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President Joe Biden commits to replacing entire federal fleet with electric vehicles

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President Joe Biden said Monday the U.S. government would replace the entire federal fleet of cars, trucks and SUVs with electric vehicles manufactured in the United States, a commitment tied to a broader campaign promise to create 1 million new jobs in the American auto industry and supply chains.

The commitment, if it bears out, could give a boost to U.S. automakers, particularly those that have diverse portfolios that include passenger cars, commercial vans and light trucks.

Biden made the comments prior to signing the Made in America executive order, which places stricter rules on the federal government’s procurement practices. The government has existing “buy American” rules, which states that a certain amount of a product must be made in the U.S. for a purchase to qualify for a federal contract.

Biden said this order closes loopholes and aims to increase purchases of products made in the United States. The executive order increases that product threshold and the price preference for domestic goods — meaning the difference in price from which the government can buy a product for a non-U.S. supplier. It also updates the process for how the government decides if a product was sufficiently made in America.

In the midst of his speech, Biden said the buy American directive would extend to the federal government’s massive fleet of vehicles.

“The federal government also owns an enormous fleet of vehicles, which we’re going to replace with clean electric vehicles made right here in America, by American workers, creating millions of jobs — a million auto worker jobs.”

The opportunity is a large one. The U.S. government had more than 645,000 vehicles in its fleet in 2019, the most recent data available from the General Services Agency. Of those, about 224,000 are passenger vehicles and more than 412,000 are trucks.

“GSA is committed to exploring opportunities to leverage the purchasing and leasing power of the federal government to address the climate crisis, including greening the federal fleet,” a GSA spokesperson told TechCrunch in an emailed statement. “GSA currently manages over 224,000 passenger vehicles in its fleet to support the Federal Government’s mission. By leveraging clean energy vehicle technologies, GSA will support the President’s climate goals, while working with the American automotive manufacturing industry to ensure that these next generation vehicles are built in America by American workers.”

The directive won’t be easy to fulfill. Many of these federal vehicles are leased, which could slow the transition depending on the contract lengths. There are other obstacles, including charging infrastructure and supply. And while it doesn’t appear to be a requirement, Biden has publicly stated numerous times — including Monday — that he supports union automotive jobs.

Tesla is considered the dominant U.S. manufacturer of electric vehicles. However, the company’s lack of union workers and the higher cost of its vehicles — even the less expensive Model 3 — could be a barrier.

Ford and GM might not have a vast supply of electric vehicles at the moment, but they do have union shops and both automakers are investing heavily to expand their EV offerings.

GM launched a new business unit earlier this month to offer commercial customers an ecosystem of electric and connected products as part of the company’s $27 billion bid to become a leading electric automaker. The new business, called BrightDrop, will begin with two main products: an electric van called the EV600 with an estimate range of 250 miles and a pod-like electric pallet dubbed EP1.

GM has said it plans to bring 30 new electric vehicles to a global market through 2025. More than two-thirds of those launches will be available in North America and every one of GM’s brands, including Cadillac, GMC, Chevrolet and Buick, will be represented, according to the automaker.

Meanwhile, Ford revealed in November a configurable all-electric cargo van called the E-Transit as part of its $11.5 billion investment in electrification. Ford has largely focused its electrification efforts on the consumer market, notably the Mustang Mach-E. The E-Transit, which will be built at its Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, Missouri, is aimed at the commercial sector.

There are a growing number of newer EV entrants as well, including Rivian, Lordstown Motors and Fisker. Rivian is expected to begin producing and delivering its electric pickup truck in July, followed by its all-electric SUV. Rivian is also developing and assembling electric vans for Amazon.

Biden’s call to transform the fleet supports statements he made throughout his campaign. Biden pledged to “use all the levers of the federal government,” including purchasing power, R&D, tax, trade, and investment policies to position the U.S. to be the global leader in the manufacture of electric vehicles and their input materials and parts.

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Comcast hides upload speeds deep inside its infuriating ordering system

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An NBC peacock logo is on the loose and hiding behind the corner of a brick building.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

Comcast just released a 2020 Network Performance Data report with stats on how much Internet usage rose during the pandemic, and it said that upload use is growing faster than download use. “Peak downstream traffic in 2020 increased approximately 38 percent over 2019 levels and peak upstream traffic increased approximately 56 percent over 2019 levels,” Comcast said.

But while upload use on Comcast’s network quickly grows—driven largely by videoconferencing among people working and learning at home—the nation’s largest home-Internet provider with over 30 million customers advertises its speed tiers as if uploading doesn’t exist. Comcast’s 56 percent increase in upstream traffic made me wonder if the company will increase upload speeds any time soon, so I checked out the Xfinity website today to see the current upload speeds. Getting that information was even more difficult than I expected.

The Xfinity website advertises cable-Internet plans with download speeds starting at 25Mbps without mentioning that upstream speeds are just a fraction of the downstream ones. I went through Comcast’s online ordering system today and found no mention of upload speeds anywhere. Even clicking “pricing & other info” and “view plan details” links to read the fine print on various Internet plans didn’t reveal upload speeds.

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Bank of America is bringing VR instruction to its 4,000 banks

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As consumer VR begins to have a moment following years of heavy investment from Facebook and other tech giants, corporate America is similarly beginning to find more utility in the technology, as well.

Bank of America announced today that they’ll be working with Bay Area-based VR startup Strivr to bring more of their workplace training into virtual reality. The financial institution has already used the startup’s tech in a pilot effort with about 400 employees, but a wide-scale rollout means scaling the VR learning platform to more of the company’s 45,000 employees and bringing thousands of VR headsets to its bank branches.

Bank of America exec John Jordan has plenty of ideas of where it will be able to implement the technology most effectively, but is open to experimenting early-on, noting that they’ve developed VR lessons for everything from notary services to fraud detection. Jordan also says that they’re working on more ambitious tasks like helping employees practice empathy with customers dealing with sensitive matters like the death of a relative.

Jordan says the scope of the company’s corporate learning program “The Academy” is largely unmatched among other major companies in the U.S., except perhaps by the employee instruction programs at Walmart, he notes. Walmart has been Strivr’s largest customer since the startup signed the retail behemoth back in 2017 to bring VR instruction to their 200 “Walmart Academy” instruction centers and all Walmart stores.

Virtual reality is a technology that lends itself to capturing undivided attention, something that is undoubtedly positive for increasing learning retention, which Jordan says was one of the central appeals for adopting the tech. For Bank of America, VR offers a platform change to reexamine some of the pitfalls of conventional corporate learning. At the same time, they acknowledge that the tech isn’t a silver bullet and that are plenty of best practices for VR that are still unknowns.

“We’re just taking it slow to be honest,” Jordan says. “We already feel pretty great about how we’ve made investments, but we view this as a way to get better.”

Enterprise VR startups have seen varying levels of success over the years as they’ve aimed to find paying customers that can tolerate the limitations of the technology while buying in on the broader vision. Strivr has raised over $51 million, including a $30 million Series B last year, as it has aimed to become a leader in the workplace training space. CEO Derek Belch tells TechCrunch that the company has big plans as it looks towards raising more funding and works to build out its software toolsets to help simplify VR content creation for its partners.

 

 

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Cashify raises $15 million for its second-hand smartphone business in India

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Tens of millions of people each year purchase a second-hand smartphone in India, the world’s second largest market. Phone makers and giant online sellers such as Amazon and Flipkart are aware of it, but it’s too much of a hassle for them to inspect, repair, and resell used phones. But these firms also know that customers are more likely to buy a smartphone if they are offered the ability to trade-in their existing handsets.

A startup that is helping these firms tackle this challenge said on Thursday it has raised $15 million in a new financing round. New York-based Olympus Capital Asia made the investment through Asia Environmental Partners, a fund dedicated to the environmental sector. The five-year-old startup, which counts Blume Ventures  among its early investors, has raised $42 million to date.

Cashify operates an eponymous platform — both online and physical stores and kiosks — for users to sell and buy used smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, laptops, desktops, and gaming consoles. 90% of its business today surrounds the smartphone category, explained Mandeep Manocha, founder and chief executive of Cashify, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“For consumers, our proposition is that we make it easy for you to sell your devices. You come to our site or app, answer questions to objectively evaluate the condition of your device, and we give you an estimate of how much your gadget is worth,” he said. “If you like the price, we pick it up from your doorstep and give you instant cash.”

A few years ago, I wrote about the struggle e-commerce firms face globally in handling returned items. There are many liability challenges — such as having to ensure that the innards in a returned smartphone haven’t been tempered with — as well as overhead costs in reversing an order.

Manocha said that phone makers and e-commerce firms have found better ways to handle returned items in recent years, but they still lose a significant amount of money on them. These challenges have created a big opportunity for startups such as Cashify.

In fact, Cashify says it’s the market leader in its category in India. The startup has partnerships with “nearly every OEM” including Apple, Samsung, OnePlus, Oppo, Xiaomi, Vivo, and HP. “If you walk into an Apple store today, they use our platform.” For consumers in India, if they opted for the trade-in program, Apple.com also uses Cashify’s trading platform, he said.

The startup also works with top e-commerce firms in India — Amazon, Flipkart, and Paytm Mall. The firms use Cashify’s trading and exchange software, and also rely on the startup for liquidation of devices. The startup then repairs these gadgets and sells the refurbished units to customers.

“Essentially, whether you come directly to us, or go to popular e-commerce firms or phone OEMs, we are handling the majority of the trading,” he said. Even if a customer trades in the device to OEMs, or e-commerce firms, these companies sell the device to players like Cashify, which serves over 2 million customers in more than 1,500 cities.

The startup plans to deploy part of the fresh capital to expand its presence in the offline market. Manocha said Cashify currently has dozens of offline stores and kiosks at shopping malls across the country and it has already proven immensely effective in brand awareness among customers.

The startup also plans to expand outside of India, hire more talent, and invest more in getting the word out about its offerings. Manocha said the team is also working on expanding its expertise to more hardware categories such as cameras.

“The management team at Cashify has an excellent track record in building a strong consumer-facing franchise and building relationships with OEMs, e-commerce companies and electronic product retailers to be present across all touch points for the consumer,” said Pankaj Ghai, Managing Director of Asia Environmental Partners, in a statement.

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