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Robin Chase – Sharing cars and networks

Robin Chase is the inventor of Zipcar, a business that’s commercialized the social behavior of carsharing. Her focus is market-based pricing of transortation and the ways that wireless technologies could transform the transport sector.

Fuel efficient cars, she tells us, are not enough. Even if we had massive conversion to fuel efficient cars, we’d see only a 4% reduction in energy usage. We need behavioral changes as well. By making vehicles available in large cities and offering users a selection of vehicles, this gives consumers “all of the good stuff and none of the bad”, like the costs of vehicle maintenance.

The 100,000 members of Zipcar share 3,000 cars. They average only 500 miles a year of driving, far less than other urban car users. Users seem to like it – the userbase has doubled every year. But the pricing keeps use of vehicles down – at $8-10 an hour or $65 a day, are you willing to rent a car to go buy some ice cream?

To make this system work, it has to be technologically trivial, both to make it useful to the customer and to keep up margins. She’s now working on another technically lightweight solution to ridesharing, called Goloco. She mentions that ridesharing has excellent social benefits – if you travel to TED with someone, you generate social capital as well as saving fuel.

She points out that car travel is underpriced and overconsumed. To change this, we’re going to need financial incentives and disincentives. Ken Livingston introduced congestion charges in Central London – evidently this was popular, since Livingston got re-elected. She tells us that congestion charges are a precursor to road pricing – we currently tax road use by fuel taxes. But as fuel costs drop, this won’t work int he long term.

Introducing road pricing is going to require real technical innovation in wireless networks. She invokes The Graduate and gives us the one word of business advice: “Adhoc peer-to-peer self-configuring wireless networks” – in other words, mesh networks. She points out that One Laptop Per Child incorporates mesh and that mesh networks helped in the recovery of New Orleans.

Chase’s big idea is mesh networks based on automobiles, where there’s a device in every car in America to support congestion pricing and road tolls. She suggests that this could be a revolution in providing free and open networks supporting a wide range of applications but worries that, because there are no ongoing revenues from mesh and no one lobbying for mesh at the federal level. (I’d strongly disagree with this, pointing to projects like CuWin, and challenging whether this strategy can work outside of urban areas, but it’s certainly an intriguing thought.)