Zipcar Founder Robin Chase: What’s next for urban mobility?

Zipcar Founder Robin Chase: What’s next for urban mobility?

Robin Chase Veniam ZipCar
Robin Chase, founder of car-sharing startups Zipcar and Buzzcar, has joined the Portuguese 'Internet of Moving Things' startup Veniam as founder and chairman.

When it comes to the jigsaw puzzle that is the contemporary urban mobility landscape — privately owned cars, public transit, car-sharing, ride-sharing, bike-sharing, etc. — Robin Chase is more than acquainted with the ever-expanding roster of options to get from point A to point B.

As a founder of car-sharing companies Zipcar and Buzzcar, Chase is jumping into a mobility startup focused on the bigger picture for diverse transportation networks emerging in urban centers. Veniam, a company whose wireless data transmission technology initially was developed by Portuguese professors João Barros and Susana Sargento, focuses on vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.

For businesses and consumers, the equipment provides cell service and Internet hotspots. The bigger underlying goal, however, is leveraging that connectivity to pick up data being generated by sensors increasingly installed throughout "smart cities."

The possibilities — from more efficient deployment of city services to pursuing data-based sustainabile transportation policies such as dynamic pricing during peak driving hours — are vast.

Chase told GreenBiz how she went from car-sharing to connected cities, how she hopes to bridge Big Data and sustainable urban mobility, and why she doesn't buy into the current hype about connected cars.

Lauren Hepler: What attracted you to Veniam after all your work in different niches of the mobility world?

Robin Chase: I gave a TEDtalk in 2007 about having a meshed network of vehicles. Before that, I was a Loeb Fellow [at Harvard University], when I realized that there was this thing called the Internet of Things. It was the beginning of smart cities and smart towns around 2005-2006.

I've always thought about all these sensors that are supposed to be around a city — how does that data get collected and actually into the Internet and worked on? We don’t expect the sensor to be sending stuff to a satellite and back. We don’t expect a sensor to have a monthly communications plan with it. Being an entrepreneur, I was realizing that a whole bunch of stuff was not invented because the cost of sending the wireless signal itself was prohibitive.

Hepler: How do the sustainability implications of urban transportation — things like carbon emissions increased due to traffic gridlock — come into play?

Chase: The second piece going toward sustainability very explicitly is that, given this issue around [the difficulty and expense of] sending and receiving data, think about dynamically priced electricity — the whole smart grid piece — where ideally we want to charge people more for electricity at peak times. We want that information obvious to people.

Now think about the gas tax on cars, which we know has not been raised effectively for 20 years. As cars get more and more fuel efficient, it’s an increasingly impossible way to finance transportation. Electric cars don’t pay any gas tax. One of the solutions is for people to pay a tax for distance using roads — road pricing. We also think about congestion pricing, which is the same thing for roads as peak pricing is for electricity.

Veniam urban mobility Internet of Moving Things

"Internet of Moving Things" startup Veniam sells after-market wireless data transmission products to increase Wi-Fi access and connect sensors being installed on vehicles and infrastructure in "smart cities."

Hepler: So data transmission tools like Veniam's could help provide the underlying data to help set accurate prices?

Chase: All of these concepts require very, very low cost and ubiquitous wireless data transmission. I’ve known that was one of the things I wanted to work on, so that we could actually charge people the right price when they drive down the street or use electricity at the wrong time.

That sounds very putative, but I mean it in a kind of informational way. A whole bunch of us do all sorts of things because we just don’t know any better. Some people need to be on the road at 6 p.m. on a weekday, but a lot of us just decide to go the mall at that time and we don’t care. I’ve always seen this realtime dynamic pricing of all sorts of resources — in particular energy use and road use — as one of the driving reasons for why I cared so much about this and wanted to make it happen.

Hepler: Interesting. How do you see this idea dovetailing with increasingly diverse modes of transportation in cities, like car-sharing and ride-sharing that you've obviously worked on a lot?

Chase: One of the things about this mesh networking and extending the reach of wireless hotspots or getting you out of sending stuff to a satellite is that it’s all local data. For a whole bunch of the transportation innovation that’s happened, a lot of it is very technology-based. Who’s going from where to where? I see this as part of a ubiquitous and local wireless network.

To come in through another door, if I think about ZipCar and what I learned there about sharing — that you get a much better return on investment when an item is shared — I have been pushing for not only shared cars, but all shared assets: shared devices and shared spectrum and shared data. The open data movement is sharing data so you get more value out of it.

Hepler: So you see Veniam as part of an urban ecosystem of shared assets?

Chase: I see Veniam in that suite of things. It’s devices and cars that are now no longer just single purpose — paying for a transponder to pay for the toll — but it’s a device that can do a large number of things. Just like we put apps on our smartphone, you can imagine apps on a device in your car.

We’ve already paid for this wireless device, so all the wireless devices together are creating wireless infrastructure. I look at vehicles with devices in them as collaboratively built, collaboratively financed and collaboratively installed wireless infrastructure. Each one of us gets the device for our own car, or a bus company for their fleet. Yet all of us will be leveraging that as a mini cell tower, and as a collector of sensor data as we go down the street.

Hepler: The next step is leveraging that mobility data being generated. There are issues to consider like who really owns transportation data and what sorts of metrics should be relied upon.

Chase: My overarching thing about Big Data, just as you kind of put your finger on it, is that it’s a vision without reality right now. The actual number of use cases where there are great things happening out of it is discrete. If we get more minds thinking about it, I think we will get more value out of it.

For Veniam, we’re really the communications network. And for me, the data is owned by the person who created it. Who’s leveraging it and getting value out of it? It’s going to depend if the owner gave it up and wants to share the value by opening it up.

For the WiFi buses in Portugal, we’re of course able to give them speed and congestion data. Where are there buses getting clogged up? Which drivers do better than others? Where would they most benefit from having a lane dedicated to that bus because it’s stuck in traffic, or a traffic light that changes especially for them? We can identify pain points much more quickly.

Hepler: What other sorts of use cases have emerged aside from public buses?

Chase: We also just installed sensors in a whole bunch of garbage trucks. Cities in Europe are dense, so there’s not individual garbage collection. You come down to the street and there are these trash wells — recycled glass, paper and trash with a metal lid on it. I saw one being emptied, and it’s like a huge duffel bag that’s 15 feet long and five feet across.

They come with this cherry picker garbage truck that has to lift that out of the ground, then pour it into the garbage truck. We’re now putting sensors on those trash bags that are invisible. They can know "This is a full trash bag — come empty it," as opposed to just cycling the trucks around and maybe emptying one that’s a quarter full or three-quarters full. That should reduce the trash trips by about 30 percent.

That’s a very direct use case. I could come up with them for personal cars, but I feel that when you have this possibility, we need a whole bunch of minds to understand this specifically. You and I would have never thought of the garbage trucks because we wouldn’t understand the mechanism down below. When I think of Big Data, I think it’s going to require people who are already knowledgable in those fields saying, "Wow, now I have this kind of data and facility — what do I do with it?"

Hepler: You've described Veniam as an "Internet of moving things" company, which is a big idea that opens the door for connecting all sorts of vehicles to the Internet — public infrastructure, commerical trains and planes, privately owned cars ...

Chase: Drones.

Hepler: Exactly. How do you see all of this coming together, or are there particular areas where you see bigger potential?

Veniam Netrider vehicle cellular Wi-Fi

A Veniam "Netrider" hardware unit installed in cars, taxis, buses and trucks to provide cellular and wireless connectivity. The company also sells software tools to capture and analyze data generated by sensors in urban environments.

Chase: It was interesting. When I thought of that term, I thought of people saying everything is mobile. But it’s kind of funny — when it comes to mobility, they’re talking about things that aren’t moving. I can get my Gmail wherever I am, not that the object is physically moving when it’s doing the interaction. That would pose a much larger technology challenge than being in a café or in an office or a park and getting data.

Veniam would like to be the network connector for when things are actually moving. To make it explainable, think about old smartphones. It was all cellular, and we were amazed when Verizon said they were going to put us onto Wi-Fi for phone calls without telling you we’re taking you off our congested cellular network, so that it’s cheaper for them. But still, when you open up your laptop and connect to Wi-Fi, it takes 10-20 seconds to connect.

That’s what we’re solving with vehicles. The connection is happening in miliseconds from cellular to Wi-Fi or between one car and the next to a Wi-Fi hotspot. You as a user wouldn’t even notice it was happening, and that is very unique. Usually you’re on cellular or you’re on Wi-Fi, and it took you a minute to get it. Being able to move quickly between one to the other as the object physically moves between zones is the thing that opens up this new world.

Hepler: Veniam is focused on deploying its technology in dense cities — how does that affect the economics of building out cellular and Wi-Fi infrastructure?

Chase: Building infrastructure in cities is incredibly expensive. If you can think about building infrastructure within moving objects because of self-interest, that for me is the most incredible beauty of this.

People, or right now companies, will be buying this out of self interest (primarily to gain Wi-Fi access and manage fleets). But when they do that, they’re also contributing to a larger connected network. We as a company are leveraging existing Wi-Fi hotspots and adding some new ones. It’s doing things efficiently and collaboratively, but as part of a self-interested collaboration.

Hepler: Veniam also just announced a $4.9 million Series A funding round to finance a U.S. expansion after being deployed in Portugal. What can we expect from that effort?

Chase: We’re talking to a couple of cities now and working on some pilot ideas.

Hepler: Europe has the benefit of very dense and developed urban areas, but U.S. regions like the Bay Area are more prone to sprawl. Will you stick to a focus on density in the U.S. as well?

Chase: Coming back to the idea of return on investment for any kind of shared device, you want it to be used as much as possible. So I think we will be sticking to dense areas, because there’s more people and more vehicles passing each other and passing infrastructure.

We want them to be really heavily used now at their most expensive point. The price will come down with volume, and you won’t need to have things as heavily used to be financially viable.

Hepler: What about expanding deployment beyond buses, cars and taxis?

Chase: We are successfully in two ports. They’re kind of like dense, rural areas. They’re out there, and they’re these little microcosms, kind of like university towns.

One of the things that’s really challenging with ports is the stacked metal boxes that make transmitting wireless signals really hard. But it's working, and there’s a lot of intensity of use and value between the containers, the trucks, the cranes and the boats that really need to be connected.

Hepler: Do you see any intersection between Veniam and all the automakers rolling out "connected cars" equipped with Wi-Fi?

Chase: That phrase for me — connected vehicles — unpacks very much like when people talk about mobile devices. When they talk about connected vehicles, they’re talking about a vehicle connected to the satellite in the sky. They aren’t connected to each other, because there isn’t the density of them to connect to anybody else.

What I’d say about the car manufacturers — the U.S. government has been waiting on the manufacturers to build connected vehicles. But for the car manufacturers, anything they put in — say Nissan does it or Ford — they put it in one make or model. It’s bought by, I don't know, 4,000 people spread across the United States.

That’s one of the reasons why Veniam is an after-market box. It gets installed in your vehicle so that we can get the density to have someone to connect to, rather than constantly connecting to a cell tower up to a satellite. There is a lot of talk around connected vehicles, and it’s a lot of talk that is mostly unsuccessful and incredibly expensive. Each person is having to buy a new cell plan for their car that they don’t use very much.

Hepler: So what's the ultimate upshot for you in terms of the value proposition for Veniam's technology?

Chase: I do feel like this idea of connecting it to the pain you feel with your cell phone — often trying to connect to Wi-Fi, and the slowness of that connection and the non-ubiquity, is because cellular is expensive and spotty.

Wi-Fi, if you can get it, works and is cheap. There shouldn’t be any urban canyons where you get no service, because we can jump between networks. It’s secure, reliable and lowest-cost.

Click here to read more from GreenBiz about Chase's newest "Internet of Moving Things" venture, Veniam.