Cruise is kicking off its driverless ridehailing service in Austin. Photo via GetCruise.com

A driverless ridehailing app has made its first expansion out of California — and it's rolled right into Texas.

Founded in San Francisco in 2013, Cruise has completed its first driverless rides in Austin, marking its official launch. The company has not announced any other expansion plans at the moment.

It was a quick turnaround for the company, which announced its intentions in the Capital City in September, calling the feat “going from zero to driverless in about 90 days.” The service is only in three cities so far — based in San Francisco and expanded out to Austin and Phoenix — but given the success of that timeline, it’s reasonable to expect much more as soon as the company announces it.

“Folks, we are entering the golden years of [autonomous vehicle] expansion,” tweeted Crusie CEO Kyle Vogt while announcing the achievement on December 20.

Vogt seems to be right, at least in Austin. News about driverless vehicles keeps popping up, from pioneering autonomous Lyft rides to independent delivery robots for Chick-fil-A and Ikea. A major difference is the patron; while most other autonomous driving news is centered on using the technology for a well-known company providing value in other spaces, Cruise is driving for itself. (It has, however, received investment funds from companies like Honda and Walmart.)

Rider testimony focuses on safety with an aura of giddiness. Even amid the novelty displayed in a video Vogt shared, riders talked about the vehicle’s caution and smoothness. A safety page on the company’s website claims several measures including constant 360-degree vision, a sensitivity to even very light external touch, and communication between fleet vehicles to assist in machine learning. And if all else fails, the company emphasizes “end-to-end redundancy,” meaning that the system can compensate for failures.

Few topics polarize Austinites like opinions on driverless vehicles and this city’s magnetism for testing experiences. Love it or hate it, this is quintessential Austin.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston was Dallas-based Alto's second market to expand into in 2020. Photo courtesy of Alto

Why this startup founder is betting on responsible ridesharing as Houston continues to grow

guest column

Houston is a car dependent city and Houstonians spend approximately 75 hours a year in traffic. Ridesharing is a safer and more comfortable way to connect people and the places they need to travel. As Houston continues to grow — the city added 250 people a day in the last year — transportation options are crucial to connect people to the places they need to go.

What’s an alternative to driving your own vehicle? Ridesharing.

Ridesharing has many benefits, and it’s crucial that rideshare models both deliver a safe and consistent experience to passengers while supporting the needs of the cities in which they operate. In my view, responsible ridesharing has three parts: safety, fleet optimization, and sustainability.

The most obvious benefit is safety. The most important objective rideshare businesses have is to transport passengers from point A to point B; everyone in the vehicle is precious cargo. If you’re out drinking, for example, you can ditch your personal vehicle and call for a ride. Having drivers that are professionally trained and their mission to make sure you arrive at your destination safely is the most important priority.

I founded Alto with the mission to create a safer rideshare experience for passengers and drivers alike. To me, personal safety while riding or driving should be the top priority of a ridesharing company. Safety is at the core of Alto’s business model, and it’s built into everything we do. At the center of our business is our W-2 employee drivers who are background checked and complete a driver safety training program. Other features include in-car surveillance, telematic tracking, and in-app tracking of your Alto’s position and status. These features are key in creating a safer way to travel as well as building rapport with customers.

Responsible rideshare services also need to have purposeful wait times. Calling for an on-demand ride and receiving a two-minute pick up time is not sustainable and not good for cities. It doesn’t make sense for your ride to arrive faster than an ambulance would. Having such short wait times incentivizes putting more cars on the road and increases the number of drivers driving around a small section of the city waiting for the next ride request. More cars on the road lead to road congestion and even slowing down road lanes that are dedicated to public transit. Even extending a wait time for pick up to 10-15 minutes can greatly reduce the number of vehicles needed to serve customers, alter customers’ approach to hailing a ride, and with a little planning, create greater efficiencies for the city, customers, and the business.

Rideshare fleets that have sustainable assets are essential for acting as a responsible industry in cities and demonstrates a business’s positive impact. For many years we’ve been hearing about the great electric vehicle (EV) revolution for personal vehicles. But what about rideshare fleets? I think ridesharing services will continue to grow as a transportation alternative and I believe that the rideshare industry should prioritize electrification.

It’s not enough to put vehicles on the road without trying to make the industry more sustainable and climate conscious. Houston, an energy sector powerhouse, is leading the green energy transition and I think Houstonians, along with riders all over the country, want to see EV rideshare fleets.

My company Alto, for example, has announced its vision to transition our entire fleet to EVs over the next two years. There are few discussions about the EV transition for fleets and I’m proud that Alto is leading the industry in this regard. This EV vision is one example of how a rideshare company can build a better and more accountable industry, and these steps also give Houstonians a more responsible and sustainable transportation solution.

As Houston continues to grow, Houstonians will need transportation alternatives that meet various trip demands and do not overwhelm or harm the city’s transportation capabilities. Safety protocols, optimized fleets, and sustainability are all essential factors needed in a transportation framework to keep up with Houston’s economic and population growth. To get to that dinner reservation, the game at the Toyota Center, or that conference at the Convention Center, Houstonians should have access to a transportation alternative — ridesharing — to get them to their destination responsibly, safely, and sustainably.

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Will Coleman is the CEO of Dallas-based Alto, a luxury rideshare service that currently operates in Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and Washington, D.C.

Houston and Austin rideshare riders might soon walk away with some earnings — or at least some entertainment. Photo via playoctopus.com

'Cash cab' rideshare tech company expands services to Houston and Austin

In-ride entertainment

Your next Lyft or Uber ride might win you some money. An interactive advertising and entertainment platform that works in rideshares has announced it will expand to the Houston and Austin markets — just in time for SXSW.

Maryland-based Play Octopus has already received thousands of applications from rideshare drivers wanting the device in their vehicles, according to a press release. And expanding to Houston was an obvious move.

"As the leading rideshare advertising company in the country, expanding into Texas' ride-sharing scene is a necessary first step as we expand outside of the Northeast. Austin and Houston are both tech-driven cities that rely on rideshare for convenient transportation," says Cherian Thomas, the co-founder and CEO of Play Octopus. "Digital video consumption and rideshare are both at all-time highs, and for brands, Octopus provides the ability to reach millions of rideshare passengers on a monthly basis."

The company has recently seen success from partnerships with the likes of Disney, Red Bull, Tiffany & Co., Sprint, National Geographic, and Weight Watchers in major Northeastern cities. Houston and Austin are just the start of Octopus' 2019 growth plans.

The way it works is the company provides free tablets to qualified drivers. Tablets come with a monthly data plan, a mount, the cables required, and up to $100 a month — not to mention the perks — like tips and ratings — that come with providing riders a new option for ride entertainment. On the other side of the table, advertisers have access to millions of monthly riders and can use branding and geo-targeting ads.

The company launched the platform on the East Coast about a year ago and is already in over 7,000 vehicles generating almost 10 million engagements a month. Currently, Octopus is in New York; Boston; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; and Richmond, Virginia.

"Our national expansion is being fueled by our brand and agency partners, and further solidifies the Octopus platform as a key component to media plans," says Dillon Tedesco, the chief revenue officer of Play Octopus. "As we surpass the 10,000,000 monthly engagement milestone and introduce exciting new ways to interact with our tablets, we're looking forward to providing our clients with a deeper impact in more cities across the country."

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Exclusive: Houston hydrogen spinout names energy industry veteran as CEO

good as gold

Cleantech startup Gold H2, a spinout of Houston-based energy biotech company Cemvita, has named oil and gas industry veteran Prabhdeep Singh Sekhon as its CEO.

Sekhon previously held roles at companies such as NextEra Energy Resources and Hess. Most recently, he was a leader on NextEra’s strategy and business development team.

Gold H2 uses microbes to convert oil and gas in old, uneconomical wells into clean hydrogen. The approach to generating clean hydrogen is part of a multibillion-dollar market.

Gold H2 spun out of Cemvita last year with Moji Karimi, co-founder of Cemvita, leading the transition. Gold H2 spun out after successfully piloting its microbial hydrogen technology, producing hydrogen below 80 cents per kilogram.

The Gold H2 venture had been a business unit within Cemvita.

“I was drawn to Gold H2 because of its innovative mission to support the U.S. economy in this historical energy transition,” Sekhon says in a news release. “Over the last few years, my team [at NextEra] was heavily focused on the commercialization of clean hydrogen. When I came across Gold H2, it was clear that it was superior to each of its counterparts in both cost and [carbon intensity].”

Gold H2 explains that oil and gas companies have wrestled for decades with what to do with exhausted oil fields. With Gold H2’s first-of-its-kind biotechnology, these companies can find productive uses for oil wells by producing clean hydrogen at a low cost, the startup says.

“There is so much opportunity ahead of Gold H2 as the first company to use microbes in the subsurface to create a clean energy source,” Sekhon says. “Driving this dynamic industry change to empower clean hydrogen fuel production will be extremely rewarding.”

In 2022, Gold H2 celebrated its successful Permian Basin pilot and raised early-stage funding. In addition to Gold H2, Cemvita also spun out a resource mining operation called Endolith. In a podcast episode, Karimi discussed Cemvita's growth and spinout opportunities.

Rice University's student startup competition names 2024 winners, awards $100,000 in prizes

taking home the W

A group of Rice University student-founded companies shared $100,000 of cash prizes at an annual startup competition.

Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship's H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, hosted by Rice earlier this month, named its winners for 2024. HEXASpec, a company that's created a new material to improve heat management for the semiconductor industry, won the top prize and $50,000 cash.

Founded by Rice Ph.D. candidates Tianshu Zhai and Chen-Yang Lin, who are a part of Lilie’s 2024 Innovation Fellows program, HEXASpec is improving efficiency and sustainability within the semiconductor industry, which usually consumes millions of gallons of water used to cool data centers. According to Rice's news release, HEXASpec's "next-generation chip packaging offer 20 times higher thermal conductivity and improved protection performance, cooling the chips faster and reducing the operational surface temperature."

The rest of the winners included:

  • Second place and $25,000: CoFlux Purification
  • Third place and $15,000: Bonfire
  • Outstanding Achievement in Social Impact Award and $1,500: EmpowerU
  • Outstanding Achievement in Artificial Intelligence and $1,000: Sups and Levytation
  • Outstanding Achievement in Consumer Goods Prize and $1,000: The Blind Bag
  • Frank Liu Jr. Prize for Creative Innovations in Music, Fashion and the Arts and $1,500: Melody
  • Outstanding Achievement in Climate Solutions Prizes and $1,000: Solidec and HEXASpec
  • Outstanding Undergraduate Startup Award and $2,500: Women’s Wave
  • Audience Choice Award and $2,000: CoFlux Purification

The NRLC, open to Rice students, is Lilie's hallmark event. Last year's winner was fashion tech startup, Goldie.

“We are the home of everything entrepreneurship, innovation and research commercialization for the entire Rice student, faculty and alumni communities,” Kyle Judah, executive director at Lilie, says in a news release. “We’re a place for you to immerse yourself in a problem you care about, to experiment, to try and fail and keep trying and trying and trying again amongst a community of fellow rebels, coloring outside the lines of convention."

This year, the competition started with 100 student venture teams before being whittled down to the final five at the championship. The program is supported by Lilie’s mentor team, Frank Liu and the Liu Family Foundation, Rice Business, Rice’s Office of Innovation, and other donors

“The heart and soul of what we’re doing to really take it to the next level with entrepreneurship here at Rice is this fantastic team,” Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice Business, adds. “And they’re doing an outstanding job every year, reaching further, bringing in more students. My understanding is we had more than 100 teams submit applications. It’s an extraordinarily high number. It tells you a lot about what we have at Rice and what this team has been cooking and making happen here at Rice for a long, long time.”

HEXASpec was founded by Rice Ph.D. candidates Tianshu Zhai and Chen-Yang Lin, who are a part of Lilie’s 2024 Innovation Fellows program. Photo courtesy of Rice

2 Houston high schools rank among America's top 100 in 2024, says U.S. News

best in class

Two Houston high schools are dominating U.S. News and World Report's prestigious annual list of the country's best public high schools.

The 2024 rankings from U.S. News, released April 23, put Houston ISD’s Carnegie Vanguard High School at No. 31 nationally (up from No. 35 last year and No. 40 in 2022) among the country’s best high schools. The school also ranks No. 248 nationally among the best STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) high schools and No. 12 among the best magnet high schools.

Meanwhile, DeBakey High School for Health Professions ranks No. 70 nationally among the best high schools (down from No. 66 last year and No. 50 in 2022) and No. 19 among best magnet high schools. DeBakey ranked No. 426 nationally among best STEM high schools.

Topping the national list for 2024 is the BASIS Peoria Charter School in Peoria, Arizona.

Each year, U.S. News evaluates about 18,000 high schools on six factors: college readiness, reading and math proficiency, reading and math performance, underserved student performance, college curriculum breadth, and graduation rates.

“The 2024 Best High Schools rankings offer a starting point for parents to understand a school’s academic performance, whether it’s a prospective school or one that their child is already attending,” said LaMont Jones, Ed.D., the managing editor of education at U.S. News, in a release. “Accessible data on our high schools can empower families across the country as they navigate today’s educational environment and plan for the future.”

Elsewhere in Texas
Around the state, these Texas high schools also made it into the top 100 nationally:

  • Dallas ISD's The School for the Talented and Gifted, No. 6 (unchanged from last year). No. 21 nationally among the best STEM high schools, and No. 3 among the best magnet high schools.
  • Dallas ISD's Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women's Leadership School, No. 23 (down from No. 18 last year) and No. 10 nationally among the best magnet high schools.
  • Dallas ISD's Science and Engineering Magnet School, No. 29 nationally among the best high schools (down from No. 23 last year), No. 37 nationally among the best STEM high schools, and No. 11 nationally among the best magnet high schools.
  • Grand Prairie ISD's Collegiate Institute, No. 30 (up from No. 188 last year). No. 6 nationally among best charter high schools.
  • Austin ISD’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy, No. 38 (down from No. 32 last year and No. 34 in 2022). No. 34 nationally among the best STEM high schools.
  • BASIS San Antonio - Shavano Campus, No. 64 (up from No. 81 last year and No. 77 in 2022). No. 76 nationally among the best STEM high schools and No. 13 nationally among the best charter high schools.
  • Brownsville ISD's Early College High School, No. 71 (up from No. 229 last year).
  • Dallas ISD’s Judge Barefoot Sanders Law Magnet, No. 85 (up from No. 93 last year and No. 48 in 2022) . No. 21 nationally among the best magnet high schools.

When broken down just to Texas schools, Houston's Carnegie Vanguard High School (No. 5) and DeBakey High School for Health Professions (No. 8) are both in the top 10 best-rated public high schools in Texas this year, U.S. News says.

Other Houston-area schools that rank among Texas' 100 best are:

  • No. 24 – Kinder High School for Performing and Visual Arts, Houston ISD
  • No. 25 – Challenge Early College High School, Houston ISD
  • No. 29 – Young Women's College Prep Academy, Houston ISD
  • No. 32 – Eastwood Academy, Houston ISD
  • No. 37 – Harmony School of Innovation - Katy, Katy
  • No. 40 – Kerr High School, Alief ISD, Houston
  • No. 43 – Houston Academy for International Studies, Houston ISD
  • No. 47 – East Early College High School, Houston ISD
  • No. 59 – Clear Horizons Early College High School, Clear Creek ISD, Houston
  • No. 61 – Seven Lakes High School, Katy ISD
  • No. 63 – Early College Academy at Southridge, Spring ISD, Houston
  • No. 68 – KIPP Houston High School, Houston
  • No. 70 – North Houston Early College High School, Houston ISD
  • No. 71 – Victory Early College High School, Aldine ISD, Houston
  • No. 75 – Tompkins High School, Katy ISD
  • No. 76 – Clements High School, Fort Bend ISD, Sugar Land
  • No. 82 – Sharpstown International School, Houston ISD
  • No. 85 – Tomball Star Academy, Tomball ISD
  • No. 89 – Westchester Academy for International Studies, Spring Branch ISD, Houston
  • No. 95 – Harmony School of Innovation - Sugar Land, Sugar Land
  • No. 97 – Harmony School of Discovery - Houston, Houston
  • No. 98 – Energy Institute High School, Houston ISD

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.