Uber fined $8.9 million over background checks

The company hired a driver who was previously an escaped felon. He passed a background check by using an alias

Uber says it will go public in 2019 Uber says it will go public in 2019

Uber is once again under fire for how it conducts background checks.

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC) fined Uber $8.9 million on Monday for allowing drivers with "disqualifying" criminal or motor vehicle offenses to drive for the company. Some of them did not have valid licenses and others used fake names, the PUC revealed.

In one case, the company hired a driver in Colorado who was previously an escaped felon. He passed a background check by using an alias.

Related: What we know (and don't know) about Uber background checks

In a notice issued by the commission, there were violations listed for 57 Uber drivers over the last year and a half who shouldn't have passed a background check, PUC said.

Uber was fined $2,500 per day for each day a disqualified driver worked.

Earlier this year, the commission's staff began an investigation after the Vail Police Department notified them about an Uber driver accused of assaulting a rider.

When comparing records provided by Uber to information from court databases, PUC staff found Uber had approved drivers with previous felony convictions, major moving violations such as DUIs and reckless driving, and found "numerous instances" of people driving with suspended, revoked or cancelled driver's licenses.

"We have determined that Uber had background check information that should have disqualified these drivers under the law, but they were allowed to drive anyway," PUC director Doug Dean said in a statement. "These actions put the safety of passengers in extreme jeopardy."

Related: More than 8,000 Uber and Lyft drivers fail Massachusetts background check

Uber said it was made aware of the fine when PUC published its press release.

"We recently discovered a process error that was inconsistent with Colorado's ridesharing regulations and proactively notified the Colorado Public Utilities Commission," an Uber spokeswoman said in a statement to CNN Tech. "This error affected a small number of drivers and we immediately took corrective action."

Uber has over 13,000 active drivers in Colorado.

Uber mostly conducts digital background checks via a startup called Checkr. The startup screens applicants by using Social Security numbers to identify associated addresses. It then reviews driving and criminal histories in national, state and local databases. Those databases include the U.S. Department of Justice National Sex Offender Public Website and ones that flag suspected terrorists.

Checkr is bound by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, a federal law that regulates how reporting agencies use a person's information.

However, a source familiar with Checkr previously told CNN Tech that Uber makes the final decision on whether to hire a driver based on Checkr's screening results.

Uber said Colorado's laws are different from ride-sharing laws in other states. For example, a driver convicted of a felony for crimes such as trespassing or forgery would not be allowed to drive with Uber or another ride-sharing company in Colorado.

Colorado's investigation found that 12 Uber drivers had felony convictions; 17 had major moving vehicle violations; 63 had driver's license issues and three had interlock driver's licenses, which are needed after recent drunk driving convictions.

An ignition Interlock is a device installed in a car that requires a breath sample before the engine can start.

CNNMoney (New York) First published November 20, 2017: 4:20 PM ET

Tesla Roadster might fly

Elon Musk said on Twitter that he might add rockets to the Roadster as part of an upgrade package.

Tesla unveils a new electric semi-truck Tesla unveils a new electric semi-truck

Last week, Tesla unveiled a new sports car that, according to the automaker, can go from zero to 60 miles an hour in 1.9 seconds, making it the quickest accelerating production car ever made. Beyond that, it has a top speed near the all-out fastest road cars in the world.

Oh, and it also might fly.

"Not saying the next gen Roadster special upgrade package *will* definitely enable it to fly short hops, but maybe…" Tesla CEO Elon Musk Tweeted Sunday.

Musk had been Tweeting about a "special option package" for the Tesla Roadster that "takes it to the next level." He implied that the 1.9-second zero-to-60 times, which already beats the quickest cars now available by nearly half a second, could be improved upon with a future upgrade.

"Just a question of safety," Musk said of the possible flight option. "Rocket tech applied to a car opens up revolutionary possibilities."

tesla roadster
Elon Musk is thinking of adding rockets to the Tesla Roadster that would make it leap into the air.

Musk is also CEO of the rocket company SpaceX, although the enormous rockets SpaceX makes would obviously be very different from ones that would launch a car off the pavement.

A number of companies are working on "flying cars" which, for the most part, amount to road-worthy airplanes that could legally be driven on streets.

Musk seems to be talking about something different, a sports car that could "hop" over obstacles. The emphasis would, presumably, still be on performance and practicality with four wheels on the ground.

The Roadster was revealed as a surprise addition during the same Thursday night event at which Tesla unveiled its electric semi-truck.

CNNMoney (New York) First published November 20, 2017: 1:43 PM ET

Can anything stop bitcoin? Price above $8,000

Bitcoin prices continue to surge despite a torrent of criticism from some on Wall Street. But the cryptocurrency may keep climbing as more companies adopt it. The latest? Jack Dorsey's Square.

Inside a Russian cryptocurrency farm Inside a Russian cryptocurrency farm

Forget about boring stocks. Bitcoin is where it's at these days for investors.

The virtual currency is now trading at a record high above $8,200 — just a little more than a month after bitcoin first passed the $5,000 level. If this keeps up, bitcoin could be trading at $10,000 before the end of the year.

Uber and Volvo are upping their self-driving car agreement

Read full story for latest details.

The future of cars: Self-driving and electric The future of cars: Self-driving and electric

Uber and Volvo are taking a major step toward putting driverless cars on the road.

The ride-hailing company has agreed to buy "tens of thousands" of cars from the Swedish automaker, the companies announced Monday.

The framework agreement, which isn't exclusive, runs from 2019 to 2021. The Wall Street Journal reported that such a deal could be worth an estimated $1 billion.

Volvo said it would sell Uber XC90 premium SUVs as "base vehicles" for the autonomous car project.

Uber would not share financial information about the project, and Volvo did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.

It's a significant move forward for what has already been a longstanding partnership between the two companies. Last year, they announced a $300 million project to jointly develop autonomous cars.

Related: Self-driving cars could make jaywalking legal

Uber first tested its driverless taxi service in Pittsburgh, and it also tests cars in Arizona. An expansion to parts of California ran into trouble when state regulators dinged the test vehicles for not having the proper permits.

Sarah Abboud, an Uber spokeswoman, said the Volvo prototype vehicles were not built for scale manufacturing or true autonomy — the step that removes a driver from the car completely.

She said the new agreement puts Uber on the path toward rolling out mass-produced autonomous cars at scale.

The use of autonomous cars iswidely seen as critical for the future of Uber's business. Automakers like Tesla (TSLA), Ford (F) and GM (GM) are also toying with autonomous cars and ride services.

Without the cost of having to pay a driver, self-driving taxis are expected to cost significantly less than traditional taxi and Uber rides.

Related: Ford ramping up new tech, but carefully

Volvo, meanwhile, says the project will help it reach its own goal: being the "supplier of choice" for ride-sharing service providers around the world.

"The automotive industry is being disrupted by technology and Volvo Cars chooses to be an active part of that disruption," said HÃ¥kan Samuelsson, Volvo's president and chief executive, in a news release.

The announcement also comes ahead of some uncertainty for Uber's self-driving technology development. The company is being sued by Alphabet's Waymo, which claims Uber used information stolen by a former Waymo employee.

That case is set to go to trial in December.

–CNN Tech's Matt McFarland contributed to this story.

CNNMoney (New York) First published November 20, 2017: 12:29 PM ET

Google Pixel Buds falls short of promise

The new earbuds tout the ability to translate a conversation between different languages in near real time. But does it live up to its promise?

Hands on with Google's Pixel 2 smartphone Hands on with Google's Pixel 2 smartphone

The launch of another pair of wireless headphones isn't that exciting.

But when Google (GOOG) announced its new Pixel Buds in October, touting the ability to translate a conversation between different languages in near real time, it promised something unique.

With over 7,000 languages spoken around the world, the ease of wiping away language barriers with technology has obvious allure. Travelers could visit any country and instantly talk to locals. It could help displaced populations connect with new communities. Jobs would become accessible to more people worldwide.

But the Pixel Buds don't fulfill that promise, at least not yet.

The $159 Bluetooth earbuds work with recent Android and iOS devices, but the translation feature is specific to Google Pixel smartphones.

Without a Pixel phone, you're getting somewhat uncomfortable wireless headphones with decent sound quality and a hefty price tag.

google pixel buds

To use the instant translate feature, put on the headphones, press and hold the right bud, and say, "Help me speak Italian." It fires up the Google Translate app, and you hand your smartphone to the other person.

While wearing the earbuds, you can say a phrase, such as "I love your hat. Where did you get it?" The Pixel phone will then translate the phrase out loud in Italian using its built-in Google Assistant.

The other person can press the microphone button on the Pixel phone to speak a response in Italian. You'll hear the English translation via the ear buds.

Related: Google's Pixelbook is a pretty ad for Chromebooks

Since it launched over 11 years ago, the free Google Translate site and app has grown to include more than 100 languages. But only 40 are currently supported by Pixel Buds.

The usual caveats of using a machine translation tool to communicate with someone still apply. The results are typically close enough to make a conversation possible, if you speak in clear sentences, don't ramble, and avoid idioms. (That's probably good advice for all conversations.)

Translations happen fast, but background noise was a problem. The Pixel Buds sometimes prematurely thought I was done talking.

The app shows the written translation on the phone screen — a helpful feature. But overall, the technology is not yet fluid enough to have long, deep conversations about politics, business or the meaning of life. You will definitely be able to find the nearest restroom.

The two black earbuds are connected to each other by a cord. I prefer the cord to Apple's free-floating EarPods, but some people may find it to be too bulky.

The adjustable loop of cord kept the Pixel Buds in place, but the plastic buds themselves didn't fit comfortably into my ears. Because ears are not all the same shape, an earbud that's uncomfortable for one person may fit perfectly for another.

Google's earbuds come in an attractive fabric case that doubles as a charging dock. The earpieces don't click into place as easily as they should, and you have to wind the cable around them each time, leaving a loop hanging out. Apple's EarPods win on compact packaging and charging.

For Pixel phone owners interested in translation, the Pixel Buds are unquestionably a fun option, but they're not ready for professional level tasks. If you only want them to listen to music and podcasts, there are cheaper options available with similar or better sound quality.

In the end, it's not worth buying a Pixel phone specifically to get the Pixel Buds. After all, anyone can download the free Google Translate app on Android or iOS and get a similar experience.

CNNMoney (San Francisco) First published November 20, 2017: 11:30 AM ET

Uber rolls out location sharing and glowing windshields

Uber is trying to make it less annoying to find your driver.

Uber says it will go public in 2019 Uber says it will go public in 2019

Uber is trying to make it less annoying to find your driver.

The ride-hailing giant is rolling out new tools such as a live location feature and windshield colors. The efforts intend to improve the pick-up process, especially in crowded areas like the airport or a concert venue.

"The rendezvous point between rider and driver is one of the most stress inducing parts [of the trip]. Often times you're on the street, it might be cold, you're looking around. It could be dark," Uber product lead Nundu Janakiram told CNN Tech. "Riders kept telling us that they were basically trying to verbally [describe] their GPS point."

Related: Uber now lets you add multiple stops to your ride

Location sharing is an optional feature you must turn on in an effort to address privacy concerns. Following an outcry earlier this year, Uber turned off a tool that allowed the company to track customers' locations even after their trip was over.

"We wanted to make sure riders knew what they were opting in to and always had the power to turn it off and on," Janakiram said. "Many people can see the usefulness of this [new] feature, but want to be in control. That was a critical design principle."

Even cities, which have often clashed with ride-sharing services, want to make it easier for riders to find their drivers. For example, San Francisco and Washington D.C. are currently testing designated pick-up and drop-off areas for both Uber and Lyft. The move intends to improve safety and address other issues such as double-parking and blocked bike lanes.

Related: Uber is (finally) rolling out tipping

uber beacon

Uber also announced on Monday that riders can identify a driver's location by looking for a device called a Beacon on the car's windshield.Users will select a color via the app and the Beacon will glow accordingly.

The feature, which has been in testing since last year, will be now available in New York City, Chicago and San Francisco.

Uber continues its new features spree aimed at improving customer and driver experiences, following a series of PR crises this year. The company recently added multiple stops to trips, the ability to tip drivers and an in-app messaging for drivers and riders.

CNNMoney (New York) First published November 20, 2017: 9:27 AM ET

London buses are being powered by a new fuel: Coffee

Read full story for latest details.

Startup will power London buses with coffee Startup will power London buses with coffee

There's a new buzz powering public buses in London.

British startup bio-bean has partnered with Shell (RDSB) and Argent Energy to create a coffee-based biofuel that will be used in London's diesel buses.

The company has produced 6,000 liters of coffee oil for the pilot project with London's transportation authority — enough to help power the equivalent of one city bus for a year.

"It's a great example of what can be done when we start to reimagine waste as an untapped resource," bio-bean founder Arthur Kay said in a statement.

The startup collects used coffee grounds from cafes, restaurants and factories, and transports them to its recycling facility. There, the grounds are dried before coffee oil is extracted.

The coffee oil is then blended with other fuels to create B20 biofuel, which can be used in diesel buses without modification.

"Spent coffee grounds are highly calorific and contain valuable compounds, making them an ideal feedstock from which to produce clean fuels," the company says on its website.

london bus coffee fuel arthur kay bio-bean shell
Bio-bean founder Arthur Kay helped develop coffee oil that can be used to power buses.

Bio-bean estimates that Britain produces 500,000 tonnes of coffee grounds a year, most of which are discarded in landfills where they can emit harmful greenhouse gases.

The company also sells "coffee logs," which are used in fireplaces and stoves as an alternative to wooden logs.

Related: Tiffany's opens first-ever cafe

Bio-bean said there is "no formal agreement" to continue using its coffee oil in London, but it hopes to quickly find new markets and applications.

"There is huge potential for this project to expand in the U.S., which drinks the most coffee on the planet, 400 million cups of per day," the company said in a written statement.

CNNMoney (London) First published November 20, 2017: 9:02 AM ET

China is winning electric cars ‘arms race’

Read full story for latest details.

Electric cars of tomorrow Electric cars of tomorrow

China is outmaneuvering the U.S. and other countries in the global scramble for a vital element for electric cars.

As demand for the vehicles surges, Chinese companies have been doing deals around the world to secure supplies of lithium, a silvery-white metal mined from rocks in Australia and brine pools in South America.

Twitter suspends account of notorious Russian troll

A Kremlin-linked troll that fooled thousands of Americans appears to have returned to Twitter. The account is proudly touting itself as a Russian troll in its Twitter bio, but for a week Twitter took no action against it.

twitter russia troll back

Update: Twitter suspended the new "Jenna Abrams" account minutes after CNN published this article revealing its existence and Twitter's lack of action against it.

A Kremlin-linked troll that has become infamous after having fooled thousands of Americans appears to have returned to Twitter more than a week ago. The account is proudly touting itself as a Russian troll in its Twitter bio, but Twitter has taken no action against it.

Using the pseudonym "Jenna Abrams" and photographs of a Russian woman, the troll account in its initial incarnation posted more than 25,000 tweets using an invented persona of a conservative American woman. Before it was shut down, "Abrams" amassed a following of more than 70,000 — including, according to a CNN analysis, former members of the Trump administration Michael Flynn and Sebastian Gorka, as well as Flynn's son Michael Flynn Jr.

The account was on Twitter for years until the company determined it was part of a network of almost 3,000 accounts run by the Internet Research Agency, a troll army in St Petersburg, Russia, that has ties to the Kremlin, and shut it down. The House Intelligence Committee earlier this month released a list of IRA-linked accounts that Twitter had compiled and provided to the Committee; the Abrams account was among them.

The Abrams account has become one of the most infamous of the IRA's efforts ever since its link to the group was first reported by RBC, a Russian magazine, in October. That's in part because of the success it had in coming to wider attention. Tweets from the account were featured by dozens of American and international news organizations, including CNN.

Related: Virginia voter suppression tweets went undetected by Twitter for hours

"Abrams'" activity was not limited to Twitter. The troll or trolls who ran it also had blogs on the publishing platforms WordPress and Medium.

While Medium removed the blog on its site after CNN discovered it in October, the WordPress account was still live on Wednesday. (WordPress did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Last week, a post appeared on the WordPress blog, the first since the original Twitter account was suspended.

Among other things, including denying that the account was run by Russians and telling Americans to blame themselves rather than Vladimir Putin for the election of Donald Trump, the author or authors of the post disclosed that there was a new Abrams Twitter account, @realJennaAbrams.

The new account, which began tweeting on November 8, doesn't just boldly use the name Jenna Abrams in its handle. It also used, for a period, the same profile picture as the original account. And when it started tweeting, it immediately began mocking, in tweets and in its profile, American media's coverage of the original account.

"This article is my favorite one," the new account tweeted with a link to a Guardian story headlined, "Jenna Abrams: the Trump-loving Twitter star who never really existed."

In its profile, the account included snippets from articles about it as if it were a movie being reviewed: "She is basically Vladimir Putin – The Guardian Russia's best troll – Mashable"

As of Friday morning, the new account had just 25 followers and had sent only 38 tweets. But its continued existence, despite the fact that it is either connected to Russian trolls or pretending to be, still seems to fly in the face of Twitter's telling Congress just two weeks ago that it is working to ensure "the experience of 2016 never happens again."

Related: Russian trolls pushed pro-Brexit spin on day of referendum

CNN messaged directly with the person or people running the account this week through private Twitter direct messages. There, again, they denied being part of a Russian troll operation, but declined to say who they were or where they were from.

Separately, CNN identified the woman whose photos the account has for years used to help grant the persona a veneer of legitimacy.

The photos were taken from the social media accounts of a real person who lives in St. Petersburg, Russia — the city where the Internet Research Agency is based.

Nataliia Redkina, 26, expressed both surprise and concern when CNN showed her how her pictures had been used on Abrams' accounts. She had not been previously aware her image was being used this way, she said.

"I'm not interested in political news," she told CNN, "I'm an architect and I work hard every day."

Redkina said she works for the Committee for the State Preservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments, a part of the St. Petersburg city government.

russian trolls pictures

She said she is restricted from posting political messages like the ones that have appeared on the Abrams accounts because of her job.

Redkina said she had not heard of the Internet Research Agency and that she hopes her photos will be removed from any existing accounts. "I don't know how to change this situation," she told CNN.

When CNN asked the person or people running the new Abrams Twitter account why they were using Redkina's photographs, they removed them from the profile and wrote in a direct message to CNN, "I want to take this opportunity to say sorry for that. first it was an experiment, then it became a brand."

Twitter said on Friday that it was looking into the account.

— CNN's Laurie Segall contributed reporting.

CNNMoney (New York) First published November 17, 2017: 6:04 PM ET

Alibaba gobbles up stake in China’s Walmart

E-commerce behemoth will pay $2.9 billion for just over a third of Sun Art Retail Group

You need an app to shop in Alibaba's grocery stores You need an app to shop in Alibaba's grocery stores

Alibaba's appetite for grocery stores shows no signs of letting up.

The Chinese e-commerce giant said it would pay $2.9 billion for a 36% stake in Sun Art Retail Group (SURRY), widely considered China's answer to Walmart (WMT).

Sun Art Retail runs nearly 450 hypermarkets across China under its Auchan and RT-Mart brands.

Related: Alibaba is investing $15 billion in global tech

The investment is being made via Alibaba (BABA, Tech30)'s popular online shopping platform Taobao.

Alibaba has been bolstering its presence in traditional retail over the past couple of years. Its Hema groceries brand combines elements of online and offline shopping.

The strategy is part of the company's efforts to capture a big slice of China's online food market, which is expected to be worth $180 billion by 2020, according to research firm IGD. China's overall grocery market is currently worth more than $1.2 trillion, second only to the United States, IGD said.

Related: Walmart is killing Target and making Amazon sweat

Earlier this year, Alibaba spent $2.6 billion to snap up Intime Retail, which operates 29 department stores and 17 shopping malls in China. The firm also owns a 20% stake in electronics retailer Suning Commerce Group, for which it paid $4.6 billion in 2015.

Related: $24 billion in 24 hours: World's biggest shopping day sets a new record

Alibaba's latest move comes a few months after American rivalAmazon (AMZN, Tech30) paid $13.7 billion to swallow grocery chain Whole Foods.

Shares in Sun Art Retail plunged as much as 13.6% in Hong Kong trading Monday morning following news of the Alibaba deal.

That's because the price Alibaba is paying works out at just 6.5 Hong Kong dollars ($0.83) per share, far lower than the stock's Friday closing price of 8.6 Hong Kong dollars.

— Sherisse Pham contributed to this report

CNNMoney (Hong Kong) First published November 20, 2017: 4:56 AM ET