Nation’s Transportation System Awaits Digital Disruption, Shaping the Future Starts Now
April 14, 2017
Driven: A Conversation with Robin Chase Highlight Video
“Americans have yet to wrap their heads around the idea that you could have no car ownership. But mayors all know for a fact that the future of cities will exclude privately owned cars,” observed ZipCar founder and former CEO Robin Chase in her February 6th talk in Isenberg’s Driven series in Boston. Private cars, Chase predicted, will disappear from the streets of Paris by 2025. They will also vanish, she speculated, from “dense metropolitan structures” in the U.S. by 2030.
Chase was featured pundit in the second edition of Driven: A Conversation with..., Isenberg’s series of conversations with business innovators at the UMass Club in downtown Boston. After chatting informally with attendees for 45 minutes, she joined WBUR radio journalist Asma Khalid on stage for a 50-minute discussion of Chase’s challenges as a transportation entrepreneur and of transportation’s increasingly disruptive future. Following the conversation, Chase fielded questions from her audience of more than 100 business practitioners and academics.
A Driverless Urban Future
The change agents in this urban scenario, noted Chase, will be driverless autos and ride sharing. The industry game plan, she continued, calls for self-driven cars’ first penetration of dense urban markets by 2020/2021. “Five years after they hit the streets of Boston, 80% [of all autos] will be switched out,” she predicted. That goes for Cambridge and Brookline too, which will also “switch right over.” “I have no idea about [more distant, less densely populated communities like] Wellesley or Natick,” she confessed.
As for Bostonians, “Why would you continue to own a car when in two minutes you can get a car from here to there? You’ll never have to worry about [or pay for] parking, never maintain it, only pay for the seat. And you won’t have to drive it; you’ll be on your app.” It’s a misconception, she added, to think, “My car’s going to become driverless.” That’s because, dictated by economics and convenience, owning one will prove irrational. And removing the “extreme” cost of the driver from the equation will expand the economic feasibility of ride sharing in both the city and beyond to less densely populated communities.
Extreme Disruption on the Horizon
The disruption ahead, Chase continued, calls for proactive policy making. “We have to get in front of it,” she emphasized. The nation’s 3.5 million truck and delivery drivers, its 680,000 bus drivers, and its taxi drivers (New York City alone has 90,000+) are all at risk, she advised. At the same time, the new transportation system will give “8 million new people [nationwide] access to jobs.” Citing a study, she added that “access to quality transportation has been the single biggest barrier to exiting poverty.”
The coming overhaul, Chase observed, is a subset of the disruption and dislocation accompanying digitized automation in every sector of the economy. “The ripple effect of automation is everywhere. “The ripple effect of automation is everywhere." I look at it as a wonderful political opportunity to do better [by rethinking our social contract with labor],” she emphasized. “We can’t, [for example], tie all of our social safety nets to full-time labor, because fewer and fewer full-time employed.”
On the operations side, new urban transportation systems will need regulations to zap “zombie cars”—empty vehicles in motion that clog roadways. Cities might also enact policies to regulate unwelcome density created by retail autonomous trips (RATs). Consider the congestion, Chase remarked, of “inventory cruising the streets of Boston.”
Self-driven cars, Chase added, will drastically reduce auto fatalities and serious accidents. Last year, 35,000 deaths and 1.2 million serious accidents plagued America’s highways. Accident victims, she said, should prove natural advocates for self-driven autos.
An Innovator in the “Sharing” Economy
Zipcar was the first service to bring simplicity to car sharing, Chase told the gathering. From the beginning, invoking a Zipcar, she said, took all of thirty seconds. Today’s “ride-hailing app is a one-button push,” she continued. “What you see today with Zipcar was 99% built the first month.” That was back in 2000—“so incredibly early—a really early use of wireless, not apps.
“You need to ask, what kind of trips are you using a car for?” Chase continued. By and large, you don’t “take Ubers and Lyfts out of the city,” she said. “They are profoundly taxis.” “I’d never take a Zipcar from Cambridge to Boston, because I wouldn’t want to pay for parking.” On the other hand, “I’d never take an Uber or a Lyft to a client meeting or [from Cambridge] to Walden Pond for a swim. . . I [do] see Zipcar and Uber/Lyft as complementary,” she said.
In 2006—three years after exiting Zipcar (Avis bought the company in 2013) —Chase launched GoLoco, a U.S. online ride-sharing community. Its aim was to get Americans to share (i.e., sell) seats in their cars in trips between cities. Her conclusion: “Americans do not want to share car rides [at least in intercity travel].” Uber and Lyft, she added, ultimately made ride sharing work within cities by starting out as quasi taxis. After achieving a critical mass of members (with compatible in-city destinations), they successfully “backed into ride sharing,” she remarked.
Chase had better luck with Buzzcar, a peer-to-peer car sharing service, which she launched in France in 2011. Enabled by the viral spread of smart phones, Buzzcar caught fire in France. In 2015, it merged with Drivey, Europe’s largest peer-to-peer car rental service.
Chase’s latest venture is as a cofounder and board director with the Lisbon-based start-up, Veniam. It offers customers—trucks, taxis, and buses—a fail-safe wireless communications system comprising cellular, Wi-Fi, and vehicle-to-vehicle channels. To date, Veniam is in Mexico City, Singapore, New York City, and Portugal. The service, above all, offers reliability. “It will always work through lowest-cost connectivity switches,” noted Chase. And, she emphasized, it will add great value in the driverless arena, by collecting real-time information through its data sweeps and by connecting vehicles to one another.
The Joy of Platforms
Veniam, Buzzcar, and Zipcar, observed Chase, are “platform companies” that share and scale creativity and other resources via internet platforms. An advocate for the platform economy, Chase synthesized her ideas and prescriptions in her 2015 book, Peers Inc. Platforms, the book notes, leverage untapped resources by empowering “peers” to share business ideas and approaches. Then, they [i.e., the platforms] marry those assets (without compromising peers’ creative freedom) to road-tested business practices—including scaling. For Chase, platforms make for dynamic problem solving. “Everything can become a platform,” she told her Driven audience. That includes, she said, tackling the challenges and dislocations that are accompanying digital automation itself.
On February 16, Isenberg hosted transportation entrepreneur Robin Chase, and WBUR's Asma Khalid at the UMass Club for the speaker series event.
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