Data Sheet—Tuesday, March 15, 2016

March 15, 2016, 12:48 PM UTC

Thanks to the technology industry, this is easily the most exciting time for cars and trucks in years. Maybe decades.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Heather Clancy.

The automobile is a technological marvel—of the last century. More recently technology gains have been incremental. Fuel-efficiency improvements have been real, if unexciting. Hybrid and electric cars, again, are wonders of science, but not game changers. Auto makers have nattered on about being connected, but their best onboard electronics were systemic rather than networked with other devices.

With the advent of self-driving cars and changes in driving habits driven (pardon the pun) by ride-sharing schemes, everything is about to change. That includes the industry’s major players.

Consider, a year-end list of companies issued autonomous vehicle testing permits by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles contained many names you’d expect, including Volkswagen, Google, Tesla, BMW, and Ford. There was precisely one company you wouldn’t have heard of, a startup called Cruise Automation. General Motors bought Cruise last week for a reported price of a billion dollars.

States like California and Nevada have been leaders in robotic cars. Unsurprisingly, the feds don’t want to be left out. A Senate committee will hold a hearing Tuesday with the trying-too-hard title “Hands Off: The Future of Self-Driving Cars.” Executives from Google, GM, Delphi, and Lyft will appear. Given that Republicans control the Senate, it’s telling how the committee frames the discussion. “Witnesses have been asked to testify on their continued efforts to develop automated vehicles, their views on the appropriate role of government in promoting innovation including removing unnecessary hurdles, and their strategy to grow consumer adoption of this new technology,” the committee advises, with my emphasis italicized.

Back in the real automotive world, cars and trucks had a banner year. But troubles loom. The Wall Street Journal published a fine piece suggesting a looming crisis in subprime auto loans. Critics blame the loans for fueling (sorry, again) strong sales, while auto and lending industry cheerleaders predictably suggest there’s nothing to see here; please keep moving—and buying more pickup trucks.

It’s hard to believe less than 10 years ago the auto industry was on its back. Surviving financial ruin was one thing. Let’s see how it confronts a tech tsunami.

Adam Lashinsky

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Apple, Google face European tax scrutiny. The two tech giants are among several companies that will be questioned Wednesday by the European Parliament's tax committee. It's part of a broader investigation into whether multinationals pay their fair share of local taxes in Europe. (Reuters)

Amazon expands cloud migration service. Since early 2016, the company has used an experimental offering to help "many hundreds" of companies move databases from on-site data centers into its cloud service. As of today, that service becomes available to everyone. (Wall Street Journal)

Payment by selfie? Amazon wants a patent on software that uses someone's self-portrait as the authorization for an e-commerce transaction rather than a password. Alibaba and MasterCard are working on similar technology. The rationale is security-related. If someone steals your smartphone, they'll be prevented from messing with your credit. (Re/code)

Square bolsters analytics arsenal. The payments tech company has hired the team behind Framed, which uses artificial intelligence to predict consumer sentiment. They'll be focused on improving Square Capital, the company's merchant lending service. (Fortune)

Microsoft reiterates bitcoin commitment. The software giant refuted an "inaccurate" notice posted on its online store, saying it still will accept the digital currency for payments. Bitcoin is struggling to find mainstream acceptance, but Microsoft has accepted it for about two years. (Fortune)

Nordstrom downsizes tech team. The luxury retailer is cutting about 7% of its in-house software and e-commerce specialists, amid profit pressures. Despite the reduction, it expects to invest about $300 million this year to improve its digital business. Online operations accounted for 21% of revenue last year, compared with 8% five years earlier. (Fortune)

Former IBMer founds artificial intelligence firm. When Stephen Pratt left his post as general management of the IBM Services Watson practice after just eight months, it set tongues wagging. On Monday, he emerged as CEO of, a startup that will apply AI to business analytics. (New York Times)

Why is Snapchat hiring wearable gadget experts? The social media startup has hired at least a dozen industrial designers with expertise in consumer technologies ranging from smartphones to Bluetooth accessories, reports C/net. That, plus Snapchat's acquisition of Vergence Labs two years ago is inspiring speculation that it's developing smart glasses technology. (C/net)

GM, Lyft deepen partnership. The ride-sharing service needs more drivers. The challenge: finding people who own cars good enough (and new enough) for the Lyft fleet. The answer: Let them use General Motors vehicles leased through a new short-term car rental service. (Fortune)


Google tackles identity management for non-Google apps. If you’ve ever felt like you spend hours each day logging and re-logging into diverse applications, then you know the pain that single sign-on claims to solve: You fire up your computer, sign in once, and you’re off to the races.

Google is addressing that pain point while furthering its quest to attract more business users by making it easier for Google Apps Identity to manage logins for such distinctly non-Google products as Microsoft Office 365, Box, Slack, and Concur. Is it playing catchup with Microsoft? Fortune's Barb Darrow reports.


How Palantir uses big data to find missing kids by Michal Lev-Ram

Alphabet and Cisco fund ex-HP security lead's new startup
by Robert Hackett

Amazon hires way more MBAs than its rivals by Valentina Zarya

Skype makes it simpler to place calls from the web by Jonathan Vanian

Google files bus detection patent for self-driving cars by Kirsten Korosec

Virtual reality tackles football by Chris Morris

Is this what the iPhone 7 looks like? by Don Reisinger

Minecraft is Microsoft's petri dish for artificial intelligence
by Matt Peckham/Time


Google software prevails in Go matchup. AlphaGo, a system that runs powerful artificial intelligence algorithms, won the fifth and final match in a series against human opponent Lee Se-dol. The feat is notable because Go moves require complex reasoning—it's a far more complicated game than chess. Lee was able to win just one of the games. (Wired)

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