even higher,” said Hotz, who is the company’s majority shareholder. “It’s much more of an execution problem now than a vision problem. And perhaps I’m not best executor.”

Hotz said the company needed someone to scale the team from the 15 people who are there now to the “50 required to put out a real consumer product” as well as work on reducing cost of the product and deal with regulators.

Hotz may be out as CEO, but he insists the fundamental ethos of the company won’t change.

“We’ve always been the North Korea of self-driving companies; we are driven by nobody else’s agenda,” he said. “That’s not going to change.”

And he’s still interested in self-driving cars.

“Eventually, what I want to do with my life is I want to solve AI,” Hotz said. “And I think that self-driving cars are still the coolest applied AI problem today.”

Comma.ai initially aimed to sell a $999 aftermarket self-driving car kit that would give certain vehicle models highway-driving assistance abilities similar to Tesla’s Autopilot feature. Hotz canceled those plans in October 2016 after receiving a letter from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration.

Five weeks later, Comma.ai released its self-driving software to the world. All of the code, as well as plans for the hardware, was posted on Github.

Today, Comma.ai has an ecosystem of products — the Eon, Panda and Giraffe — all aimed at bringing semi-autonomous driving capabilities to cars. Drivers who buy and install them in their cars can bypass the driver assistance systems in specific vehicles — right now late model Hondas and Toyotas — and run Comma.ai’s open source driving software instead.

The Eon is a dashcam dev kit based on Android that can run Waze, Spotify and Comma.ai’s open source dashcam app chffrplus, which lets car owners record and review their drives. The Panda is a $99 universal car interface that plugs into a vehicle’s OBDII port and gives users access to the internal communications networks (known as a vehicle bus) that interconnects components in a vehicle.

The Giraffe is an adapter board that gives users access to other CAN buses not exposed on the main OBD-II connector. This allows commands to be issued to the car via software.

Pull all of these together and a vehicle has Comma.ai’s version of lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control. TechCrunch rode in one of these Comma.ai-equipped vehicles in July.

More than 500 cars are now using either open pilot of chffr, Hotz said, adding that this fleet is sending data back to Comma.ai. The company has collected more than 5 million miles of driving data.

“We’re using all of that data to create behavioral models of human driving,” Hotz said. “We’re now very good at localizing that driving data, figuring out exactly where the car actually went. So from that and the data, how do we actually train models to drive like humans.”