The Greening of Mobility

Two Steps Forward

The Greening of Mobility

The push to get electric and other alt-fueled vehicles into the market has gone from zero to, well, 20 over the past year — that is, from a standstill to a puttering pace. But recent announcements about product launches from Ford, GM, Honda, and others are only the beginning of what's to come. In the coming months and years, we'll see a stream of new products and services that, together, herald the era of not just greener vehicles, but greener mobility.

In recent weeks, Enterprise, the largest car rental company in the U.S. (it also operates the National and Alamo brands) launched WeCar, a national car-sharing program. WeCar, which boasts an all-hybrid fleet, allows users to go online to reserve and locate the cars, which are typically parked nearby at a designated spot. Customers use an electronic key card to unlock the car and access the conventional car keys inside.

WeCar is part of a growing car sharing market, including ZipCar, U-Haul's Ucarshare, and a smattering of regional players such as I-GO in Chicago, City CarShare in the San Francisco Bay Area, and HourCar in Minnesota.

None of this is particularly new, though it is growing. According to carshare.net:

Car Sharing, launched in 1987 in Switzerland and later in 1988 in Germany, came to North America via Quebec City in 1993. As of July 1, 2008 — based on data provided by Susan Shaheen, University of California, Berkeley — 18 U.S. carsharing programs claimed 279,174 members sharing 5,838 vehicles, and 14 Canadian carsharing programs claimed 39,664 members sharing 1,667 vehicles.

It's a start. In the age of congested roads, pricey gas, and climate concerns, policy makers are — finally — giving slightly more than lip service to the idea of integrated mobility systems. For example, a group of southern California government agencies recently issued a request for proposals for a new "Maximizing Mobility Options" program that seeks creative solutions to enhance transit use and reduce car use. The RFP sought to link bicycles, electric bikes and scooters, carsharing, car rental, ridesharing, even Segway shared systems with mass transit for the 18 million denizens of the region.

That's a refreshing change. In the past, transportation modes represented a zero-sum game: whatever policies or funding favored, say, mass transit were to the detriment of bicycles and other modes, and nobody acknowledged the inevitably of electric vehicles — not just cars, but the full range of e-bikes, scooters, and other smaller machines, including neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) such as the GEM, ZAP, and ZENN.

Putting together all of the pieces represents a vast and untapped business opportunity. For example, the potential to integrate multiple types of next-gen vehicles remains a largely unclaimed opportunity for car rental and ridesharing companies — both the majors like Enterprise and the smaller community-based start-ups. To my knowledge, no carsharing program has offered the option of using EVs — bikes, scooters, Segways, or NEVs — that allow members to choose the mode with the lowest cost and impact.

Cities are starting to wake up, egged on by VC-backed entrepreneurs. For example, a company called Coulomb Technologies recently signed with the city of San Jose, where Coulomb is based, to deploy Coulomb's smart-charging stations at various locations throughout the city. The "smartlets" will be attached to a street light set-up that will use LED lighting technology and could also collect other data like traffic conditions. Another start-up, Intrago, has developed automated local vehicle rental and management systems specifically for combined offerings of NEVs, scooters, bikes, and Segways. Intrago's goal is to offer rental wheels around the world at transportation hubs like train stations, so people can reach their final destination without having to cab it, hoof it, or pedal uphill on a manual bike. (Full disclosure: I sit on Intrago's advisory board.)

Intrago founder Dan Sturges, who previously founded the aforementioned GEM cars, now owned by Chyrsler, envisions selling what he calls "Mobility Bundles" to consumers that includes one's proprietary (owned, lease, or service plan) small car for local or regional travel, together with a carshare membership, as well as a transit pass when available. It makes perfect sense, though such multi-modal thinking remains rare among entrepreneurs, planners, policymakers, and the many others needed to bring such a vision to widespread reality.

And then there's Better Place, a much-ballyhooed and well-financed start-up with the audacious goal of electrifying the entire roadway infrastructure of Israel (to start) followed by a long list of other cities and countries that are flocking to the vision of the company's charismatic founder, Shai Agassi. His vision includes fleets of electric vehicles with easily swapped batteries. Users might get the vehicles for free but rent or lease the batteries, paying for each "fill-up." When one of Agassi's cars runs out of juice, it can be plugged in, like a conventional EV, at home or any of thousands of charging stations that will be installed in nearly every parking place in Israel, or driven to a service station, where a machine will quickly swap out the depleted battery for a charged one, so drivers can travel uninterrupted beyond the range of a single battery charge.

Entrepreuers like Sturges and Agassi have yet to prove their visions, but their drive — not to mention their penchant for PR — is helping countless others imagine what's possible when companies and their partners think not just in terms of transportation products and services, but mobility systems.