Lyft Sells Self-Driving Project, Cutting a Big Expense

Credit…Mike Blake/Reuters

Lyft will sell its unit devoted to developing autonomous vehicles to Woven Planet, a Toyota subsidiary, the companies announced on Monday. Woven Planet will pay $200 million in cash for Level 5, Lyft’s self-driving car initiative, and will follow up with additional payments of $350 million over five years.

Lyft is among several tech companies that have stepped back from developing autonomous vehicles over the last year as the technology has proved difficult to master and the pandemic has placed pressure on the company’s bottom lines. In December, Uber essentially paid Aurora, a self-driving truck start-up, to take its autonomous vehicle unit.

Some automotive executives have said they overestimated how soon the technology would be ready for the road. And although Waymo, the autonomous vehicle unit owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has recently expanded its operations, the chief executive of Waymo stepped down earlier this month to pursue “new adventures.”

Lyft said unloading Level 5 would cut about $100 million in annual expenses, helping the company edge closer to profitability after the pandemic sliced into its revenue. Lyft lost $1.8 billion last year. The company is set to report earnings for the first three months of 2021 next month.

Lyft will still have a team focused on third-party self-driving technology and will continue to collect data from trips to help train autonomous systems, the company said.

“Not only will this transaction allow Lyft to focus on advancing our leading autonomous platform and transportation network, this partnership will help pull in our profitability timeline,” Lyft’s president, John Zimmer, said in a statement.

Technical problems marred the Small Business Association’s first attempt at accepting applications for the grant program.
Credit…Zack Wittman for The New York Times

After months of delays and technical problems, the federal government finally opened a $16 billion grant fund for music club operators, theater owners and others in the live-event business on Monday.

Thousands of people hit the website for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program the moment it began accepting applications. Speed mattered: The money — awarded on a first-come-first-served basis — is widely expected to run out fast.

One applicant posted a screenshot showing that he was in line behind more than 6,000 others waiting for their turn to apply. “Hunger Games” memes — “May the odds be ever in your favor” — popped up in Twitter posts from desperate business owners venting their collective anxiety.

But this time, the system stayed up. As of 5 p.m. on Monday, the agency had received 6,040 grant applications, according to Andrea Roebker, an agency spokeswoman. Nearly 8,400 more had been created but not yet been completed.

Sarah Elger, chief executive of Pseudonym Productions, an events production company in Philadelphia, successfully submitted her application 16 minutes after she got access to the system.

“It was such a relief,” Ms. Elger said. She was one of thousands of business owners who had their hopes dashed earlier this month, when the Small Business Administration, the agency that runs the program, tried — and failed — to start taking applications. After four hours, the agency took the system offline for what turned into weeks of technology repair work.

Ms. Elger estimated that she uploaded more than 100 documents for her application, which she and her husband, Ricky Brigante, spent months preparing. They knew they would have to move quickly once the application website opened.

“We turned it into a game,” Ms. Elger said. “We had lots of folders on the desktop and raced through the uploads.”

The Small Business Administration said it would immediately start reviewing the applications, which are intended to yield grants for 45 percent of applicants’ prepandemic gross earned annual revenue, up to $10 million.

“We recognize the urgency,” said Barb Carson, the deputy associate administrator of the agency’s Office of Disaster Assistance. “With venue operators in danger of closing, every day that passes by is a day that these businesses cannot afford.”

The program, created in the $900 billion economic support package that President Donald J. Trump approved in December, is the first large direct-to-businesses grant program the Small Business Administration has ever run. The process, for both the agency and applicants, has for months been fraught with complexity and confusion.

John Russell, the executive director of the Montford Park Players, a nonprofit community theater group in Asheville, N.C., submitted his application on Monday afternoon. He is relying on the grant to help cover his group’s return to the stage.

After a full year of hosting only virtual events, the group is planning to open its first full in-person production, the Shakespeare play “The Comedy of Errors,” next month.

“We figured people are in the mood for comedy,” Mr. Russell said. The show’s actors are volunteers, but the production creates paid jobs for its director, stage manager, lighting designer, food vendors and others, as well as for the theater troupe’s support staff.

The Small Business Administration is also preparing to open a second grant program, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a $28.6 billion support fund for bars, restaurants and food trucks that was created in last month’s $1.9 trillion relief bill. That program is planning a seven-day test to help the agency avoid the kind of technical problems that plagued the venue program.

Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. The company said it planned to build a new office in North Carolina.
Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Apple said on Monday that it would increase its spending in the United States by 20 percent, or $80 billion, over the next five years and that it planned to build a new office in North Carolina.

The company said it would invest more than $1 billion in North Carolina, with a new office in the Raleigh-Durham area and at least 3,000 new jobs there. Many of those jobs will be in high-tech fields like machine learning and artificial intelligence.

The overall spending includes its operations at its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters and on data centers across the country, as well as the U.S. taxes it pays. But Apple also announced a number of new investments.

Apple said it was expanding in San Diego, Boston, Seattle and Boulder, Colo. The company also announced a $100 million investment with a supplier named XPO Logistics to create an advanced distribution center in Clayton, Ind., a small town outside Indianapolis.

Apple said it was on track to meet its 2018 goal of creating 20,000 new American jobs by 2023. On Monday, it set a new target of an additional 20,000 jobs in the United States over the next five years. Those jobs include some people hired directly by Apple but also positions at Apple suppliers and data centers. Apple said those jobs now included dozens of TV productions across 20 states for its Apple TV+ video-streaming service.

The company said its overall spending would reach $430 billion in the United States over the next five years.

In 2018, the company said it would spend $350 billion in the country over the following five years. That figure included a one-time $38 billion tax payment as it moved billions of dollars it was holding overseas under the new tax law signed by former President Donald J. Trump. Apple saved an estimated $43 billion under the law, more than any other company.

The European Union will ease travel restrictions for vaccinated Americans.
Credit…Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

U.S. airlines have been bolstered by the return of customers eager to travel within the country or just outside its borders, but the nation’s largest carriers are still lamenting the loss of two particularly lucrative parts of the business: international and corporate travel. At least one of those could rebound this summer.

In an interview with The New York Times over the weekend, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said she expected the European Union to ease travel restrictions for vaccinated American tourists, a move that could let the airline industry cash in during the year’s busiest travel season.

“Long-haul international flying represents a significant opportunity for United,” Andrew Nocella, the chief commercial officer for United Airlines, told investors last week. “We have seen in recent weeks that immediately after a country provides access with proof of a vaccine, leisure demand returns to the level of 2019 quickly.”

American Airlines and United said this month that international travel remained about 80 percent lower than in 2019. They and other airlines expect strong demand for domestic flights this summer, and the restoration of trans-Atlantic travel could provide the industry a much-needed boost as it works to generate profits again.

American, Delta Air Lines and United each reported a loss of more than $1 billion in the first three months of the year. Southwest Airlines reported a small profit, of $116 million, though its chief executive said the airline would have lost $1 billion without federal aid.

The news of the E.U. reopening to vaccinated American tourists was also welcomed by Willie Walsh, the director general of the International Air Transport Association, a global airline industry group, who said it could bode well for carriers elsewhere, too.

He said in a statement that coordination between the European Commission and the industry was essential “so that airlines can plan within the public health benchmarks and timelines that will enable unconditional travel for those vaccinated,” not just Americans but passengers from other countries as well.

Outside a cryptocurrency exchange in Istanbul. Dozens of online cryptocurrency trading platforms have sprung up in Turkey in recent years, and the business is little regulated.
Credit…Chris Mcgrath/Getty Images

Turkish authorities arrested four employees of a cryptocurrency trading platform on suspicion of fraud after customer accounts were frozen, authorities said, the second collapse of a digital currency firm in Turkey within a week.

The collapse of Vebitcoin, one of dozens of cryptocurrency trading platforms that have sprung up in Turkey in recent years, came after the Thodex trading platform shut down last week, more than 60 of its employees were arrested, and its chief executive left the country.

Vebitcoin was a relatively small operation and the losses from it are unlikely to be big, said Turan Sert, who advises BlockchainIST, a cryptocurrency research center affiliated with Bahcesehir University in Istanbul.

Ilker Bas, the chief executive of Vebitcoin, told police after his arrest that the platform has 90,000 registered users and had a trading volume of 600 million lira to 800 million lira, or $72 million to $96 million, per month, the private news agency Demiroren reported. Customer losses are probably much smaller, because the same assets are typically traded repeatedly during the course of a month.

“Due to the recent developments in the crypto money industry, our transactions have become much more intense than expected,” Vebitcoin said on its website. “We have decided to cease our activities in order to fulfill all regulations and claims.”

Cryptocurrency trading is little regulated in Turkey, and the number of platforms has proliferated because of the relatively low cost of setting up. Off-the-shelf trading software costs around $100,000, said Mr. Sert, who also advises Paribu, one of the largest cryptocurrency trading platforms.

Mr. Sert estimated that there were more than 90 platforms, mostly “very small mom-and-pop shops.”

The phenomenon is by no means limited to Turkey. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Dogecoin have attracted the attention of serious investors and become a hot topic on Wall Street. Coinbase, a U.S.-based cryptocurrency trading platform, sold shares to the public for the first time this month and is valued by the stock market at $58 billion. Regulators in the United States and other countries have struggled to keep up with the fast growth of digital money.

The Turkish Central Bank barred the use of cryptocurrencies for purchases this month, citing their riskiness and popularity with criminals, and signaled that more regulation of the sector is coming. The prospect of greater scrutiny could be prompting some platforms to shut down, Mr. Sert said.

Customers of Thodex may have lost $2 billion, a lawyer for the firm’s clients said last week, but Mr. Sert said that figure probably referred to the site’s trading volume and greatly overstated the potential losses. Many platforms exaggerate their trading volume to attract customers, he said.

The total losses to cryptocurrency investors, while devastating to some individuals, are not large enough to push Turkey’s already shaky economy into crisis, Mr. Sert said.

“I don’t think this will create any instability in the system,” he said.

The Supreme Court will hear a case that involves a fight over California’s donor disclosure requirements for charities.
Credit…Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear a case that could upend American politics. It has largely escaped attention because it’s not obviously political at all.

The case, Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Rodriquez, involves a fight over California’s donor disclosure requirements for charities and “may seem like a measly spat over state nonprofit rules,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, told the DealBook newsletter. “But a massive threat lurks within.”

Americans for Prosperity Foundation is a nonprofit organization arguing that the right to anonymous assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment extends to donor data. Critics say that a ruling in favor of the Koch-funded charity would allow more untraceable money to flow through groups designed to mask the outsize role that a few wealthy players have in American politics. If the foundation wins, “special interests will have a free pass to rig our democracy from behind a veil of secrecy,” Mr. Whitehouse said.

Companies influence politics with “dark money” donations that are deliberately opaque. Some nonprofit groups are quasi-political yet don’t have the same reporting requirements as explicitly political groups. Similarly, trade groups take corporate donations and pass them on, obscuring the sources.

“The importance of dark money in society, the scope of it, is something people don’t really grasp, but it impacts everyday life,” said Anna Massoglia, a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics.

A decision in the case is expected around late June. Notably, the court took the case on Jan. 8, two days after the Capitol riot prompted a reckoning over corporate political donations. Both the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers filed briefs supporting the foundation’s case for anonymity, and Allen Dickerson, a member of the Federal Election Commission, argued the same in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

A Meituan delivery worker in Shanghai. Last year the firm made more than 27 million food-delivery transactions per day.
Credit…Aly Song/Reuters

China’s fast-moving campaign to rein in its internet giants is continuing apace with an antitrust investigation into Meituan, a leading food-delivery app.

The investigation, which the country’s market regulator announced with a terse, one-line statement on Monday, focuses on reports that the company blocked restaurants and other merchants on its platform from selling on rival food-delivery sites.

Earlier this month, the regulator imposed a record $2.8 billion fine on the e-commerce titan Alibaba for exclusivity requirements of this sort. In a statement on Chinese social media, Meituan said that it would cooperate with the authorities and that its operations were continuing as usual.

Meituan is a powerhouse in China. It made more than 27 million food-delivery transactions a day last year and reported around $18 billion in revenue, making it larger than Uber by sales. Meituan’s main rival in takeout delivery in China is Ele.me, a service owned by Alibaba.

Alibaba has been an early major target in China’s efforts to curb what officials describe as unfair competitive practices in the internet industry. But Beijing has made clear that it will be keeping a much closer eye on all of the sector’s biggest and richest companies.

Meituan was one of 34 Chinese internet firms that were summoned to meet with the antitrust authority this month. The following day, the regulator began publishing on its website statements from the companies, Meituan included, in which they vowed to obey laws and regulations.

Bodies awaiting cremation on Friday in East Delhi.
Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

NEW DELHI — With a devastating second wave of Covid-19 sweeping across India and lifesaving supplemental oxygen in short supply, India’s government on Sunday said it had ordered Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to take down dozens of social media posts critical of its handling of the pandemic.

The order was aimed at roughly 100 posts that included critiques from opposition politicians and calls for Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, to resign. The government said that the posts could incite panic, used images out of context and could hinder its response to the pandemic.

The companies complied with the requests for now, in part by making the posts invisible to those using the sites inside India. In the past, the companies have reposted some content after determining that it didn’t break the law.

The takedown orders come as India’s public health crisis spirals into a political one, and set the stage for a widening struggle between American social media platforms and Mr. Modi’s government over who decides what can be said online.

On Monday, the country reported almost 353,000 new infections and 2,812 deaths, marking the fifth consecutive day it set a world record in daily infection statistics, though experts warn that the true numbers are probably much higher. The country now accounts for almost half of all new cases globally. Its health system appears to be teetering. Hospitals across the country have scrambled to get enough oxygen for patients.

In New Delhi, the capital, hospitals this weekend turned away patients after running out of oxygen and beds. Last week, at least 22 patients were killed in a hospital in the city of Nashik, after a leak cut off their oxygen supplies.

Online photos of bodies on plywood hospital beds and the countless fires of overworked crematories have gone viral. Desperate patients and their families have pleaded online for help from the government, horrifying an international audience.

Mr. Modi has been under attack for ignoring the advice of experts about the risks of loosening restrictions, after he held large political rallies with little regard for social distancing. Some of the content now offline in India highlighted that contradiction, using lurid images to contrast Mr. Modi’s rallies with the flames of funeral pyres.

  • U.S. stocks drifted higher on Monday ahead of a week loaded with corporate earnings results and a meeting of the Federal Reserve.

  • The S&P 500 rose 0.2 percent. Stocks in Europe were mostly higher, with the benchmark Stoxx Europe 600 index gaining 0.3 percent.

  • Stocks remained close to recent record highs, and on Monday, yields on U.S. Treasury bonds rose slightly. The yield on 10-year notes ticked up to 1.57 percent. Later this week, the Federal Reserve will announce its latest monetary policy decisions, but forecasters aren’t expecting a change. Policymakers have promised to telegraph any pull back in monetary stimulus well in advance.

  • Apple said Monday that it would spend more than $1 billion to open a new office in North Carolina, part of an expansion by the technology giant away from its headquarters in California. Apple said the new campus, in the Research Triangle area, would create at least 3,000 new jobs in machine learning, artificial intelligence and other research fields.

  • Among the companies scheduled to report results this week are the electric vehicle maker Tesla, and the four largest technology companies — Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Alphabet.

  • “With a lot of good news already priced into markets, stocks could be vulnerable to negative surprises, whether from growth disappointments, higher inflation, or policy missteps,” strategists at UBS Global Wealth Management wrote in a note.

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Today in the On Tech newsletter, Shira Ovide talks with Jack Nicas about the fight between the two tech giants, and why we should pay attention to it.