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Driving Change

Surprise! Not all mobility tech is for cities

This article is drawn from the new Transport Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running every Tuesday.

Every week I’ll bring you a column on trends, companies, policies and research around transportation tech. I’ll also let you know which stories I think are particularly important (and under the radar). You can welcome these pieces to your inbox each week by subscribing to the new Transport Weekly newsletter.

I’m penning this essay from sunny-ish downtown Oakland, where GreenBiz’s eighth-floor offices overlook the square in front of Oakland City Hall. As most of us know, cities such as Oakland are becoming hubs for new transportation technology, whether that’s the explosive growth of ride-hailing services, the controversy over scooter-sharing or the rigorous testing of self-driving cars.

What about our friends in suburban and rural communities? Particularly for rural regions, there’s clearly the equivalent of a "digital divide" for transportation. Federal, state and local governments provide funding, but it’s never enough.

However, interesting new mobility options are emerging in these locales; they’ve just got unique needs. But when it comes to services based on dense populations (such as ride-hailing and scooter sharing), cities are still eliciting the most opportunities.

Here are five services and ideas I’ve been thinking about for transportation innovation outside of cities:

1. Intercity buses: Anyone ridden a Greyhound bus recently? Routes that pick up passengers in rural and remote areas and transfer them across regions sometimes can be lacking in quality and timeliness. The Information published an interesting report Monday looking at startups trying to remake bus transportation, including FlixBus, Cabin and Rally.

The story says that FlixBus — a German, venture capital-backed company — is launching a service in California in the next couple of months. The report highlights some difficulties in trying to tackle these markets (try sleeping on an overnight bus while your driver bumps through potholes).

2. Accessible on-demand vehicles: The lower the cost-per-mile for an on-demand ride, the more likely such services could be offered in less-dense and lower-income areas. If vehicles are electric, pooled and autonomous, they could get cheap enough to provide a big relief for regions that don’t have quality public transportation.

But even before self-driving electric cars become widely used, digital tech could help carpooling finally grow up in the United States. Scoop is a carpooling app, mostly for commuters. It's also an example of a service that could be useful in more remote regions. Despite the failure of services like this in the United States in the past (pooling app Zimride was forced to morph into Lyft), Scoop's funders say now is the time for the growth of carpooling. Europe has managed to make it work with its own equivalent, BlaBlaCar.

At the same time, automakers are experimenting with on-demand vehicles that could be accessible to riders that are visually and physically impaired, such as AccessibleOlli. Picture AccessibleOlli shuttling around residents at an assisted living facility to doctor’s visits and the grocery store in smaller towns.

3. Drone delivery: When drones become low-cost and ubiquitous enough, they enable shipments of needed goods — such as groceries or medical supplies — to remote regions. Companies such as Flirtey and Zipline are figuring out this market, which is still in its early days.

4. More efficient freight: There’s a huge market growing around using smart software, logistics and warehouse systems to help make shipping goods to rural regions cheaper and more efficient. Companies such as Penske Logistics are investing in these technologies, some of which are highlighted in this annual State of the Logistics Report. It’s a dense read, but it’s not about futuristic tech; the analytics, algorithms and machine learning software are all here to help this market now.

5. Used car market: This might not be about vehicle-miles-traveled, but recycling, reusing and reselling passenger vehicles is important in its own right. And, hey, historically, selling a used car has been a total pain. A startup called Shift is gaining traction in this market, as is TrueCar, a company hoping to remake the buying experience at dealerships. It’s surprising that has taken so long for the internet and cell phones to make used car selling and buying much better. Chinese used car sites Uxin and Cango also recently filed to go public.

Beyond those trends, here are 10 stories you should read: 

Finally, I'm just starting to put together the transportation program for VERGE 18, which will take place in October in Oakland. It's going to be awesome. Send me a note if you have ideas, speakers or topics, at [email protected].

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