But if you want a small-business loan? There, the government’s definition is far more expansive. The Small Business Administration, which orchestrated the popular Paycheck Protection Program, generally considers any company with fewer than 500 employees a “small” one. Unless you’re in one of dozens of industries with exceptions, which are detailed in a 49-page document that can seem almost whimsical in its divisions. A company that mines gold ore counts as small if it has up to 1,500 employees, but the limit falls to 750 for iron miners and just 250 for those that extract silver.
Business & Economy
One thing about tiny companies is clear: They vastly outnumber their bigger brethren. The government estimates that there are nearly 32 million small businesses in America. Most have no employees beyond the owner. Their ranks include practitioners of nearly every profession — solo lawyers and accountants, Uber drivers, tutors, gig-working delivery cyclists, artists and writers and musicians and millions of salaried workers with side hustles.
Weed out those businesses and you’re left with six million employer firms, each with a payroll ranging from a handful of people to a few hundred. Only 20,000 companies in the country, according to data from the Census Bureau, are truly large businesses, with 500 or more employees.
To entrepreneurs in that squishy middle, the line between being a little business and a big one can feel pretty fuzzy. Twenty years ago, Franz Spielvogel joined Laughing Planet, which was at the time a single-location fast-casual cafe in Portland, Ore. It was a hit, so he and his business partner opened another Laughing Planet. Then another. Today, Mr. Spielvogel runs 15 locations in three states, with 224 workers.
Mr. Spielvogel said his mini-chain feels like a collection of neighborhood spots, which he likes. “We’re not Sweetgreen,” he said. “We’re not saying, ‘Let’s do 100 stores in the next six months.’ That’s not our mission.”
Being a midsize company can have some pain points, like having a limited legal and human resources infrastructure to handle the thicket of regulations that come with employing hundreds of people. But Mr. Spielvogel enjoys running a company small enough that it is able to preserve that first shop’s ethos and corporate culture. He’s unfazed — and honestly somewhat relieved, he said — by the new vaccination-or-testing mandate. He has been trying to coax his staff to get vaccinated by offering paid time off for each shot, and he hopes a mandate will convince his last few holdouts.
Even some teeny companies are eager to embrace it. Aaron Seyedian, the founder of Well-Paid Maids in Washington, said he wished the mandate extended to companies like his, which has 17 people.
I couldn’t write about these kind of blurred journalistic lines, of course, without disclosing my largely friendly relationship with Mr. Wolff. I first encountered him in 2009, when he profiled my then-employer, Politico, and wrote in passing that I was a “total dweeb” who was “the only one as interested in what his sources are doing as they themselves are.” I felt both insulted and pretty much seen.
After that, I sought him out for occasional career advice, which he gave generously. In 2014, he invited me to a dinner with executives at Uber, and neglected to ask me to agree that it was off the record. When I published one executive’s explosive suggestion to me that the company dig up dirt on the journalists who had been covering the company, Mr. Wolff, then a columnist for USA Today, blasted me in print as “a gotcha political blogger” who had grown “censorious and moralistic.” (Fair.) A couple of weeks later, he took further revenge by publishing an indiscreet comment I had made to him in private. I was furious. I also figured we were even. And when I was thinking last year about writing a book, I asked him how to do it. He told me, You start with a blank piece of paper, and on the top, you write the amount of money you want.
Mr. Wolff seems to be following his own advice as he cashes in on the success of “Fire and Fury” with his third book in four years. But he offers a scarce commodity in a media market that has moved away from his kind of journalism. A hot political environment has taught many reporters to see their work in moral, even didactic, terms. Magazine writers are out looking for heroes, not villains, and they appear to have little interest in understanding why our bad men do the things they do.
But monsters are fascinating. And Mr. Wolff “doesn’t have that sort of natural recoil to some of the more odious people in the world,” said Janice Min, his former editor at The Hollywood Reporter.
After we parted, he emailed me that he would prefer that his beat not be described as “elderly sex abusers.” It has simply turned out that the class of media moguls he covers “has turned out to, disproportionately, include many sex abusers,” he said.
That generation may, at last, be aging out, meaning Mr. Wolff risks running out of subjects. When I asked who will hold his interest in the years to come, he said he was “scouting the next generation” of powerful media figures.
“Too Famous” includes a few of them — Jared Kushner, Tucker Carlson and Ronan Farrow. And Mr. Carlson, for one, was happy to sit down with Mr. Wolff. “He is one of the last interesting people in American media,” Mr. Carlson texted me. “Anyone who doubts that should have lunch with him.”
A California law that ensures many gig workers are considered independent contractors, while affording them some limited benefits, is unconstitutional and unenforceable, a California Superior Court judge ruled Friday evening.
The decision is not likely to immediately affect the new law and is certain to face appeals from Uber and other so-called gig economy companies. It reopened the debate about whether drivers for ride-hailing services and delivery couriers are employees who deserve full benefits, or independent contractors who are responsible for their own businesses and benefits.
Last year’s Proposition 22, a ballot initiative backed by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other gig economy platforms, carved out a third classification for workers, granting gig workers limited benefits while preventing them from being considered employees of the tech giants. The initiative was approved in November with more than 58 percent of the vote.
But drivers and the Service Employees International Union filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law. The group argued that Prop. 22 was unconstitutional because it limited the State Legislature’s ability to allow workers to organize and have access to workers’ compensation.
his ruling that Prop. 22 violated California’s Constitution because it restricted the Legislature from making gig workers eligible for workers’ compensation.
“The entirety of Proposition 22 is unenforceable,” he wrote, creating fresh legal upheaval in the long battle over the employment rights of gig workers.
“I think the judge made a very sound decision in finding that Prop. 22 is unconstitutional because it had some unusual provisions in it,” said Veena Dubal, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law who studies the gig economy and filed a brief in the case supporting the drivers’ position. “It was written in such a comprehensive way to prevent the workers from having access to any rights that the Legislature decided.”
Scott Kronland, a lawyer for the drivers, praised Judge Roesch’s decision. “Our position is that he’s exactly right and that his ruling is going to be upheld on appeal,” Mr. Kronland said.
ballot proposal that could allow voters in the state to decide next year whether gig workers should be considered independent contractors.
Some of the nation’s largest employers, for months reluctant to wade into the fraught issue of whether Covid-19 vaccinations should be mandatory for workers, have in recent days been compelled to act as infections have surged again.
On Tuesday, Tyson Foods told its 120,000 workers in offices, slaughterhouses and poultry plants across the country that they would need to be vaccinated by Nov. 1 as a “condition of employment.” And Microsoft, which employs roughly 100,000 people in the United States, said it would require proof of vaccination for all employees, vendors and guests to gain access to its offices.
Last week, Google said it would require employees who returned to the company’s offices to be vaccinated, while Disney announced a mandate for all salaried and nonunion hourly workers who work on site.
Other companies, including Walmart, the largest private employer in the United States, and Lyft and Uber, have taken a less forceful approach, mandating vaccines for white-collar workers but not for millions of frontline workers. Those moves essentially set up a divide between the employees who work in offices and employees who deal directly with the public and, collectively, have been more reluctant to get the shots.
different set of reasons that are not primarily political. They say many of their members are worried about potential health side effects or bristle at the idea of an employer’s interfering in what they regard as a personal health decision.
Marc Perrone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, representing 1.3 million employees in grocery chains such as Kroger and at large meatpacking plants, said he would not support employer mandates until the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the vaccine, which is being administered on an emergency basis.
“You can’t just say, ‘Accept the mandate or hit the door,’” Mr. Perrone said in an interview on Monday.
After Tyson announced its vaccine mandate on Tuesday, Mr. Perrone issued a statement that the union “will be meeting with Tyson in the coming weeks to discuss this vaccine mandate and to ensure that the rights of these workers are protected and this policy is fairly implemented.”
several meat plants became virus hot spots. Now, it is requiring its leadership team to be vaccinated by Sept. 24 and the rest of its office workers by Oct. 1. Frontline employees have until Nov. 1 to be fully inoculated, extra time the company is providing because there are “significantly more frontline team members than office workers who still need to be vaccinated,” a Tyson spokesman said.
Throughout the pandemic, companies have treaded carefully in carrying out public health measures while trying to avoid harm to their businesses.
Last year, when major retailers began requiring customers to wear masks, they quietly told their employees not to enforce the rule if a customer was adamant about not wearing one.
Companies like Walmart have tried a similarly tentative approach with vaccine requirements.
Walmart announced last week that it was requiring the roughly 17,000 workers in its Arkansas headquarters to be vaccinated but not those in stores and distribution centers, who make up the bulk of its 1.6 million U.S. employees.
In a statement, the retailer said the limited mandate would send a message to all workers that they should get vaccinated.
“We’re asking our leaders, which already have a higher vaccination rate, to make their example clear,” the company said. “We’re hoping that will influence even more of our frontline associates to become vaccinated.”
Lyft told their corporate employees last week that they would need to show proof they had been inoculated before returning to company offices.
Requiring vaccinations “is the most effective way to create a safe environment and give our team members peace of mind as we return to the office,” said Ashley Adams, a spokeswoman for Lyft.
But those mandates did not extend to the workers the companies contract with to drive millions of customers to and from their destinations. The drivers are being encouraged to be vaccinated, but neither Lyft or Uber has plans to require them.
Public health experts warn that limited mandates may reinforce the gaping divide between the nation’s high- and low-wage workers without furthering the public health goal of substantially increasing vaccination rates.
They also say it’s naïve to think that workers who resisted vaccines for ideological reasons would suddenly change their mind after seeing a company’s higher-paid executives receive the shots.
“Ultimately we want to ensure that they really have the broadest reach,” Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, the vice dean for population health and health equity at the University of California, San Francisco, said of company directives. “Failing to do that, I think, will only cause others to be more suspicious of these types of mandates.”
Legally, companies are likely to be on solid ground if they mandate vaccines. Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said employers could require immunization, though companies that do could still face lawsuits.
George W. Ingham, a partner at the law firm Hogan Lovells, said companies with mandates would potentially have to make difficult decisions.
“They are going to have to fire high performers and low performers who refuse vaccines,” he said. “They have to be consistent.” Reasons an employee could be exempted include religious beliefs or a disability, though the process of sorting those out on an individual basis promises to be an arduous one.
Companies may also have to contend with pushback from state governments. Ten states have passed legislation limiting the ability to require vaccines for students, employees or the public, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Disney is among the few big companies pursuing a broad vaccine mandate for their work forces, even in the face of pushback from some employees.
In addition to mandating vaccines for nonunion workers who are on-site, Disney said all new hires — union and nonunion — would be required to be fully vaccinated before starting their jobs. Nonunion hourly workers include theme park guest-relations staff, in-park photographers, executive assistants and some seasonal theme park employees.
It was the furthest that Disney could go without a sign-off from the dozen unions that represent the bulk of its employees. Walt Disney World in Florida, for instance, has more than 65,000 workers; roughly 38,000 are union members.
Disney is now seeking union approval for the mandate both in Florida and in California, where tens of thousands of workers at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim are unionized. Most of the leaders of Disney’s unions appear to be in favor of a mandate — as long as accommodations can be worked out for those refusing the vaccine for medical, religious or other acceptable reasons.
“Vaccinations are safe and effective and the best line of defense to protect workers, frontline or otherwise,” Eric Clinton, the president of UNITE HERE Local 362, which represents roughly 8,000 attraction workers and custodians at Disney World, said in a phone interview.
Mr. Clinton declined to comment on any pushback from his membership, but another union leader at Disney World, speaking on the condition of anonymity so he could speak candidly, said “a fair number” of his members were up in arms over Disney-mandated vaccinations, citing personal choice and fear of the vaccine.
“The company has probably done a calculation and decided that some people will unfortunately quit rather than protect themselves, and so be it,” the person said.
ZHENGZHOU, China — More than 200 cars were caught in a highway tunnel on Tuesday in central China when record-setting rainfall soaked the area. Torrents of water poured in the tunnel’s entrances, nearly filling it to the ceiling.
The death toll that day probably would have been higher had it not been for a semiretired special forces commando who swam back and forth among the bobbing, colliding vehicles to rescue drowning drivers as their cars filled with water and sank. The authorities are still draining the tunnel, and have said that at least four people died.
Initially, international attention to transportation safety risks from extreme weather focused on drownings in a subway tunnel that filled with water during the same cloudburst in Zhengzhou, in central China’s Henan Province. But the highway-tunnel flooding deaths highlight the risks that climate change can also pose to motorists, transportation safety experts said this weekend.
Indeed, the deaths show that road engineers, like subway-system designers, will need to cope with the more intense rainfalls associated with climate change, said Kara M. Kockelman, a transportation engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
1993 during the Mississippi River floods in the Midwest to alleviate pressure on dams when the water behind them became dangerously high.
Only two months ago, the Henan Province government was promoting its “smart tunnel” investments in the same mile-long, four-lane highway tunnel that flooded on Tuesday. Sensors could be used to track and precisely locate any person or vehicle, and to closely monitor the tunnel’s water pumps. An artificial intelligence system could be used to instantly analyze problems and suggest solutions.
Highway tunnels, including Zhengzhou’s, are built with their own pumping systems. But extreme cloudbursts like the one last week, in which eight inches of rain fell in a single hour, pose formidable challenges for road designers.
To work, such pumping systems need to be able to move the water somewhere that is not underwater itself. Zhengzhou is nearly flat and slow to drain. The entire street at the south end of the tunnel filled with water several feet deep.
Dr. Kockelman said that any investigation of what went wrong in Zhengzhou would need to examine whether the exit point for the pumps had become submerged. That could cause the flow of water through the pumps to reverse direction and fill the tunnel.
Liu Chunge, an owner of a tiny grocery store that sits two stairs above the sidewalk next to the south end of the tunnel, said that the water in the streets rose fast. She was soon calf-deep inside her store.
The freezer from which she sells ice cream began to float, so she loaded beverage bottles onto it to force it back down to the floor.
“I’ve never experienced such a big flood,” said Ms. Liu, 50. “In previous floods, the water never rose above the two steps.”
Zhengzhou officials have held three news conferences since the tunnel floods, but they have yet to directly explain what went wrong.
Local authorities have struggled to remove water from the highway tunnel. On Friday afternoon, they were operating a pair of pumps nearly the size of commercial jet engines attached to bright red, fire engine-size suction trucks at the tunnel’s south end. But the muddy water was still deep enough in the tunnel that only the roof of a white car inside was visible.
Several workers maneuvered a large yellow tow truck to try to pull a mud-covered black minivan out of the tunnel’s exit. The minivan had its rear wheels on a nearly yard-high highway median, and its driver’s door hung open. Five other mud-soaked cars and vans lay in the water nearby, including a dark blue Ford sedan with a white car on its roof.
Many Zhengzhou residents watched and filmed the crews’ work on Friday afternoon, and were occasionally chased away by a few municipal police officers.
As for Mr. Yang, Caocao gave him a new, $25,000 electric minivan on Friday night.
Li You, Claire Fu and Liu Yi contributed research.
Also in late February, Blueacorn and Womply got an unexpected tailwind from a major rule change by the Small Business Administration, which oversaw the loan program. Concerned that women and minority-led businesses were being disproportionately left out, the Biden administration overhauled the loan formula to award sole proprietors — a group that includes contractors and gig workers — loans based on their reported revenue rather than profit. Overnight, millions more qualified for help. Drawn in by the marketing campaigns, they stampeded toward the two companies.
By early March, “we were overrun with demand,” said Blueacorn’s Mr. Calhoun, a private equity veteran who joined the company that month to help manage its growth. “We had a 24-hour period where we went from 15,000 new customer service tickets to 27,000,” he recalled. “Those are Amazon-like levels.”
Blueacorn rented call centers and trained hundreds of temporary workers to troubleshoot. Womply redeployed nearly all of its 200 employees to work on loan issues. Both companies still struggled to keep up. On Reddit groups and social media sites, thousands of borrowers complained about delays, poor communication and problems resolving errors.
Louis Glatthorn, an Uber driver in Boone, N.C., who goes by Bob, applied on Womply’s website on April 7 and signed the paperwork two weeks later for a $7,818 loan. But the money — which is listed in government records as approved — has not been paid by Benworth Capital, one of Womply’s partners. Mr. Glatthorn’s attempts to reach Womply for help have been unsuccessful.
“You can never talk to a person or actually make contact,” he said. A Womply representative declined to comment on Mr. Glatthorn’s experience.
Others had a smoother run. Dan Bourque, an Uber driver in San Francisco, saw Womply’s ads and applied for a loan in mid-April. Seventeen days later, he had a $10,477 deposit — funded by Fountainhead SBF, another of Womply’s partner lenders — in his bank account. For that loan, the process “was flawless,” he said.
The Money Pours In
The millions of tiny loans the two tech companies enabled, coupled with Congress’s decision to make small loans more lucrative, led to gigantic payouts for small lenders. Last year, Prestamos made $1.3 million for its lending. This year, it will collect nearly $1.2 billion, according to a New York Times calculation of lenders’ fees based on government data.
A few years ago, while on a work trip in Los Angeles, I hailed an Uber for a crosstown ride during rush hour. I knew it would be a long trip, and I steeled myself to fork over $60 or $70.
Instead, the app spit out a price that made my jaw drop: $16.
Experiences like these were common during the golden era of the Millennial Lifestyle Subsidy, which is what I like to call the period from roughly 2012 through early 2020, when many of the daily activities of big-city 20- and 30-somethings were being quietly underwritten by Silicon Valley venture capitalists.
For years, these subsidies allowed us to live Balenciaga lifestyles on Banana Republic budgets. Collectively, we took millions of cheap Uber and Lyft rides, shuttling ourselves around like bourgeois royalty while splitting the bill with those companies’ investors. We plunged MoviePass into bankruptcy by taking advantage of its $9.95-a-month, all-you-can-watch movie ticket deal, and took so many subsidized spin classes that ClassPass was forced to cancel its $99-a-month unlimited plan. We filled graveyards with the carcasses of food delivery start-ups — Maple, Sprig, SpoonRocket, Munchery — just by accepting their offers of underpriced gourmet meals.
tweeted, along with a screenshot of a receipt that showed he had spent nearly $250 on a ride to the airport.
“Airbnb got too much dip on they chip,” another Twitter user complained. “No one is gonna continue to pay $500 to stay in an apartment for two days when they can pay $300 for a hotel stay that has a pool, room service, free breakfast & cleaning everyday. Like get real lol.”
Some of these companies have been tightening their belts for years. But the pandemic seems to have emptied what was left of the bargain bin. The average Uber and Lyft ride costs 40 percent more than it did a year ago, according to Rakuten Intelligence, and food delivery apps like DoorDash and Grubhub have been steadily increasing their fees over the past year. The average daily rate of an Airbnb rental increased 35 percent in the first quarter of 2021, compared with the same quarter the year before, according to the company’s financial filings.
set up a $250 million “driver stimulus” fund — or doing away with them altogether.
I’ll confess that I gleefully took part in this subsidized economy for years. (My colleague Kara Swisher memorably called it “assisted living for millennials.”) I got my laundry delivered by Washio, my house cleaned by Homejoy and my car valet-parked by Luxe — all start-ups that promised cheap, revolutionary on-demand services but shut down after failing to turn a profit. I even bought a used car through a venture-backed start-up called Beepi, which offered white-glove service and mysteriously low prices, and which delivered the car to me wrapped in a giant bow, like you see in TV commercials. (Unsurprisingly, Beepi shut down in 2017, after burning through $150 million in venture capital.)
These subsidies don’t always end badly for investors. Some venture-backed companies, like Uber and DoorDash, have been able to grit it out until their I.P.O.s, making good on their promise that investors would eventually see a return on their money. Other companies have been acquired or been able to successfully raise their prices without scaring customers away.
Uber, which raised nearly $20 billion in venture capital before going public, may be the best-known example of an investor-subsidized service. During a stretch of 2015, the company was burning $1 million a week in driver and rider incentives in San Francisco alone, according to reporting by BuzzFeed News.
But the clearest example of a jarring pivot to profitability might be the electric scooter business.
Remember scooters? Before the pandemic, you couldn’t walk down the sidewalk of a major American city without seeing one. Part of the reason they took off so quickly is that they were ludicrously cheap. Bird, the largest scooter start-up, charged $1 to start a ride, and then 15 cents a minute. For short trips, renting a scooter was often cheaper than taking the bus.
But those fees didn’t represent anything close to the true cost of a Bird ride. The scooters broke frequently and needed constant replacing, and the company was shoveling money out the door just to keep its service going. As of 2019, Bird was losing $9.66 for every $10 it made on rides, according to a recent investor presentation. That is a shocking number, and the kind of sustained losses that are possible only for a Silicon Valley start-up with extremely patient investors. (Imagine a deli that charged $10 for a sandwich whose ingredients cost $19.66, and then imagine how long that deli would stay in business.)
Pandemic-related losses, coupled with the pressure to turn a profit, forced Bird to trim its sails. It raised its prices — a Bird now costs as much as $1 plus 42 cents a minute in some cities — built more durable scooters and revamped its fleet management system. During the second half of 2020, the company made $1.43 in profit for every $10 ride.
“DoorDash and Pizza Arbitrage,” about the time he realized that DoorDash was selling pizzas from his friend’s restaurant for $16 while paying the restaurant $24 per pizza, and proceeded to order dozens of pizzas from the restaurant while pocketing the $8 difference, stands as a classic of the genre.)
But it’s hard to fault these investors for wanting their companies to turn a profit. And, at a broader level, it’s probably good to find more efficient uses for capital than giving discounts to affluent urbanites.
Back in 2018, I wrote that the entire economy was starting to resemble MoviePass, the subscription service whose irresistible, deeply unprofitable offer of daily movie tickets for a flat $9.95 subscription fee paved the way for its decline. Companies like MoviePass, I thought, were trying to defy the laws of gravity with business models that assumed that if they achieved enormous scale, they’d be able to flip a switch and start making money at some point down the line. (This philosophy, which was more or less invented by Amazon, is now known in tech circles as “blitzscaling.”)
There is still plenty of irrationality in the market, and some start-ups still burn huge piles of money in search of growth. But as these companies mature, they seem to be discovering the benefits of financial discipline. Uber lost only $108 million in the first quarter of 2021 — a change partly attributable to the sale of its autonomous driving unit, and a vast improvement, believe it or not, over the same quarter last year, when it lost $3 billion. Both Uber and Lyft have pledged to become profitable on an adjusted basis this year. Lime, Bird’s main electric scooter competitor, turned its first quarterly profit last year, and Bird — which recently filed to go public through a SPAC at a $2.3 billion valuation — has projected better economics in the years ahead.
Profits are good for investors, of course. And while it’s painful to pay subsidy-free prices for our extravagances, there’s also a certain justice to it. Hiring a private driver to shuttle you across Los Angeles during rush hour should cost more than $16, if everyone in that transaction is being fairly compensated. Getting someone to clean your house, do your laundry or deliver your dinner should be a luxury, if there’s no exploitation involved. The fact that some high-end services are no longer easily affordable by the merely semi-affluent may seem like a worrying development, but maybe it’s a sign of progress.
It was seven years ago when Waymo discovered that spring blossoms made its self-driving cars get twitchy on the brakes. So did soap bubbles. And road flares.
New tests, in years of tests, revealed more and more distractions for the driverless cars. Their road skills improved, but matching the competence of human drivers was elusive. The cluttered roads of America, it turned out, were a daunting place for a robot.
The wizards of Silicon Valley said people would be commuting to work in self-driving cars by now. Instead, there have been court fights, injuries and deaths, and tens of billions of dollars spent on a frustratingly fickle technology that some researchers say is still years from becoming the industry’s next big thing.
Now the pursuit of autonomous cars is undergoing a reset. Companies like Uber and Lyft, worried about blowing through their cash in pursuit of autonomous technology, have tapped out. Only the most deep pocketed outfits like Waymo, which is a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, auto industry giants, and a handful of start-ups are managing to stay in the game.
said that fully functional self-driving cars were just two years away. More than five years later, Tesla cars offered simpler autonomy designed solely for highway driving. Even that has been tinged with controversy after several fatal crashes (which the company blamed on misuse of the technology).
Perhaps no company experienced the turbulence of driverless car development more fitfully than Uber. After poaching 40 robotics experts from Carnegie Mellon University and acquiring a self-driving truck start-up for $680 million in stock, the ride-hailing company settled a lawsuit from Waymo, which was followed by a guilty plea from a former executive accused of stealing intellectual property. A pedestrian in Arizona was also killed in a crash with one of its driverless cars. In the end, Uber essentially paid Aurora to acquire its self-driving unit.
But for the most deep-pocketed companies, the science, they hope, continues to advance one improved ride at a time. In October, Waymo reached a notable milestone: It launched the world’s first “fully autonomous” taxi service. In the suburbs of Phoenix, Ariz., anyone can now ride in a minivan with no driver behind the wheel. But that does not mean the company will immediately deploy its technology in other parts of the country.
Dmitri Dolgov, who recently took over as Waymo’s co-chief executive after the departure of John Krafcik, an automobile industry veteran, said the company considers its Arizona service a test case. Based on what it has learned in Arizona, he said, Waymo is building a new version of its self-driving technology that it will eventually deploy in other geographies and other kinds of vehicles, including long-haul trucks.
The suburbs of Phoenix are particularly well suited to driverless cars. Streets are wide, pedestrians are few and there is almost no rain or snow. Waymo supports its autonomous vehicles with remote technicians and roadside assistance crews who can help get cars out of a tight spot, either via the internet or in person.
“Autonomous vehicles can be deployed today, in certain situations,” said Elliot Katz, a former lawyer who counseled many of the big autonomous vehicle companies before launching a start-up, Phantom Auto, that provides software for remotely assisting and operating self-driving vehicles when they get stuck in difficult positions. “But you still need a human in the loop.”
Self-driving tech is not yet nimble enough to reliably handle the variety of situations human drivers encounter each day. They can usually handle suburban Phoenix, but they can’t duplicate the human chutzpah needed for merging into the Lincoln Tunnel in New York or dashing for an offramp on Highway 101 in Los Angeles.
“You have to peel back every layer before you can see the next layer” of challenges for the technology, said Nathaniel Fairfield, a Waymo software engineer who has worked on the project since 2009, in describing some of the distractions faced by the cars. “Your car has to be pretty good at driving before you can really get it into the situations where it handles the next most challenging thing.”
Like Waymo, Aurora is now developing autonomous trucks as well as passenger vehicles. No company has deployed trucks without safety drivers behind the wheel, but Mr. Urmson and others argue that autonomous trucks will make it to market faster than anything designed to transport regular consumers.
Long-haul trucking does not involve passengers who might not be forgiving of twitchy brakes. The routes are also simpler. Once you master one stretch of highway, Mr. Urmson said, it is easier to master another. But even driving down a long, relatively straight highway is extraordinarily difficult. Delivering dinner orders across a small neighborhood is an even greater challenge.
“This is one of the biggest technical challenges of our generation,” said Dave Ferguson, another early engineer on the Google team who is now president of Nuro, a company focused on delivering groceries, pizzas and other goods.
Mr. Ferguson said that many thought self-driving technology would improve like an internet service or a smartphone app. But robotics is a lot more challenging. It was wrong to claim anything else.
“If you look at almost every industry that is trying to solve really really difficult technical challenges, the folks that tend to be involved are a little bit crazy and little bit optimistic,” he said. “You need to have that optimism to get up everyday and bang your head against the wall to try to solve a problem that has never been solved, and it’s not guaranteed that it ever will be solved.”
Uber and Lyft aren’t entirely giving up on driverless cars. Even though it may not help the bottom line for a long time, they still want to deploy autonomous vehicles by partnering with the companies that are still working on the technology. Lyft now says autonomous rides could arrive by 2023.
“These cars will be able to operate on a limited set of streets under a limited set of weather conditions at certain speeds,” said Jody Kelman, the executive of Lyft. “We will very safely be able to deploy these cars, but they won’t be able to go that many places.”
This article is part of Owning the Future, a series on how small businesses across the country have been effected by the pandemic.
The Covid pandemic hit California hard. It has seen well over 3.5 million cases and over 60,000 deaths. Scores of businesses have closed. But for Ana Jimenez the owner of Tacos El Jerry, a small fleet of food trucks in Santa Cruz County, it provided an opportunity to bring her business into the 21st century.
Ms. Jimenez’s four trucks began taking orders through an app and a website, delivering directly to customers, and cultivating a customer base through a new social media presence. All of that added up to a significant increase in sales.
Facebook and Instagram pages for the food trucks, a social media advertising campaign and began accepting credit card purchases. “Each truck is now serving around 300 people per day, which translates to roughly $5,000 in sales daily,” Ms. Jimenez said.
Food trucks — kitchens on wheels, essentially — are flexible by design and quickly became a substitute during the pandemic for customers who couldn’t dine indoors and coveted something different than their mainstream carryout options. That, in turn, has delivered a new client base to add on to an existing cadre of loyal followers. In a very real sense, food trucks are vehicles for equality in the post-pandemic world.
“While the pandemic has certainly hurt the majority of small businesses, it has also pushed many to be more innovative by looking for new revenue streams and ways to reach customers,” said Kimberly A. Eddleston, a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Northeastern University.
Like Ms. Jimenez, some businesses have “focused on ways to maintain their customer base by, for example, delivering products directly to customers,” Prof. Eddleston said. “While others have created products and services that attract new customers.”
Blue Sparrow food trucks in Pittsburgh, adding pizza, four-packs of local beer, gift cards and five-ounce bottles of housemade hot sauce.
Mr. Cypher’s main fare since he hit the streets in 2016 has been global street food. His menu carries a heavy Asian inspiration. There’s made-from-scratch kimchi on the menu daily. Dishes can include rice bowls, Vietnamese banh mi, falafel burritos, and a burger made with a ramen bun.
During the pandemic, Mr. Cypher’s business took a hit when 24 festivals and over a dozen weddings where he was booked were canceled. “I switched gears to keep things as lean as possible,” Mr. Cypher said.
He temporarily shut down a second food truck — a retrofitted 35-foot, 1956 Greyhound bus that he used for the big parties — and introduced a website to interact with his customers and an online ordering system for his smaller truck, which he usually parked at a neighborhood brewery.
“I switched the menu to focus on soups, noodles, burritos and pressed sandwiches, so that the things that we were handing our customers would make it home and still be a good experience after they opened up the bag and took it out,” he said.
Today in Business
And he began to make and sell pizza one day a week at the kitchen where he used to do his prep work for the trucks before the pandemic. (The pizza, too, has an international flair: a banh mi pie, for example, made with pork or tofu, miso garlic sauce, mozzarella, pickled carrots, cucumbers, and cilantro.)
Accion Opportunity Fund, a nonprofit organization providing small-business owners with access to capital, networks and coaching. “Many food truck owners stepped forward to seize opportunity during a time of great uncertainty,” she said.
As Pittsburgh emerges from the pandemic, Mr. Cypher is adding a twist at his kitchen location. “We have licensing to offer beer on draft from our local breweries, so we’re going to have a small beer garden,” he said. “And that’s a revenue stream that we’re going to kind of lean into that we probably never would have done if not for Covid.”
In 2020, Mr. Cypher’s food trucks had $200,000 in gross sales, down about 40 percent from the previous year, he said. “But with the new offerings, more efficiency and only running one rig, we were actually able to net enough to keep the business moving forward,” he said. “This year we’re already up about 30 percent from where we were at last year at this time.”
Shiso Crispy, timing was much tricker: she opened her first truck in November 2019, just a few months before the pandemic. And yet Ms. Whaley, 35, who offers handmade gyozas, bao buns and their signature dish, dirty rice, now has two trucks because of a strategy of regularly parking in certain neighborhoods and offering discounted and free meals outside a nearby Ronald McDonald House. (She added the second truck in January.)
One challenge: “The internet here is shoddy. And cellphone service in different areas out here just doesn’t work,” she said. “During the height of the pandemic, I was consistently losing two or more transactions at my point of sale every shift.”
Clover Flex point of sale program for touchless transactions. “It has digitally transformed my business,” Ms. Whaley said.
She also signed on to an app, called Best Food Trucks, that allows customers near her to pre-order once they know her location for the day.
“The inextricably connected stories of food trucks and Covid are a perfect microcosm of the undeniable reality that women, immigrants and people of color, historically relegated to the edges of the economy, are actually the foundation upon which the next economy must be built,” said Nathalie Molina Niño, author of “Leapfrog: The New Revolution for Women Entrepreneurs.”
But the silver lining from the pandemic for some operators is more personal — including bringing families together. “I have a ton of wisdom about how to operate food trucks and cooking,” Ms. Jimenez said. “It’s the coming together of the generations that made the business stronger now and for the future.”
Good morning and happy Sunday. Here’s what you need to know in business and tech news for the week ahead. — Charlotte Cowles
What’s Up? (May 9-15)
Panic at the Pump
A cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline, one of the biggest fuel arteries in the United States, pushed the average price of gas above $3 per gallon for the first time since 2014. Fearing a shortage, panicked buyers lined up at the pump, which, of course, made the problem worse. To appease the hackers, who are believed to be part of a foreign organized crime group, Colonial Pipeline paid nearly $5 million in ransom — a capitulation that could embolden other criminals to take American companies hostage. The pipeline’s operators restored service late last week but said the supply chain would need several days to return to normal.
It’s Not Your Imagination
A new report from the Labor Department confirmed what you may have noticed: Prices for consumer goods like clothes, food and other household goods were up 4 percent in April from a year ago, blowing past forecasts. Economists are attributing the spike to pandemic-related issues like higher shipping and fuel costs, supply disruptions, rising demand and understaffing at factories and distribution centers. The Federal Reserve tried to assuage fears of inflation by insisting that the increase was temporary. But the news spooked the stock market all the same. And retail sales in April fell short of expectations, holding steady but showing a slowdown in growth after a blockbuster March.
address concerns from U.S. officials that it could be used for money laundering and other illegal purposes. The company is also moving the project to the United States from Switzerland after a stalled attempt to gain approval from Swiss regulators. In other crypto news, Tesla’s chief executive, Elon Musk, abruptly reversed his support for Bitcoin, tweeting that his company would no longer accept the cryptocurrency as payment because of the fossil fuels used in its mining and transactions. After his tweet, the price of Bitcoin dropped more than 10 percent.
What’s Next? (May 16-22)
Free Rides for Shots
As part of an effort to get 70 percent of American adults at least partly vaccinated by July 4, federal and state governments are adding extra incentives. (In case keeping yourself and others safe, and the ability to go maskless, wasn’t a good enough reason.) The Biden administration has partnered with the ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft to provide free transportation to vaccination sites nationwide starting May 24. West Virginia is working on a plan to offer $100 savings bonds to people ages 16 to 35 who get their shots. And those who receive the vaccine in Ohio will be entered into a lottery that awards a $1 million prize each week for five weeks, starting May 26.
Ellen’s Last Dance
Ellen DeGeneres will end her talk show next year after nearly two decades on the air. Her program has seen a steep decline in ratings after employees complained of a toxic workplace and accused producers of sexual harassment. The accusations looked particularly bad in light of Ms. DeGeneres’s tagline, “Be Kind,” which has become a branded juggernaut used to market merchandise to her fans. Although Ms. DeGeneres apologized publicly in September for the incidents, the show has since lost more than a million viewers, a 43 percent decline from about 2.6 million last season. It also saw a 20 percent decline in advertising revenue from September to February compared with the previous year.
(Slightly) More Golden Arches
In the battle to recruit workers in a tight job market, McDonald’s has become the latest fast-food company to raise hourly wages, following in the recent footsteps of chain restaurants including Chipotle and Olive Garden. But the McDonald’s pay increase applies only to its company-owned restaurants, which make up a small fraction of its business. About 95 percent of its U.S. restaurants are independently owned and set their own wages.
apply for a $50 monthly discount on high-speed internet services. Hearst Magazines sold the American edition of Marie Claire to a British publisher. And after more than a year of trying to figure out what to do with the embattled retailer Victoria’s Secret, the brand’s parent company has decided to split itself into two independent, publicly listed entities: Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works.
Join Andrew Ross Sorkin of The Times in conversation with Dame Ellen MacArthur and other economic experts to explore what it will take to transform the economy in the battle against climate change. May 20 at 1:30 p.m. E.T. RSVP here.