IBM launches cloud tool to detect AI bias and explain automated decisions

IBM has launched a software service that scans AI systems as they work in order to detect bias and provide explanations for the automated decisions being made — a degree of transparency that may be necessary for compliance purposes not just a company’s own due diligence.

The new trust and transparency system runs on the IBM cloud and works with models built from what IBM bills as a wide variety of popular machine learning frameworks and AI-build environments — including its own Watson tech, as well as Tensorflow, SparkML, AWS SageMaker, and AzureML.

It says the service can be customized to specific organizational needs via programming to take account of the “unique decision factors of any business workflow”.

The fully automated SaaS explains decision-making and detects bias in AI models at runtime — so as decisions are being made — which means it’s capturing “potentially unfair outcomes as they occur”, as IBM puts it.

It will also automatically recommend data to add to the model to help mitigate any bias that has been detected.

Explanations of AI decisions include showing which factors weighted the decision in one direction vs another; the confidence in the recommendation; and the factors behind that confidence.

IBM also says the software keeps records of the AI model’s accuracy, performance and fairness, along with the lineage of the AI systems — meaning they can be “easily traced and recalled for customer service, regulatory or compliance reasons”.

For one example on the compliance front, the EU’s GDPR privacy framework references automated decision making, and includes a right for people to be given detailed explanations of how algorithms work in certain scenarios — meaning businesses may need to be able to audit their AIs.

The IBM AI scanner tool provides a breakdown of automated decisions via visual dashboards — an approach it bills as reducing dependency on “specialized AI skills”.

However it is also intending its own professional services staff to work with businesses to use the new software service. So it will be both selling AI, ‘a fix’ for AI’s imperfections, and experts to help smooth any wrinkles when enterprises are trying to fix their AIs… Which suggests that while AI will indeed remove some jobs, automation will be busy creating other types of work.

Nor is IBM the first professional services firm to spot a business opportunity around AI bias. A few months ago Accenture outed a fairness tool for identifying and fixing unfair AIs.

So with a major push towards automation across multiple industries there also looks to be a pretty sizeable scramble to set up and sell services to patch any problems that arise as a result of increasing use of AI.

And, indeed, to encourage more businesses to feel confident about jumping in and automating more. (On that front IBM cites research it conducted which found that while 82% of enterprises are considering AI deployments, 60% fear liability issues and 63% lack the in-house talent to confidently manage the technology.)

In additional to launching its own (paid for) AI auditing tool, IBM says its research division will be open sourcing an AI bias detection and mitigation toolkit — with the aim of encouraging “global collaboration around addressing bias in AI”.

“IBM led the industry in establishing trust and transparency principles for the development of new AI technologies. It’s time to translate principles into practice,” said David Kenny, SVP of cognitive solutions at IBM, commenting in a statement. “We are giving new transparency and control to the businesses who use AI and face the most potential risk from any flawed decision making.”

Google will match up to $1M in donations for Hurricane Florence relief

As cities in Hurricane Florence’s path deal with its aftermath, Google will match up to $1 million in donations to help with relief efforts.

The disaster’s death toll is currently 35 people and about 343,000 people in North Carolina are without electricity. The hurricane caused widespread flooding and property damage throughout North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

 

Google drew attention to its Hurricane Florence donation campaign with a banner that appeared on top of Gmail for some users. Google has matched donations for other disasters before, including Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey last year. It’s also raised money for humanitarian efforts crises, like a 2015 matching program for up to $5.5 million in donations to provide aid to refugees in Europe. For that campaign, it temporarily added a “Donate” button to its search homepage.

The company is partnering with non-profit Network for God to collect and distribute funds. All donations will be directed to the American Red Cross, which Google said it chose to work with “because of their strong track record and existing response in the region.”

Other tech companies helping with Hurricane Florence relief include Amazon, which enabled Alexa users to make donations by saying “Alexa, donate to Hurricane Florence disaster relief” and sent trucks with food and donated items to affected areas, and Apple, which donated $1 million to the American Red Cross. Airbnb also offered free rooms to people fleeing the hurricane.

 

Evernote just slashed 54 jobs, or 15 percent of its workforce

It’s no secret that Evernote, the productivity app that lets people take notes and organize other files from their working and non-work life, has been trying to regain its former footing as one of the most popular apps in the U.S., and that doing so has been an ongoing struggle.

Just two weeks ago, we reported that Evernote had lost several of its most senior executives, including its CTO Anirban Kundu, CFO Vincent Toolan, CPO Erik Wrobel and head of HR Michelle Wagner.

Now, Chris O’Neill — who took over as CEO of Evernote in 2015 after running the business operations at the Google X research unit — is sharing more demoralizing news with employees. To wit, he’s firing dozens of them. At an an all-hands meeting earlier today, he told gathered staffers that Evernote has no choice but to lay off 54 people —  roughly 15 percent of the company’s workforce — and to focus its efforts instead around specific functions, including product development and engineering.

We’ve reached out to the company for more information about what the move means for Evernote. In the meantime, the move certainly doesn’t look encouraging. In fact, a person who tipped TechCrunch off to the executive departures two weeks ago characterized Evernote as “in a death spiral,” saying that user growth and active users have been flat for the last six years and that the company’s enterprise product offering hasn’t caught on.

It’s worth noting that in addition to shoring up its ranks, Evernote may soon be facing a funding shortage, if these layoffs were’t prompted by one. The company has raised nearly $300 million over the years, including from Sequoia Capital, New Enterprise Associates, and T. Rowe Price, but the last round it raised, according to Pitchbook, was a $6 million mezzanine round that closed in 2013.

You can learn more about what happened today via a note that O’Neill just sent to staffers.

For those of you who missed our All Hands today, I have some difficult news to share.

As part of an ongoing evaluation of our business, we’ve decided to make a tough, but necessary decision to set Evernote up for future success. We’ll be saying goodbye to 54 talented and dedicated people, each of whom has contributed to Evernote’s mission. This was an extremely difficult decision and one that we did not take lightly.

As you’ve heard me say during the past few months, I set incredibly aggressive goals for the year. We’ve grown significantly this year, but at the same time we invested too far ahead of that growth.

We must adjust quickly when part of our strategy is not meeting our expectations. Going forward, we’re streamlining certain functions and will continue to make investments to speed up and scale others, like product development and engineering.

I understand that today’s news may cause concern. We need to remember our amazing community of people who rely on our products and believe in our mission. Together, we have built a product that serves over 225 million people around the world who trust us with more than 9 billion notes containing their most important thoughts, ideas, and inspirations.

As I discussed in All-Hands, Evernote grew over 20% in the first half this year and we are in a stable financial position. Our Q3 revenue numbers remain strong and we expect to end the quarter north of $27 million. We have over $30 million in cash on our balance sheet and will exit 2018 generating more cash than we spend.

Though today is hard, this is the right decision for the business and the best way for us to invest in our future. For those friends and colleagues impacted today, we’ll be providing severance and other benefits to support them in their transition. We’ll have a series of AMAs to answer your questions that were not addressed today. As always, feel free to contact me with your questions. Tomorrow, I will publicly address our customers, partners and community on our blog.

Chris

Nintendo is offering an exclusive Fortnite bundle with the Switch

Fortnite has taken the world by storm. In fact, the game is so popular that Epic has released versions for PC, Xbox, PS4, iOS, Android and the Nintendo Switch, making the game about as accessible as possible.

The popularity of the game stems from the general popularity of the Battle Royale genre and popular streamers like Ninja, who have made the game so much fun to watch. But it also comes from the fun, and often fleeting, skins, dances and pick axes the game offers in its Item Shop.

On October 5th, folks interested in the Switch can pick up some extra Fortnite swag.

Nintendo is releasing a bundle that will include an exclusive Fortnite skin, glider and pick-axe, as well as an extra 1,000 V-Bucks. To be clear, 1,000 V-bucks is the equivalent of $10 and won’t get you much from the Item Shop.

Plus, as pointed out by the Verge, Nintendo has offered several different bundles which would allow customers to pick up a Switch for $329 alongside one of a few games. In most cases, those games cost money, whereas Fortnite is a free to play game.

But the Nintendo Switch bundle is the only way to get your hands on the Switch gear that comes with it.

This isn’t the first time that Epic has given out exclusive gear to players using different hardware or services. There is an exclusive Twitch Prime skin, a Sony PS4 skin, and even a skin for Galaxy Note 9 owners.

The Bundle is available for $329 on October 5.

Inside the pay-for-post ICO industry

In a world where nothing can be trusted and fake news abounds, ICO and crypto teams are further muddying the waters by trying – and often failing – to pay for posts. While bribes for blogs is nothing new, sadly the current crop of ICO creators and crypto projects are particularly interested in scaling fast and many ICO CEOs are far happier with scammy multi-level marketing tricks than real media relations.

The worst part of this spammy, scammy ecosystem is the service providers. A new group of media organizations are appearing where pay-to-post is the norm rather than the rare exception. I’ve been looking at these groups for a while now and recently found a few egregious examples.

But first some background.

Oh yeah, Mr. Smart Guy? How do I get press?

Say you’re trying to publicize a startup. You’ve emailed all the big names in the industry and the emails have gone unanswered. Your product is about to flounder on the market without users and you can’t get any because, in perfect chicken-or-egg fashion, you can’t get funding without users and you can’t get users without funding. So isn’t it a good idea to pay a few dollars for a little press?

No.

And isn’t most PR just pay-for-post anyway?

No.

PR people are consummate networkers and are paid to reach out to media on your behalf and their particular set of skills, honed over long careers, are dedicated to breaking down the forcefield between the journalist and the outside world. They are your surrogate hustlers, dedicated to getting you more exposure. A good PR person is worth their weight in gold. They can call up a popular journalist and make a simple pitch: “This cool new thing is happening. Can I put you in touch?”

If a journalist’s mission is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, a good PR person makes the comfortable look slightly afflicted in order to give the journalist a better story. Also, like velociraptors, they are tenacious and will follow up multiple times on your behalf.

A bad PR person, on the other hand, will cold-call hundreds of journalists and read a script that is half the length of Moby Dick. They produce little more than spam and their efforts begin and end with pressing the “Send” button. It’s also interesting to note that many bad PR people, of late, have found new life as ICO specialists.

Now meet the pay-for-post hucksters. As I wrote before, there is now a subset of the PR world that offers to get your press release or story on the top of various websites for the low, low price of between $500 and $13,000. For example, one set of hucksters created a small business selling posts on Harvard.edu by creating garbage WordPress blogs and posting press releases to increase SEO coverage. Further, I received a document that outlined the prices for placement in various blogs including this one. While it is impossible to buy a post on TechCrunch this way, it doesn’t stop many from trying.

What’s the difference between that price list and the job a PR person will do for you? The difference is trust. A pay-for-post huckster is dependent on convincing poorly paid freelance writers to add links and other dross to their posts in order to get a “placement.” I get requests like this almost every day and almost all the journalists I talked to reported the same.

Some entrepreneurs are savvy enough to avoid these scams. Even more aren’t.

“I’ve never paid since I think it’s almost always a waste of money but I’ve been offered this type of coverage many times,” said Rick Ramos, of HealthJoy.com. “The last offer was for Kathy Ireland’s Worldwide Business… A TV show that I’ve never heard of in my life. I’ve also been approached by niche publications like InsuranceOutlook and HealthCareTechOutlook that want $3,000 for a ‘reprint branding package.’ A quick Alexa.com search shows their rank as 1,725,207 and 1,054,501 globally. I think I get pitched at least every six months for one of these types of packages.

Unfortunately, many of these organizations hide their request for payment until the last minute. That said, how do you know when it’s someone selling pay-for-play vs. a real editor? It’s usually obvious.

“It’s usually pretty easy to sniff out based on their email blast. It’s pretty untargeted with no reference to what your company does or how it related to a story. Some people are up front about the payment but others want a ’15 min call to discuss.’ A quick LinkedIn search always shows them as a sales person versus a reporter or editor,” said Ramos.

It’s getting worse

This is a document I received from a company attempting an ICO. This sort of menu was quite uncommon until fairly recently when the “on-demand” economy melded with PR scammers. The completeness of the document is unique – you could feasibly plan your own PR efforts just by reaching out to journalists who work at all of these places. But you’ll also note that each spot has its own price, often in the low hundreds of dollars, which means that those spots are mostly pay-for-play anyway.


ICOLists by on Scribd


No PR company can promise coverage. In fact, many pay-for-play folks mention this in their communications, hiding it in plain sight. This snippet of text appeared in a contract for work from one of the pay-for-play providers. In short, you’re paying for something they cannot guarantee to get. Interestingly, the PR company below calls their product an IO – an insertion order – which is language used in ad sales. Further, they take great pains in explaining that it is almost impossible to achieve what they promise.

None of the pay-for-post folks I mentioned here would respond to my requests for comment.

Counter-point: Journalists are also at fault

Journalists should never expect money for coverage.

Yet many do.

“Lately I have worked on a number of blockchain technology pieces and I have encountered a wide variety of these asks,” said Brittany Whitmore, CEO at Exvera Communications. “A lot of the new, smaller blockchain-focused outlets seem to do a lot of pay-to-play, likely trying to capitalize on the ICO gold rush. The strangest request that I received was that the outlet would do a an article about the news for free but only if we paid them over $1,000 to promote the article with ads. I did not proceed.”

In one very detailed article on The Outline, Jon Christian explored this world and found that many writers received small sums for a single brand mention in a story, a sort of SEO flogging that rarely helps. He wrote:

An unpaid contributor to the Huffington Post, also speaking on condition of anonymity because, in his words, “I would be pretty fucked if my name got out there,” said that he has included sponsored references to brands in his articles for years, in articles on the Huffington Post and other sites, on behalf of six separate agencies. Some agencies pay him directly, he said, in amounts that can be as small as $50 or $175, but others pay him through an employee’s personal PayPal account in order to obfuscate the source of the funds. In a statement, Huffington Post said “Using the HuffPost Contributors Network to self-publish paid content violates our terms of use. Anyone we discover to be engaging in such abuse has their post removed from the site and is banned from future publication.”
The Huffington Post writer also described specific brands he’d written about on behalf of one of the agencies, which ranged from a popular ride-hailing app, to a publicly-traded site for booking flights and hotels, to a large American cell phone service provider.
“This is a classic example of payola,” he said of the brand mentions, invoking a term that’s been used to describe radio DJs who accept payments from record companies in order to play certain artists on the air.

Further, many influencers – folks who sell their Internet fame to the highest bidder – masquerade as journalists, asking for outrageous sums to flog an ICO on their YouTube channel or Instagram page. Pay-for-play services can also put out organic content like this in hopes of appearing in the news.

The rule of thumb? Paid posts and native advertising are not journalism. Ultimately, journalists who charge for coverage are marketers. No one at any reputable news organization will ask for cash but, sadly, there are a number of disreputable news organizations making the rounds.

ICO spamming/Don’t do it

All this still doesn’t answer the question: Should you pay-to-post?

“The short answer is no,” said Kevin Bourke of BourkePR. “I get asked all the time, and in fact, turned down another request just today. And I advise my clients to decline these offers as well.”

Pay-for-post disrupts journalism in a way that should be familiar and desirable to any modern-day entrepreneur. Middlemen are being knocked out everywhere and brands are approaching consumers from every angle including native ads in Instagram and Twitter. But the value of coverage – real coverage – from a journalists perspective is the opportunity to explain complex ideas to a ready audience. While posting a picture of a blockchain on Facebook and hoping for clicks is one strategy, explaining your views, opinions, and insights is far more important even if you approach it from a mercenary position.

“When you start paying for placement, you remove objectivity and credibility, and in my opinion, this is the reason you look for coverage of your company/products in the first place. That’s what influences readers/viewers. But I understand the temptation for startups. You come to believe that ‘all visibility is good visibility.’ I just can’t agree with that,” said Bourke. “I see the trend toward paid placements (now called sponsored content), paid awards and I can’t stand it – especially with the trade show awards in high tech. They’ve completely devalued the Best of Show awards in so many cases. Typically, only the big companies with budgets can afford them, so many of the smaller guys with no money but amazing products get left out. I understand that the publishing industry needs to figure out new revenue streams – these are very difficult times for them. But they need to figure out smarter business models and maintain the integrity of editorialized content, built on the opinions and perspectives of journalists and influencers.”

Ostrichpillow Hood, the latest product from Studio Banana, is no joke

I’m not going to lie, when Studio Banana released the original Ostrichpillow back in 2012, despite breaking all Kickstarter records at the time, I thought the whole thing might be an elaborate joke. Or, worse still, since the sleep-at-your-desk styled product had found popularity amongst people who worked at startups, Silicon Valley was now parodying itself.

Except that “transformative” design company Studio Banana is based in Europe, with offices based in London, Lake Geneva and Madrid. And 500,000 sales and five products later, the joke is arguably on its critics. As I’m fond of telling founders who ask for validation, ultimately it is the market that decides.

Enter the latest Ostrichpillow creation: the aptly named Ostrichpillow Hood. Aptly named because, well, it’s a hood. However, unlike the previous products in the range, which were designed to facilitate sleep in non-traditional places, the Ostrichpillow Hood, we’re told, is to be used in “everyday waking life”.

Specifically, by reducing the ability to see activity in the edges of your field of vision, it is intended to help you focus on the task at hand and/or reduce overstimulation, such as the kind induced by open plan co-working spaces.

The Ostrichpillow Original

“The product we’re launching now is the sixth of the different products that have emerged in the Ostrichpillow family and they’re catering to different needs,” Ali Ganjavian, co-founder of Studio Banana, tells me in a video call yesterday. “Ostrichpillow was really about complete isolation and it was really a statement product… So different products have different use-cases and different functions, and also different social acceptances”.

I suggest that the Ostrichpillow Hood may turn out to be broadly socially acceptable, not least for anyone already familiar with the original Ostrichpillow, but also because asking work colleagues to respect the need to focus is a lot different to asking them to ignore your need to take a nap at your desk. Ganjavian doesn’t degree, even though there is no doubt the two products share the same design heritage.

“A lot of the stuff we are thinking about now is about the state of mind,” he says, noting that throughout the working day we are bombarded with stimuli and information, from messaging apps, emails, social media, meetings and even something as innocuous as having to say hello to work mates. “[The Ostrichpillow Hood] is really about sheltering. It is not only a physical movement, there is psychology in the way it shelters you… it’s about shifting your mood”.

Next Ganjavian demonstrates the three positions the Ostrichpillow Hood is designed to be worn.

The ‘Hood’ position is for when you need to concentrate on something in public, for example when commuting or in an open plan office or coffee shop. Like wearing a pair of visually loud headphones, it also has the added effect of signalling to colleagues that you’d rather not be disturbed or are “wired in“.

The ‘Eclipse’ position, where the hood can be turned around to cover your face completely, is for when you need to truly switch off from your surroundings, such as to deeply think, take a short break or meditate. “If I’ve got my headphones on in that posture then what it allows me to do is to totally isolate myself in the same way I would with an Ostrichpillow but in a much more acceptable way,” says Ganjavian.

Finally, the ‘Hoop’ position, with the hood worn down around your neck, is designed to feel warm and cozy and turns the Ostrichpillow Hood into attire more akin to a fashion accessory.

Adds the Studio Banana co-founder: “What I find really exciting about this moment is that I currently work in between three different geographies, there is so much going on, and how do we create a tool or object that makes me feel good, helps me perform better, and helps me become more efficient, and also feeds that overall well-being that I’m looking for in my workplace. At the same time, I can just walk out into the street with it on and just go home and feel good about it”.

How the Audi e-tron compares to the Tesla Model X and Jaguar I-Pace

Audi just announced its first production electric vehicle. Called the e-tron, the EV is a mid-size SUV loaded with technology with an unofficial range of over 300 miles. It’s nicely equipped, and with a starting price of $74,800, it sits between the Jaguar I-Pace and the Tesla Model X.

The e-tron is most similar to the Jaguar I-Pace though the Audi is slightly better equipped. The e-tron packs a 95 kWh battery over the Jaguar’s 90 kWh battery. It’s also slightly larger and rated to tow 4,000 lbs.

Comparing the e-tron to the Model X gets messy. Tesla sells the Model X in three flavors: mild, hot, and on fire. The mild version starts at $72,100 and packs a 75 kWh battery good for 237 miles. Spend $88,600 to get the 100D and its 100 kWh battery that’s rated for 295 miles. And for $125,800, buyers can get the P100D that’s good for 298 miles and a 0-60 time of 2.9 seconds.

Autonomous driving modes are available for purchase on each version of the Model X. Audi and Jaguar do not offer autonomous driving on the e-tron or I-Pace.

Spec for spec, the e-tron, I-Pace and Model X offer advantages over each other. Here are the most important technical specifications for each vehicle along with the Toyota RAV4, the top selling SUV in the United States.

Here’s how I see each vehicle’s advantage:

Audi e-tron

  • Best price-to-battery ratio: Buyers get a 95 kWh battery on the base model. For the money, the Audi is the best value when it comes to the range it can travel.
  • Competent controls: Audi installed the same dual-touchscreen system found in its high-end A8 luxury sedan. The top screen handles infotainment while the bottom screen handles climate control and text input. Both screens offer tactile and audio response when touched.
  • It looks and feels like an Audi: The e-tron does not stand out, which could be a good thing for some buyers. It looks and feels like an Audi SUV.
  • Audi is not releasing the range yet: The EPA must certify the e-tron before Audi can advertise the range of the e-tron. Without those numbers, it’s hard to place where the e-tron sits in the landscape. But today at the e-tron launch event, the company hinted at a range that’s superior to that of the Tesla Model X.

Jaguar I-Pace

  • Early reviews of the I-Pace praise the driving: The I-Pace is a crossover and it drives like one. It’s sporty and confident and it has the lowest stance of the three EVs listed here.
  • The I-Pace is a Jag: The I-Pace has the quickest time to 60 mph out of the bunch and is capable of hitting the mark in 4.5 seconds. That’s the same as a 2016 Audi TTS Coupe. However, the more expensive Tesla P100D is much, much quicker with a 0-60 time of 2.9 seconds.
  • Well equipped yet the cheapest: Starting at $69,500, the I-Pace is the least expensive of the bunch. And at that price, it’s well equipped

Tesla Model X P75

  • It’s a Tesla: The Model X looks like nothing else on the road inside and out. To some, it’s a big draw while others shy away from the attention-getting design.
  • The Model X is deceptively large: The Model X comes with five seats, but two jump seats can be added to the rear area. With all the seats down, the Model X has an available storage volume of 88 cubic feet — that’s just 6 cubic feet smaller than a Chevy Tahoe.
  • The Model X can drive itself: The Model X can be equipped with Autopilot, Tesla’s self-driving system that can pilot the SUV on its own.
  • More options: The Model X P100 offers more range and the Model X P100D offers more range and insane performance.

The e-tron hits the US market in the middle of 2019, and by then, there will be additional competitors to compare.

The Audi e-tron SUV is an electric shot at Tesla

This is the Audi e-tron. The electric SUV seats five, starts at $74,800 and in official Audi testing, experienced a range of well over 300 miles on a charge. The e-tron will hit Audi dealerships in the middle of 2019, and prospective buyers can reserve one right now for $1,000.

This is Audi’s first production electric vehicle and perhaps one of the most significant EVs to be announced since the Chevy Bolt. It has everything Audi buyers expect: Quattro AWD, technology-first cockpit, and a familiar fit and finish. The e-tron is launching to a market with few competitors. It’s most similar to the new Jaguar I-Pace. Both vehicles offer similar technology and creature comforts for a similar price. But in a way, the Audi is joining forces with the Jag to compete with Tesla .

The e-tron is packed with a 95 kWh battery pack that powers electric motors on each axle. All-wheel drive is standard, and the vehicle packs two ways to recoup lost energy. Right now, at launch, Audi is not releasing official range numbers and the EPA has yet to certify and release its own numbers.

Inside is reminiscent of current Audi SUVs. Drivers are presented with Audi’s virtual instrument panel and several touchscreens. The top center-mounted screen handles infotainment and navigation duty while the bottom is for climate control and text input. The cabin is equipped and outfitted similarly to the rest of Audi’s line, but the design language is unique to the e-tron.

It’s clear Audi designed the e-tron to appeal to traditional buyers looking to jump into electric vehicles through familiar means. The e-tron looks and feels like the rest of Audi’s lineup. And that’s probably the point. The vehicle maker took its established formula and plugged it into electric vehicles. The result is something new yet familiar.

The Audi e-tron

The outside of the e-tron screams Audi. Sharp headlights, flowing body panels, and an angular, aggressive grill. It looks like a new version of Audi’s mid-size SUV, the Q5. The main design difference comes by way of four small accent lights on the side of the headlights and tail lights. They are designed to look like a battery meter, and the result is a clever, though subtle nod to the e-tron’s electric power plant.

Clad in aluminum, the e-tron’s battery weighs about 700 kg (1,543.2 lb) and is comprised of 36 pouch-type cells, the same type of system Jaguar and Chevy use in their electric vehicles, while Tesla uses cylinder-type battery cells.

Audi says e-tron’s battery can be recharged to 80% in 30 minutes using a 150 kW charger.

The e-tron ships with a Level 2, 240-volt/40 amps residential charger that’s also compatible with 120-volt household outlets. Through a partnership, buyers will have the option to use Amazon Home Services to ready their homes with an installation of a home charger.

E-tron buyers gain access to the nationwide charging network, “Electrify America” and can use up to 1,000 kWh of power over four years. Audi says by 2019 this network will include five-hundred 350kW chargers throughout 40 states.

An electric motor is mounted on each axle motor, though both are not used at all times. At moderate speeds, there is a bias to the rear motor. When the rear motor is unable to provide the vehicle with the desired powered, the front motor kicks on.

The dual motors and single stage transmission work together to get the e-tron to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. The tow rating is set at 4,000 lbs which is good enough for a small U-Haul trailer or a couple of jet skis. Audi says official horsepower and torque numbers will be released at a later time.

Like other electric vehicles, the e-tron recovers energy through braking and deceleration. But Audi took driving efficiency one step farther.

Using navigation and radar and camera data, the e-tron can predictively prompt the driver to release the gas pedal at appropriate times. If the vehicle knows the driver should slow down, it will tell the driver in the name of efficiency.

Power is returned to the battery from practically all braking situations whether through natural deceleration when the driver releases the accelerator or when the friction brake system is engaged. Audi says this system is responsible for up to 30 percent of the e-tron’s range.

The brakes are electric. When the driver presses the brake pedal, a control unit computes how much pressure needs to be applied, and an electric motor supplies the appropriate pressure. Audi says this system is 30% lighter than traditional vacuum brakes.

The amount of energy the e-tron can recover is selectable by the driver via a paddle on the steering wheel. There are three settings. In the highest setting, the e-tron aggressively recovers energy every time the driver releases the accelerator, which allows for one pedal driving. But in the lowest setting the e-tron coasts without any braking resistance.

Drivers are presented with few traditional switches and buttons. Most of the controls are contained on two touchscreens. The top, center-mounted screen is 10.1-inches while the bottom is an 8.6-inch screen that’s mounted in a way that the driver can access it while their hand is resting on the gear selector. Both screens provide tactile and audio feedback.

This dual screen setup is different from the single, massive screen found in Tesla’s electric vehicles. The top screen handles infotainment, navigation, telephone, and vehicle settings while the bottom is for climate control and entering text for navigation. This layout more closely matches the traditional placement found in other vehicles, which will likely reduce the learning curve often associated with getting in a vehicle with just touchscreens.

This dual touchscreen system is not unique to the e-tron. It’s the same equipment Audi employs in its high-end sedans, and will likely trickle down to other Audi models in coming generations.

The driver is presented with Audi’s digital instrument panel that the carmaker has been using for several vehicle generations. In this instance, the instrument cluster is presented on a 1,920×720 display with e-tron specific graphics. The driver can configure the screen to display the speedometer, power meter and infotainment screens in various fashions. Buyers can also opt for a heads up display.

Audi built a companion app for the e-tron. Through the smartphone app, owners can input navigation destination, set battery charging times and schedule service with local dealers.

Racing the Competition

The e-tron has few competitors but only one that matters: The Tesla Model X, long the lone option for buyers seeking an electric SUV. The Model X is slightly larger, a bit quicker and can be a lot more costly than the Audi e-tron. It also has less range than the unofficial numbers provided by Audi before the e-tron is certified by the EPA

The Tesla is a head turner while the Audi looks like just another Audi. The Tesla packs autonomous driving modes while the Audi only has adaptive cruise control. The Tesla can seat up to seven while the Audi seats five. And the Tesla can beat exotic sports cars to 60 miles per hour.

The Tesla Model X interior feels like something different while the Audi e-tron feels like a new take on something familiar.

Both vehicles start out at similar prices. The Tesla Model X starts at $72,100 with a range of 239 miles. The Audi e-tron begins at $74,800 with an unofficial range of over 300 miles. However, to get the extra range in the Tesla, buyers have to opt for pricier packages. A Model X with a 295-mile range starts at $88,600, and the sports-car fast P100D begins at $125,800 — Tesla’s self-driving features cost an additional $5,000.

In contrast, Audi offers the same powertrain and battery throughout the e-tron’s trim levels. For $81,700 buyers get the same range as the base model but gain additional creature comforts like a heads-up display, massaging seats and parking assist technology. For $86,700 buyers can opt for the First Edition package that includes larger, 21-inch wheels, limited paint, and interior trim and a night vision mode.

The Audi e-tron closely matches up with the Jaguar I-Pace. Jaguar recently announced its electric crossover and is nearing delivery of the first vehicles. Compared to the e-tron, the I-Pace has a similar range, speed, and slightly less interior space. Pricing for the I-Pace starts at $69,500.

The e-tron and I-Pace represent a new breed of electric vehicles even more so than a Tesla EV. Both of these vehicles come from corporations with massive manufacturing might and, while they look and feel futurist, they also look and feel mass produced. And that’s a good thing. If electric vehicles are to become mainstream, the automotive giants need to build them at the same level as traditional automobiles.

Coming Next Year

The Audi e-tron will hit the United States in the middle of 2019. Buyers can reserve the vehicle starting today with a $1,000 refundable deposit.

When the vehicle hits dealers, it will be Audi’s most expensive SUV and among the most expensive vehicles available from Audi. But compared to competitors, the e-tron is priced in the middle of the pack.

The e-tron will hit the market at a pivotal time for electric vehicles. Automakers are just starting to stake their claims in the marketplace. Chevy went downmarket with the affordable Bolt. Jaguar is hitting the crossover market with the $69,000 I-Pace. Tesla is the premium player in the field with the Model X. The Audi e-tron sits in a sweet spot between the Jag and the Tesla. The pricing is slightly more than the Jag but is well equipped to stand tall against the larger and more expensive Model X.

The e-tron’s success will likely come from consumer awareness. Car shoppers need to know Audi has a new electric vehicle, and Audi seems to understand this. Even before the car launched, the company started advertising the EV with a big-budget TV spot during the Emmys. Since the car doesn’t hit the market for nearly a year, Audi has plenty of time to get the word out. However, that also leaves plenty of time for new competitors to hit the market and for the landscape to shift.