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April 22, 2019
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JD founder cautions logistics business must tighten belt

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Alibaba’s arch-foe JD.com has long prided itself on owning and controlling its logistics services: couriers are treated as in-house staff and paid a basic income. But that will end soon as costs keep piling up for the ecommerce giant.

In an internal letter sent to the staff on Monday, JD founder and chief executive Richard Liu said the company will scrap basic salary for couriers as net loss amounted to 2.8 billion yuan ($420 million) in 2018 at JD’s logistics unit.

“The main reason is we had too few orders externally and too high a cost internally,” said Liu. “You all know that the last two years have been quite difficult for the company. We have been in the loss for more than ten years. If losses continue, JD Logistics only has two years of runway left with its capital raised.”

“I don’t think any of our delivery brothers want the company to go bankrupt,” Liu added.

JD Logistics became a standalone business in 2017 and subsequently raised billions of dollars from investors. JD still owns an 81.4 percent stake in the logistics arm, which was valued at around $13.5 billion at the time it raised $2.5 billion in February 2018.

Going forward, JD Logistics will continue to pay social insurances on behalf of its couriers, whose income is now based on the number of packages they handle. Liu assured that the old basic pay accounted for just 10 percent of the delivery staff’s total income so his goal is not to cut but boost salary for them, and eventually for JD Logistics as well.

But couriers are feeling the heat. Monthly pay used to average 7,000 yuan ($1,043) to 8,000 yuan, a Shenzhen-based courier told TechCrunch. Under the new scheme, he and his regional colleagues are earning 5,000 yuan to 6,000 yuan. Liu said in the letter that it’s “up to the couriers” to vie for better salaries, but it’s unclear how they can secure more packages in practice. JD said it has no comment on the issues addressed in Liu’s letter.

JD delivery staff are assigned on a regional basis. Assuming the number of parcels that go out of a region stays relatively constant, couriers can’t do much to boost their piecework wage. Already, some couriers have devised cheats that involve mailing parcels to themselves and rejecting them at delivery in order to jack up income, TechCrunch has learned.

JD Logistics

Photo source: JD Logistics via Weibo

China’s express delivery market, like many other fledgling industries, is a relentless race that sees players offer heavily subsidized prices for customers to stay competitive. JD is going against companies like Alibaba that enlist a consortium of third-party contracted couriers rather than hiring their own to keep costs down.

JD’s fourth-quarter cost of revenues grew 20.7 percent to $16.8 billion, mainly driven by expenses related to logistics services alongside its online direct sales business, the company’s earnings report revealed. The Amazon-like service is finding ways to bulk up revenues by opening its logistics service to third-party clients as well as expanding overseas.

“It’s just a matter of time that JD will remove couriers’ minimum income. It can’t increase the price for customers, so it’s passing the cost to the couriers,” said Alex Cheong, founder and chief executive of Web2Ship, a service that enables price comparisons across different express shipping services, told TechCrunch.

“In China, the only thing [courier companies] can play is the volume game. There’s this mentality that as volume goes up, companies will get more efficient, and costs will lower. But growth is actually slowing,” Cheong warned.

The income restructuring at JD’s logistics arm comes amid a widespread layoff across the parent company to remove low-performers, or what Liu labeled as “slackers.” JD is namechecked as one of China’s internet companies working 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week, or “996”, a demanding schedule that has prompted an online protest.

JD denied that it practices the “996” routine though it sees itself as “a competitive workplace that rewards initiative and hard work” which is consistent with its “entrepreneurial roots,” a JD spokesperson told TechCrunch earlier.

The ecommerce titan has long promoted its in-house logistics arm as offering “quality” service, so it remains to see how the removal of basic income will affect couriers’ morale. But one thing is for sure. Under the piece rate system, JD knows its exact labor cost per unit and avoids paying for employees’ idle time.

News Source = techcrunch.com

China’s grocery delivery battle heats up with Meituan’s entry

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Fast, affordable food delivery service has been life-changing for many working Chinese, but some still prefer to whip up their own meals. These people may not have the time to pick up fresh ingredients from brick-and-mortar stores, so China’s startups and large companies are trying to make home-cooked meals more effortless for busy workers by sending vegetables and meats to apartment doors.

The fresh grocery sector in China recorded 4.93 trillion yuan ($730 billion) in total sales last year, growing steadily from 3.37 trillion yuan in 2012 according to data collected by Euromonitor and Hua Chuang Securities. Most of these transactions still happen inside wet markets and supermarkets, leaving online retail, which accounted for only 3 percent of total grocery sales in 2016, much room for growth.

Ecommerce leaders Alibaba and JD.com have already added grocery to their comprehensive online shopping malls, nestling in the market with more focused players like Tencent-backed MissFresh (每日优鲜), which has raised $1.4 billion to date. The field has just grown a little more crowded with new entrant Meituan, the Tencent-backed food delivery and hotel booking giant that raised $4.2 billion through a Hong Kong listing last year.

Screenshots of the Meituan Maicai app / Image: Meituan Maicai

The service, which comes in a new app called “Meituan Maicai” or Meituan grocery shopping that’s separate from the company’s all-in-one app, set out in Shanghai in January before it muscled into Beijing last week. The move follows Meituan’s announcement in its mid-2018 financial report to get in on grocery delivery.

Meituan’s solution to take grocery the last mile is not too different from those of its peers. Users pick from its 1,500 stock keeping units ranging from yogurt to pork loin, fill their in-app shopping carts and pay via their phones, the firm told TechCrunch. Meituan then dispatches its delivery fleets to people’s doors in as little as 30 minutes.

The instant delivery is made possible by a satellite of physical “service stations” across neighborhoods that serve warehousing, packaging and delivering purposes. Placing offline hubs alongside customers also allows data-driven internet firms to optimize warehouse stocking based on local user preferences. For instance, people from an upscale residential area probably eat and shop differently from those in other parts of the city.

Meituan’s foray into grocery shopping further intensifies its battle with Alibaba to control how Chinese people eat. Alibaba’s Hema Supermarket has been running on a similar setup that uses its neighborhood stores as warehouses and fulfillment centers to facilitate 30-minute delivery within a three-kilometer radius. For years, Meituan’s food delivery arm has been going neck-and-neck with Ele.me, which Alibaba scooped up last year. More recently, Alibaba and Meituan are racing to get restaurants to sign up for their proprietary software, which can supposedly give owners more insights into diners and beef up customer engagement.

As part of its goal to be an “everything” app, Meituan has tried out many new initiatives in the lead-up to its initial public offering but was also quick to put them on hold. The firm acquired bike-sharing service Mobike last April only to shutter its operations across Asia in less than a year for cost-saving. Meituan also paused expansion on its much-anticipated ride-hailing business.

But grocery delivery appears to be closer to Meituan’s heart, the “eating” business, to put in its own words. Meituan is tapping its existing infrastructure to get the job done, for example, by summoning its food delivery drivers to serve the grocery service during peak hours. As the company noted in its earnings report last year, the grocery segment could leverage its “massive user base and existing world’s largest intra-city on-demand delivery network.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Aurora cofounder and CEO Chris Urmson on the company’s new investor, Amazon, and much more

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You might not think of self-driving technologies and politics having much in common, but at least in one way, they overlap meaningfully: yesterday’s enemy can be tomorrow’s ally.

Such was the message we gleaned Thursday night, at a small industry event in San Francisco, where we had the chance to sit down with Chris Urmson, the cofounder and CEO of Aurora, a company that (among many others) is endeavoring to make self-driving technologies a safer and more widely adopted alternative to human drivers.

It was a big day for Urmson. Earlier the same day, his two-year-old company announced a whopping $530 million in Series B funding, a round that was led by top firm Sequoia Capital and that included “significant investment” from T. Rowe Price and Amazon.

The financing for Aurora — which is building what it calls a “driver” technology that it expects to eventually integrate into cars built by Volkswagen, Hyundai, and China’s Byton, among others —  is highly notable, even in a sea of giant fundings. Not only does it represent Sequoia’s biggest bet yet on any kind of self-driving technology, it’s also an “incredible endorsement” from T. Rowe Price, said Urmson Thursday night, suggesting it demonstrates that the money management giant “thinks long term and strategically [that] we’re the independent option to self-driving cars.”

Even more telling, perhaps, is the participation of Amazon, which is in constant competition to be the world’s most valuable company, and whose involvement could lead to variety of scenarios down the road, from Aurora powering delivery fleets overseen by Amazon, to Amazon acquiring Aurora outright. Amazon has already begun marketing more aggressively to global car companies and Tier 1 suppliers that are focused on building connected products, saying its AWS platform can help them speed their pace of innovation and lower their cost structures. In November, it also debuted a global, autonomous racing league for 1/18th scale, radio-controlled, self-driving four-wheeled race cars that are designed to help developers learn about reinforcement learning, a type of machine learning. Imagine what it could learn from Aurora.

Indeed, at the event, Urmson said that as Aurora had “constructed our funding round, [we were] very much thinking strategically about how to be successful in our mission of building a driver. And one thing that a driver can do is move people, but it can also move goods. And it’s harder to think of a company where moving goods is more important than Amazon.” Added Urmson, “Having the opportunity to have them partner with us in this funding round, and [talk about] what we might build in the future is awesome.” (Aurora’s site also now features language about “transforming the way people and goods move.”)

The interest of Amazon, T. Rowe, Sequoia and Aurora’s other backers isn’t surprising. Urmson was the formal technical lead of Google’s self-driving car program (now Waymo) . One of his cofounders, Drew Bagnell, is a machine learning expert who still teaches at Carnegie Mellon and was formerly the head of Uber’s autonomy and perception team. Aurora’s third cofounder is Sterling Anderson, the former program manager of Tesla’s Autopilot team.

Aurora’s big round seemingly spooked Tesla investors, in fact, with shares in the electric car maker dropping as a media outlets reported on the details. The development seems like just the type of possibility that had Tesla CEO Elon Musk unsettled when Aurora got off the ground a couple of years ago, and Tesla almost immediately filed a lawsuit against it, accusing Urmson and Anderson of trying poach at least a dozen Tesla engineers and accusing Anderson of taking confidential information and destroying the  evidence “in an effort to cover his tracks.”

That suit was dropped two and a half weeks later in a settlement that saw Aurora pay $100,000. Anderson said at the time the amount was meant to cover the cost of an independent auditor to scour Aurora’s systems for confidential Tesla information. Urmson reiterated on Thursday night that it was purely an “economic decision” meant to keep Aurora from getting further embroiled in an expansive spat.

But Urmson, who has previously called the lawsuit “classy,” didn’t take the bait on Thursday when asked about Musk, including whether he has talked in the last two years with Musk (no), and whether Aurora might need Tesla in the future (possibly). Instead of lord Aurora’s momentum over the company, Urmson said that Aurora and Tesla “got off on the wrong foot.” Laughing a bit, he went on to lavish some praise on the self-driving technology that lives inside Tesla cars, adding that “if there’s an opportunity to work them in the future, that’d be great.”

Aurora, which is also competing for now against the likes of Uber, also sees Uber as a potential partner down the line, said Urmson. Asked about the company’s costly self-driving efforts, whose scale has been drastically downsized in the eleven months since one of its vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, Urmson noted simply that Aurora is “in the business of delivering the driver, and Uber needs a lot of drivers, so we think it would be wonder to partner with them, to partner with Lyft, to partner [with companies with similar ambitions] globally. We see those companies as partners in the future.”

He’d added when asked for more specifics that there’s “nothing to talk about right now.”

Before Thursday’s event, Aurora had sent us some more detailed information about the four divisions that currently employ the 200 people that make up the company, a number that will obviously expand with its new round, as will the testing it’s doing, both on California roads and in Pittsburgh, where it also has a sizable presence. We didn’t have a chance to run them during our conversation with Urmson, but we thought they were interesting and that you might think so, too.

Below, for example, is the “hub” of the Aurora Driver. This is the computer system that powers, coordinates and fuses signals from all of the vehicle’s sensors, executes the software and controls the vehicle. Aurora says it’s designing the Aurora Driver to seamlessly integrate with a wide variety of vehicle platforms from different makes, models and classes with the goal of delivering the benefits of its technology broadly.

Below is a visual representation of Aurora’s perception system, which the company says is able to understand complex urban environments where vehicles need to safely navigate amid many moving objects, including bikes, scooters, pedestrians, and cars.

It didn’t imagine it would at the outset, but Aurora is building its own mapping system to ensure what it (naturally) calls the highest level of precision and scalability, so vehicles powered by the company can understand where they are and update the maps as the world changes.

We asked Urmson if, when the tech is finally ready to go into cars, they will white-label the technology or else use Aurora’s brand as a selling point. He said the matter hasn’t been decided yet but seemed to suggest that Aurora is leaning in the latter direction. He also said the technology would be installed on the carmakers’ factory floors (with Aurora’s help).

One of the ways that Aurora says it’s able to efficiently develop a robust “driver” is to build its own simulation system. It uses its simulator to test its software with different scenarios that vehicles encounter on the road, which it says enables repeatable testing that’s impossible to achieve by just driving more miles.

Aurora’s motion planning team works closely with the perception team to create a system that both detects the important objects on and around the road, and tries to accurately predict how they will move in the future. The ability to capture, understand, and predict the motion of other objects is critical if the tech is going to navigate real world scenarios in dense urban environments, and Urmson has said in the past that Aurora has crafted its related workflow in a way that’s superior to competitors that send the technology back and forth.

Specifically, he told The Atlantic last year: “The classic way you engineer a system like this is that you have a team working on perception. They go out and make it as good as they can and they get to a plateau and hand it off to the motion-planning people. And they write the thing that figures out where to stop or how to change a lane and it deals with all the noise that’s in the perception system because it’s not seeing the world perfectly. It has errors. Maybe it thinks it’s moving a little faster or slower than it is. Maybe every once in a while it generates a false positive. The motion-planning system has to respond to that.

“So the motion-planning people are lagging behind the perception people, but they get it all dialed in and it’s working well enough—as well as it can with that level of perception—and then the perception people say, ‘Oh, but we’ve got a new push [of code].’ Then the motion-planning people are behind the eight ball again, and their system is breaking when it shouldn’t.”

We also asked Urmson about Google, whose self-driving unit was renamed Waymo as it spun out from the Alphabet umbrella as its own company. He was highly diplomatic, saying only good things about the company and, when asked if they’d ever challenged him on anything since leaving, answering that they had not.

Still, he told as one of the biggest advantage that Aurora enjoys is that it was able to use the learnings of its three founders and to start from scratch, whereas the big companies from which each has come cannot completely start over.

As he told TechCrunch in a separate interview last year when asked how Aurora tests its technology, then it comes to self-driving tech, size matters less than one might imagine. “There’s this really easy metric that everyone is using, which is number of miles driven, and it’s one of those things that was really convenient for me in my old place [Google] because we’re out there and we were doing a hell of a lot more than anybody else was at the time, and so it was an easy number to talk about. What’s lost in that, though, is it’s not really the volume of the miles that you drive.” It’s about the quality of the data, he’d continued, suggesting that, for now, at least, Aurora’s is hard to beat.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Uber Freight co-founders and top dealmakers join logistics startup Turvo

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Last year, Charlie Bergevin and Brian Cristol, co-founders of Uber’s trucking logistics business Uber Freight, heard Reid Hoffman say Turvo had some of the best technology he had ever seen. Frustrated with the direction Uber Freight had taken, they called up Turvo’s founder and chief executive officer Eric Gilmore.

It wasn’t long before offers were on the table and now, they’ve joined Turvo full-time. Cristol as head of enterprise partnerships and Bergevin as an enterprise partnerships executive. Bin Chang, a founding engineer at Uber Freight, is joining Turvo, too, a move I’m told Cristol and Bergevin were unaware of until they’d already accepted roles at the venture-funded startup. Chang begins Feb. 11.

“Brian and Charlie … have contributed so much to incubate this business and scale it to where we are today,” Uber Freight chief Lior Ron wrote in an internal email to employees shared with TechCrunch. “They were always on the forefront of exploration and innovation and were able to constantly push themselves, and all of us, to the next frontier.”

Cristol and Bergevin were Uber’s first B2B sales hires when they joined the ride-hailing firm in 2016. Tasked with finding product market fit for Uber’s final-mile businesses under the ‘Uber Everything’ initiative, they began learning about the truckload transportation and logistics industry. That’s when they linked up with Curtis Chambers, Uber’s long-time director of engineering. Together, the trio pitched their idea for a logistics business unit within Uber to then CEO Travis Kalanick.

Turvo’s real-time logistics platform.

Today, Uber Freight has roughly 750 employees and $1 billion in revenue. While the loss of two of its key dealmakers, who established relationships with Uber Freight’s Fortune 1000 customers, is cause for concern, Cristol and Bergevin suggested the unit is a rocket ship waiting to take off. 

“Uber Freight has by far the biggest market size and is by far the newest and it was made from scratch,” Bergevin told TechCrunch in reference to other Uber-branded businesses. “Sure we had the brand but with Uber Eats we had drivers, too, this was starting from scratch.”

So why are they leaving? The pair told TechCrunch they simply don’t feel like they are solving enough of the key issues plaguing the industry, particularly legacy systems. Uber Freight, for its part, focuses on freight brokerage, optimizing for top-line revenue. The business automates the backend operations that exist in transportation and truckload brokerage today, aggregating trucking fleets via the Uber Freight app and connecting drivers with shippers.

Turvo, on the other hand, works across the supply chain. The company, which has raised a total of $88.6 million at a $435 million valuation, according to PitchBook, helps shippers, brokers and carriers work together in real time using a software interface on their desktops and mobile phones. Turvo emerged from stealth two years ago with a $25 million Series A led by Activant Capital, with participation from Felicis Ventures, Upside Partnership, Slow Ventures and more. In November, the startup closed a Series B funding of $60 million led by Mubadala Ventures.

“Turvo’s platform is providing this solution to legacy logistics platforms and really maximizing all parts of the supply chain, not just pieces of it, which we were accustomed to at Uber,” Cristol told TechCrunch. “We were excited about how Turvo was innovating around the nucleus of logistics.”

Cristol and Bergevin officially began work at Turvo last week.

News Source = techcrunch.com

It’s the golden age of traditional retail, not its end days

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A lot of people that will say that traditional retail is dying. They’ll point to the rising prominence of e-commerce, which accounts for under 10% of total retail in the U.S. and a whopping 15% or more of total retail in China, as diminishing opportunities for traditional retail. But the reality is that, thanks to technology, the future of traditional retail has never been brighter.

Today, brick-and-mortar retailers not only have unprecedented insight as to what is happening in their stores – from customer behavior, to traffic flow, and more, they also have an arsenal of new tools to keep raising the bar for the customer experience. This transformation can be looked at from three angles: Smart consumption, smart supply chain and smart logistics.

Smart consumption is blurring the boundaries of online and offline for retailers and customers alike. With AR/VR technology in offline stores, customers can walk into a store, and virtually ‘try on’ an article of clothing, for example, without ever visiting a fitting room. Similarly, while sitting at home, they can virtually place a treadmill in their living room to determine the best fit. IoT has even made it possible for customers to make purchases from the comfort of their cars. At every step of the way, the goal is to improve customer retention and loyalty.

Equally as important, smart supply chain is helping retailers improve operational efficiency by leaps and bounds. Whereas traditional retail requires a fair amount of guesswork — what will customers like, how many of each individual item will they want to buy, and over which time period — smart supply chain driven by AI and big data means that retailers have a much better sense of what customers actually want, and when they want it. With dynamic information about sales, pricing and inventory, brands can improve their time to market, inventory control and product design, and retailers can make smarter decisions about their offerings, making the most of confined physical retail spaces.

But if retailers can’t get products into customers’ hands quickly and cost effectively, then all of the efficiency of smart consumption and supply chain is of no use. It is imperative that behind all of the glitzy offline technology and supply chain algorithms, are extremely efficient logistics.

From smart warehousing, which ensures products get moved out and on their way to the customer as fast as possible, to autonomous delivery vehicles, which make urban delivery more efficient through being able to avoid traffic and follow scheduled routes, to drones, smart logistics work their magic behind the scenes to get products to customers’ doors.

Businesses that embrace innovative technology and invest in it wisely will have a better chance of being a step ahead of the competition and their likelihood of success will be magnified.

Technology is no longer just a support for retail. It is the essential tool for retailers to thrive in the market.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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