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What Disbanding the Police Really Meant in Camden, New Jersey

Two schools of thought have emerged for altering US policing practices following the killing of George Floyd and widespread Black Lives Matter protests: reform the way police do their jobs, or defund or even disband police agencies.

Reform-based initiatives like 8 Can’t Wait, endorsed by Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, call for new rules, including deescalation training for officers, bans on choke holds, and mandatory reporting on use-of-force incidents. The Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House of Representatives last week, would require racial bias training and increase funding for body cameras.

Supporters of defunding say such steps aren’t enough. Police departments in Cleveland, Chicago, and Baltimore have instituted reforms but still face accusations of police brutality. Defunding means cutting hundreds of millions from police budgets and investing in housing, addiction treatment, and mental health services. Last month, the Minneapolis City Council voted to disband its police department.

One prominent case in the debate is Camden, New Jersey, which disbanded its police force in 2012, converting it to the Camden Metro Division of the Camden County Police Department. Hundreds of officers were fired and made to reapply following new training and psychological evaluations.

At a glance, the move looks like a success. Violent crime in the city has decreased 42 percent since 2012, officials say. Former police chief Scott Thomson has lauded the restructuring and new training.

But community activists in Camden argue that disbanding the force didn’t substantively change policing. “We never really accepted it,” says Darnell Hardwick, treasurer for the Camden chapter of the NAACP. “The whole narrative that the people were in it from the beginning is a lie. What the people wanted was their own police department.”

Keith Benson, president of the Camden Education Association, one of New Jersey’s largest teacher’s unions, says the crime rate has fallen largely because gentrification is pushing out residents living on the margins. “Correlation is not causation,” he says.

Neighborhoods that were struggling with violence are being transformed. “The people are not there anymore,” Benson says. “That type of thing really has nothing to do at all with the police.”

Among their issues with the new force, activists note that while nearly 80 percent of Camden’s residents are Black or Latinx, the Metro police are mostly white and don’t live in the city. Benson argues that changes how they interact with residents.

If officers lived in the city, “you’re not just a cop. You’re also my neighbor,” Benson says. “And now you see me not as a potential criminal, but also as your neighbor.”

Another factor often overlooked in the Camden story is the increased reliance on surveillance, including license-plate-reading cameras, aerial surveillance, thermal-imaging equipment, and a city-wide web of CCTV cameras. Brendan McQuade, a professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine who studied the Camden County Police for his book on police intelligence systems, says Metro has turned to “soft social” policing and “mass supervision.”

“There’s a danger in the ‘defund’ discussion in assuming that uniformed, armed police are bad, soft social police are good,” says McQuade. The shift to “mass supervision,” McQuade says, is a cost-saving measure and a half-hearted approach to reform.

Hardwick, the NAACP treasurer, says the surveillance is “infringing on a lot of people’s rights” and increasing the number of minor arrests. Officials argue that “the people wanted these cameras. No, the people want to be safe.”

In 2011, then governor Chris Christie proposed eliminating the Camden police department as a cost saving measure, alongside tax incentives meant to bring in new businesses. By laying off police officers and rehiring them as county employees instead of city workers, Camden saved almost $90,000 per officer. With the savings, Thomson, the chief, hired hundreds of new officers at much lower salaries. That led to a big increase in arrests and summonses for minor crimes like tinted car windows or riding a bicycle without a bell.

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One Free Press Coalition Spotlights Journalists Under Attack – July 2020

In May 2019, WIRED joined the One Free Press Coalition, a united group of preeminent editors and publishers using their global reach and social platforms to spotlight journalists under attack worldwide. Today, the coalition is issuing its eighth monthly 10 Most Urgent list of journalists whose press freedoms are being suppressed or whose cases demand justice.

Here’s July’s list, ranked in order of urgency:

1. Maria Ressa (Philippines)
Filipino-US dual citizen sentenced in cyber libel case.

On June 15, a Manila court convicted Maria Ressa, editor of the privately owned Rappler news website, and Reynaldo Santos, a former researcher at the outlet, of cyber libel. The criminal offense requires each journalist to pay $7,950 in fines and moral damages as well as serve a jail term of six months to six years. Both are free on bail pending their appeal. The case arose from an article Rappler published in 2012 about a local businessman’s alleged ties to a former judge, who was later impeached for corruption, and purported links to drug and human trafficking rings.

2. Azimjon Askarov (Kyrgyzstan)
Award-winning human rights reporter imprisoned 10 years.

June 15 marked 10 years since ethnic Uzbek Azimjon Askarov was arrested on trumped-up charges that included incitement to ethnic hatred and complicity in the murder of a police officer. A Kyrgyz court heard the final appeal in his case in May and upheld his life sentence. His health is deteriorating in detention, with limited access to medication and mistreatment by prison officials. His wife, Khadicha Askarova, has written to Kyrgyzstan’s president pleading for his release.

3. Solafa Magdy (Egypt)
Nearly four months without updates from imprisoned journalist in deteriorating health.

No one has received news from freelance reporter Solafa Magdy since March 9. She has been imprisoned alongside her husband for six months and endured deliberate medical neglect while at heightened risk of contracting Covid-19 due to overcrowding and inhumane conditions in Egypt’s prisons. Officials have again delayed trial for charges of “membership of a banned group” and “spreading false news” for her multimedia reporting on human rights and illegal immigration.

4. Abdulkhaleq Amran, Akram al-Waleedi, Hareth Hameed, and Tawfiq al-Mansouri (Yemen)
Four journalists detained five years, now sentenced to death.

On April 11, Yemeni journalists Abdulkhaleq Amran, Akram al-Waleedi, Hareth Hameed and Tawfiq al-Mansouri were sentenced to death by the Ansar Allah group, known as the Houthis, after nearly five years in detention. The journalists were charged with spreading false news “in support of the crimes of Saudi aggression and its allies against the Republic of Yemen.” In June, the UN joined over 150 organizations calling for their release. Their lawyer plans to appeal.

5. Jean Bigirimana (Burundi)
Four years without information regarding journalist’s disappearance.

July 22 marks four years since reporter Jean Bigirimana went missing in the middle of the day after leaving his home in Bujumbura. He had received a phone call from a source in the country’s national intelligence service. He was working as a newspaper and online journalist with the independent Iwacu Press Group and previously with the pro-government radio station Rema FM. He has not been seen or heard from since 2016.

6. Norma Sarabia Garduza (Mexico)
Investigation idling in case of journalist murdered at her home one year ago.

June 11 marked one year since unknown attackers shot and killed reporter Norma Sarabia in her Huimanguillo residence, yet there has been little movement in the investigation announced on Twitter by the state attorney general’s office at the time. Sarabia, 46, was a correspondent in the Tabasco town near the border with Guatemala for the newspapers Diario Presente and Tabasco HOY. She is one of 54 journalists killed in Mexico between 1992 and 2020.

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In These Factories, Inspector Robot Will Check Your Work

The UK company P2i adds water-repelling nanocoatings to smartphones and other gadgets. Normally, it flies engineers to its clients’ factories to identify and solve quality-control problems.

That’s not an option in a world where flights are grounded, borders closed, and security tightened. So in some plants, P2i now relies on a system that uses artificial intelligence to look for even the slightest defects.

“Over the last four months, since the coronavirus, we’ve had to reevaluate how we are going to service and deploy our machines worldwide,” says Neal Harkrider, chief operating officer at P2i.

To spot problems, P2i is using technology from a company called Instrumental. Cameras dotted around P2i’s nano-coating machines examine smartphones after they’ve been treated, and an algorithm sounds an alert if the process appears to have gone awry.

“That vision system is our primary quality-control methodology now,” Harkrider says. He says the company can adjust its tolerance for error on the fly, “and we can do that remotely, which is fantastic.”

The pandemic has forced many manufacturers to rethink established practices. In some places, remote sensing and machine learning substitute for fewer visits, overnight package deliveries, and manual inspections. Robots may be far from displacing humans in manufacturing that requires nimble fingers and flexibility. But systems like the one used by P2i show how AI can help machines carve out niches in manufacturing.

Instrumental’s software lets manufacturers check the performance of a production line and automatically flags problems.

Courtesy of Instrumental

Before Covid-19, Harkrider says, most companies were reluctant to allow outsiders—including their own partners—to connect to their manufacturing equipment, for security reasons. Now, he says, five plants have allowed P2i’s machines, and Instrumental’s inspection technology, to be monitored and controlled remotely.

Bruce Lawler, managing director of the MIT Machine Intelligence for Manufacturing and Operations program, says the pandemic came as manufacturers already were warming to deploying automated inspection technology. “One of the big problems in manufacturing is ‘Where did the problem occur?’” he says. “If you can do more inspection more often, and have a camera on every robot, for every step, then you can say, ‘Well OK, that was here.’”

Manufacturers have long used computer vision to inspect products for defects or other problems, but this traditionally involved hand-coded rules for identifying flaws, making it time-consuming to deploy and change the equipment. Using AI, inspection systems can be fed examples of particular flaws or—as with Instumental’s system—be trained on what a product is supposed to look like and asked to identify abnormalities.

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Free Webinar: Is My Idea Any Good?

Do you have an idea for a business? Join seasoned entrepreneur and startup mentor, Gabe Zicherman, in this informative webinar to help you turn your idea into a winning idea. He’s helped bring thousands of ideas to life in his role as Director of the Founder Institute.

During the webinar, Gabe will cover:

  • What it takes to turn your idea into a successful new business.
  • Develop your concept and figure out your market opportunity
  • Get the right resources to make it happen.

*Based on our best-selling book, Start Your Own Business, we have launched a new on-demand start-up course, providing you with a step-by-step guide to starting your own business. Whether you’re ready or just thinking about it, get started for free.

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Let’s stop COVID-19 from undoing diversity gains

Any disaster will have its harshest repercussions on people who were already marginalized. It’s unsurprising, then, that when it comes to jobs and businesses, the COVID-19 lockdown is impacting women and ethnic minorities more than anyone else.

In April, unemployment shot up to 15.5% among women, 2.5% higher than for men. The rate was also higher among African Americans and Latinx people than for white people, with Latinx reaching a record 18.9% unemployment.

Women, especially from more disadvantaged backgrounds, are going to be taking the lion’s share of caregiving responsibilities at home during the pandemic, making them more vulnerable to job cuts. At the same time, underrepresented employees in general may feel more marginalized than ever as job security is put on the line.

It’s been hard to get to where we are on diversity and inclusion. Slowly but surely, diversity and inclusion have become a highly visible element of any company. But as COVID-19 turned up the pressure for businesses around the world, that progress came under threat as D&I initiatives took a back seat. The killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests reignited D&I efforts in magnitude, but how can we ensure that, as time passes, those efforts are maintained with energy and determination?

This may be the shock to the system that will make business leaders realize that diversity is not an accessory or PR stunt — it is an integral part of the daily lives of each and every member of your team. Today’s consumers and your co-workers demand socially conscious companies, which is why D&I is vital to making any startup a well-rounded business. It’s also imperative for supporting economic recovery on a larger scale. Forgetting to preserve and improve D&I as we battle through COVID-19 will not only set us back years in terms of equality, it will worsen our collective chances of getting through this turbulence unscathed.

D&I matters to your business’ survival

It’s understandable that most startups today will be in survival mode. But D&I cannot be cast aside as a nonessential part of your business. It’s quite the opposite. More diversity is a known indicator for better economic performance and improves a business’ chances of thriving through a recession.

We often hear about how diversity means more innovation in a company. Consider just how important this is today. Facing a crisis with no precedent, weighing up a variety of insights and solutions is vital to finding an intelligent lockdown strategy. As business leaders, we need to know what the world around us looks like right now, and that means knowing what people of all backgrounds are experiencing.

We also can’t afford to not take into consideration the long-term effects of today’s actions. Survival can’t mean usurping what your company stands for. If you sacrifice diversity now, you might retain employees for the time being, because they’re scared of being jobless. But you will have undermined the trust that your workers place in you and you will be sure to lose them far more easily once the situation eases. This is very true for customers too — the crisis is driving the public to support purpose-driven and diverse businesses more than ever, and you will be left out if you don’t meet those values.

Even if you’re not hiring, work on diversity and inclusion

So how can a startup keep diversity a priority in this strange new world? Sure, you may not be hiring, but that’s not the only way to improve diversity. Take this time to revisit your internal culture. The virus is forcing us to see our business from different angles — we’re looking into the homes of our co-workers, hearing about the personal issues affecting their work lives and about the work issues affecting their personal lives. Let’s make sure your company culture is not part of the problem.

You need to be accessible. Are some of your employees scared to speak up about their issues? Is there a big morale problem that you haven’t been able to alleviate? If so, then you need to work on making your workspace more inclusive, open and friendly. This is more than building up team spirit with morning coffee Zoom get-togethers and after-work networking. It’s about weeding out any systems that bring repercussions to people who voice their concerns; it’s about encouraging them to do so; it’s about recognizing every member of a team and every person in a meeting, not just the executives present.

The lockdown has shown that many people can work remotely, effectively. Can you use this in future to give employees a greater chance of success — perhaps those who live far from the office, or who have children or elderly relatives to care for? Many HR departments are probably focusing efforts away from hiring at the moment and could instead be put in charge of employee success, which means identifying and addressing the unique concerns of each of your staff (you might even consider assigning a full-time staff member to this role).

This is key to making your company a welcoming place for underrepresented employees who are often more wary of their circumstances than their co-workers, both now and in the future. It will help them grow and want to stay in the company, as well as attract a more diverse employee pool in the future.

In case you are hiring, there are innovative solutions to help you attract more diverse applicants to your company. Joonko’s technology integrates to your applicant tracking system to boost the visibility of underrepresented potential hires. Pitch.Me aims to tackle bias by presenting candidate profiles anonymously, including only relevant information about experience and skills but with no information regarding gender, age or ethnic background. Services like DiTal help tech businesses connect with potential employees from diverse backgrounds.

Reassess what internal success looks like

Before COVID-19, the key performance indicators for your business might have been the number of sales per rep, or the number of leads generated in a week. Those quotas are now unrealistic, and more importantly, they’ll be tougher to reach for employees with less time on their hands. That means people with more caregiving responsibilities — often women — or with less disposable income, and statistics show that people from ethnic minorities are more likely to be affected by the virus.

You have to create a work environment in which people with less time and resources can still achieve their professional goals. We typically hear that 80% of the most valuable work takes up 20% of a team’s time; well, let’s make sure your staff is focusing most of their efforts on that 20% of valuable energy. Build a new business plan that reassesses what the company needs to achieve in the near future, and set new metrics that hyperfocus on that bottom line. Think about how important it is to each of your co-workers’ morale to be able to meet their goals day in day out, despite today’s challenges. Furthermore, being adaptable for the benefit of your staff is an admirable quality that will not easily be forgotten.

An important note — helping everyone reach success means giving everyone the resources to do so. No one in your company should be unequipped to this “new normal,” which means good laptops or devices and speedy internet. Don’t hesitate to invest in people who need it.

Prioritize career development

Career development is vital for underrepresented employees, for whom upward mobility is always harder. People from minority backgrounds tend to have less robust business networks, exactly because they are the minority in the business world. We can never stop fighting this vicious cycle.

So take a look at your team and think about who you can help ascend in their career. Prioritize underrepresented people now because they are more likely to get hit harder by the lockdown and have a tougher recovery. Even if you don’t see it from an altruistic perspective, including underrepresented employees in your leadership now will lead to better economic local recovery and improved outcomes for your company.

One option is sponsorship programs in which you or other senior leaders advocate on behalf of selected employees (as well as acting as their mentors). Think of it as equally distributing the networks and influence accumulated by business leaders among a more diverse pool of people.

Bring diversity into your brand

We’ve looked inward, now let’s look outward. How can you change how your industry looks, even in times of crisis. To reach the huge visible changes we’ve seen in, for example, branding in the fashion industry, took influential people making decisions at powerful tables. But it would be ironically easy to see things regress to a more heterogeneous state.

Stopping this from happening means making those big decisions yourself, and uniting others in joining you. Leverage your brand and bring your internal diversity to the forefront of everything you do — the mentors who give their time to startup organizations, the speakers you put forward for online events. Make a conscious push for your external marketing to display as much diversity as possible, especially amid fears that the advertising space will compromise its diversity standards in response to COVID-19.

Support other underrepresented founders

If you have the resources, help struggling founders get through the lockdown. There may be small or mid-sized women or minority-led companies within your community that need your support. If you’re sending employees care packages and gifts, make the extra effort to source them from underrepresented local businesses. It’s not hard to do — there are organizations that can help you connect to such companies around the United States, such as Women Owned’s business directory and Help Main Street.

Large companies can work with Hello Alice to directly fund smaller companies founded by every underrepresented group in the United States, from veterans to LGBTQ+. IFundWomen is a large network of women-founded businesses you can choose to fund — or join — and it has a wing specifically for businesses owned by women of color. As a business leader you can always be seeking out diverse founders to collaborate with; For example, check out this amazing list of Latinx founders catering to the United States’ enormous Latinx markets, as well as finding solutions to improve diversity in business.

The NAACP has fought for equal rights for people of color for over a century. You can support them and their ongoing work, which ranges from campaigning for crucial reforms to spotlighting emerging Black-owned businesses.

Now’s not the time to slack on diversity. As tempting as it might be to think of it as an accessory, it’s just as vital now for your business to get through the pandemic and to stop your entire industry from losing decades of hard-earned progress in building a more equal society.

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An Infrastructure Arms Race Is Fueling the Future of Gaming

The future of gaming lives inside metal cages, if you believe some of the biggest gaming companies out there. Piled on hardware racks, blinking with little green lights, it’s calculated inside stacked-together computers and pumped out of a remote server through big underground tubes. It is distributed across the globe—Shanghai, London, Prague, Virginia—from nondescript, city block-sized architectural monoliths. To see it up close, you would need to pass through multiple levels of security.

Over the last two years, it seems every major gaming and tech company has launched a cloud gaming service: Microsoft’s Project xCloud, Sony’s PlayStation Now, Google’s Stadia, Nvidia’s GeForce Now, Tencent’s Start. Facebook and Amazon are reportedly sniffing around, too. For a monthly fee—$10 to $35—users can play a library of videogames on demand, streamed to their phone, television, console, computer, or tablet.

Big tech expects cloud gaming to be white hot, if the major ante they’ve pushed into it says anything. Like a lot of cutting-edge tech, it cloaks the technology behind the magic, giving you the impression that you’re barely dealing with hardware at all. It’s a charming effect. Don’t fall for it. In interviews with WIRED, the people behind some of cloud gaming’s biggest services and data center organizations lifted the curtain on the infrastructure powering these immaterial services. Many agree that, as competition becomes more fierce, and cloud gaming sees mass adoption, success in cloud gaming could mean an infrastructure arms race.

“We live in a culture of ‘instant’ when it comes to any kind of electronic media,” says Microsoft corporate vice president of cloud gaming Kareem Choudhry. He was winding up for the cloud gaming pitch: Of the world’s eight billion human beings, over two billion are gamers. Gaming is as culturally impactful as music, television, and movies. And until cloud gaming, there was no mass-market Netflix for videogames—on-demand content that’s device-agnostic. Besides, says Choudhry, “We know we’re not going to sell two billion consoles.”

Take something as simple as piloting the Witcher 3’s Geralt a few steps to the left in a cloud gaming service. Flicking the controller’s analog stock initiates a ping-pong of invisible signals to an uber-powerful and remote computer: from the controller, through the internet, to the cloud gaming service’s nearest data center and then the cloud gaming server, which processes your action and calculates a new game state—which it then feeds back to your monitor, where Geralt has inched closer to the bar.

Cloud gaming is software as a service. That service is two-pronged: a library of videogames the cloud service provider has negotiated with game publishers, and a way to stream those games over the internet. This culture of “instant” has generated big demands for that delivery service: low-latency, so you can dodge a combo in Street Fighter V; and no packet loss, so your very alive-seeming Overwatch character isn’t suddenly dead. While a service’s performance depends in part on your home internet situation—and will change with the arrival of 5G, at least on your phone—much of its lasting success will hinge on data taking as short and uninterrupted a round trip as possible from your hardware to a data center.

“It’s everything besides bandwidth, second only to bandwidth,” says David Linthicum, Deloitte’s chief cloud strategy officer, of the importance of data centers to cloud gaming competitors. “The company that provides the fastest infrastructure and the largest points of presence in data centers around the world. That’s gonna go to who’s gonna be successful.”

If you’re playing God of War in Egypt, but your cloud gaming service’s closest data center is in Qatar, there might be enough delay between your inputs and Kratos’s movements to emotionally disconnect you from gameplay. Sending an ax-slash signal from the United States’ East to West Coast takes 40 to 60 milliseconds; enough time for frustration to creep in. To give as many people as possible the best latency possible, you need to own or rent space from a lot of well-located data centers. “The slightest increase in latency, lag, or jitter can send early adopters away from these new platforms and back to their consoles and PCs,” says Jennifer Curry, the senior vice president of product and technology at data center colocation company INAP. “Just 20 to 30 additional milliseconds can be the difference between a top-tier and unviable service.”

Yet cloud-gaming-capable data centers can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. They need to be central to large populations—inside or nearby cities—require fiber optic connectivity, and eat up immense amounts of power, including for cooling. They can be huge; Microsoft owns a Dublin data center that’s 550,000 square feet, nearly 10 football fields. On top of size and location, these facilities require top-of-the-line hardware, security, maintenance. And gaming servers are specialized with powerful graphics cards and other high-octane tech ensuring low latency, beyond what might be expected from a server that hosts Google Docs. It’s a gargantuan risk to invest all of that cash in infrastructure supporting a not-quite-mainstream-yet technology. At the dawn of cloud gaming, some tech companies are better set up than others to succeed in an industry so reliant on infrastructure.

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An Ohio City’s Campaign Got More People to Buy Electric Cars

In 2016, the city of Columbus, Ohio, won a nationwide Department of Transportation challenge and was named America’s first smart city. This contest was not just for bragging rights, like some kind of Mensa for municipalities; the award came with $40 million in DOT funding for testing better transportation policies, with an additional $10 million from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. As part of Smart Columbus’ plans to make moving around more safely more sustainable, the foundation asked the city to increase adoption of battery electric cars and plug-in hybrids through an electrification program. And it succeeded.

ARS TECHNICA

This story originally appeared on Ars Technica, a trusted source for technology news, tech policy analysis, reviews, and more. Ars is owned by WIRED’s parent company, Condé Nast.

The electrification program, which Ars wrote about last year, involved several different approaches to getting more local residents to switch to battery electric vehicles. The city assembled a fleet of 12 BEVs and PHEVs for a “ride and drive” road show, visiting communities and places of work to give people an opportunity to try out an EV—something that just under 12,000 people did over the course of two years.
The city created an experience center with a second fleet of test-drive plug-ins. This provided another 400 people with test drives from 2018 but also entertained more than 30,000 visitors from opening, educating them about alternative powertrains as well as shared mobility. On top of that, Smart Columbus conducted an online education campaign and worked with 35 area car dealerships, training staff so they could sell EVs. And finally, it worked with the local utility, AEP Ohio, to build out public level 2 and DC fast charging infrastructure in the region.

In 2016, before the grant was awarded, BEV and PHEV sales were just 0.4 percent in the seven-county region. When the electrification program began in April 2017, the goal was to boost this to 1.8 percent of new vehicle sales—or 3,200 EVs—by March 2020. And it worked; over the course of those 35 months, 3,323 new BEVs and PHEVs found homes in the region. Plug-in sales actually reached as high as 2.4 percent in Q4 2018 and 1.6 percent in Q4 2019. (2019 was a disappointing year nationally for plug-in sales, so we can forgive the year-on-year decrease.) Smart Columbus estimates that the program will cut carbon emissions by 1,850 tons over 10 years.

The outreach program also helped increase the odds that other locals will switch to electric powertrains too. Favorable perceptions of BEVs and PHEVs rose from October 2017 to March 2020 (BEVs: 48 percent to 62 percent; PHEVs: 57 percent to 65 percent). And whereas in October 2017, only a third of those surveyed said they were somewhat or extremely likely to purchase a BEV or a PHEV, by March 2020 that had grown to just over half.

“We’re thrilled to see the progress and success of the smart city program over the years,” said Paul Keating, senior director of philanthropy at Vulcan, the company that oversees the business and charitable activities of the late Paul Allen. “Columbus has demonstrated how a region can develop new transport systems through innovation to reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. And in doing so, Columbus has created a model that can be replicated nationwide.”

This story originally appeared on Ars Technica.


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Amazon Shakes Up the Race for Self-Driving—and Ride-Hailing

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi says his company wants to be the “Amazon for transportation.” Friday, Amazon made clear that it intends to be the Amazon for transportation.

The ecommerce giant said it had agreed to acquire Bay Area–based autonomous vehicle company Zoox, a deal reportedly worth more than $1 billion. (Amazon did not respond to WIRED’s queries.) Since its founding in 2014, Zoox has been known for its technical chops, its secretiveness, and its sky-high ambition. While Alphabet’s Waymo is focusing on self-driving tech and leaving the car building to places like Detroit, Zoox has stuck to its plan to design a robotaxi from the ground up—and operate a ride-hail service. In 2018, it showed off its first prototype vehicles, which look like sensor-laden golf carts on steroids. The company has also been testing its software on more conventional-looking Toyota Highlanders in San Francisco, where it is learning to handle chaotic city streets.

In a press release, Amazon signaled that it will not stray from Zoox’s formidable self-driving goals. “We’re acquiring Zoox to help bring their vision of autonomous ride hailing to reality,” it wrote in the headline. Jeff Wilke, Amazon CEO of global consumer, said in a statement that “Zoox is working to imagine, invent, and design a world-class autonomous ride-hailing experience.”

Which means the autonomous-taxi race just got more interesting. Amazon’s entrance to the space “is an existential threat to Uber and Lyft,” says Asad Hussain, a mobility tech analyst at the market analytics company Pitchbook.

In theory, autonomous vehicles and ride-hail services go hand in hand. As Uber and Lyft struggle to iron out the economics of trips, both continue to spend millions each year recruiting and retaining drivers. Moves by states including New York and California to require those drivers to be considered employees further threaten their business models. A self-driving car wouldn’t need a driver.

But lately, robotaxis have seemed to hit a rut, as the tech has proved more challenging than tech and auto executives once promised. In the last two years, well-funded competitors like Uber, Lyft, Waymo, Cruise (a subsidiary of General Motors), and ArgoAI (which is owned in part by Ford and Volkswagen) have delayed their timelines for deploying self-driving vehicles. Amazon acquired Zoox for well below its 2018 valuation of $3.2 billion.

Today, only Waymo is running an commercial, autonomous ride-hail service, only in the Phoenix metro area, and only occasionally without someone in the driver’s seat monitoring the nascent tech. In 2015, Chris Urmson, a former Google self-driving head who later cofounded self-driving startup Aurora, suggested his 11-year-old son might never need a driver’s license; the son has started learning to drive. Just this week, Aurora signaled it would shift its focus away from self-driving taxis and toward self-driving trucks. “If you want to get to market with a safe system quickly, you can do no better than to start in trucking,” Aurora cofounder Sterling Anderson said at an event hosted by The Information.

The WIRED Guide to Self-Driving Cars

How a chaotic skunkworks race in the desert launched what’s poised to be a runaway global industry.

If Amazon pushes ahead with its own ride-hail network using Zoox vehicles, the company may have some built-in advantages. In a note published a month ago, after The Wall Street Journal first reported that the Zoox deal was in the works, Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak wrote that the company could offer discounts to its 100-million-plus Prime members, as it does at Whole Foods. He also theorized that Amazon could jump ahead of automakers, whose ability to pay for moon-shot tech like autonomous vehicles has waned during the Covid-19–induced recession. “In a post-Covid world, we believe fewer and more powerful players will be in position to deploy capital and talent to solving autonomy with a ‘play to win’ mindset,” Nowak wrote.

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