Zipcar and beyond: Robin Chase on

Robin Chase rose to fame by founding Zipcar, the world’s biggest car-sharing business, but that was one of her smaller ideas. In this presentation she travels much farther, contemplating road-pricing schemes that will shake up our driving habits and a no-fee mesh network as sprawling as the United States Interstate highway system. But how could you build a free wireless system that vast and pervasive? Chase finds the answer in a few short lines from The Graduate. And it has nothing to do with plastic. (Recorded March 2007 in Monterey, California. Duration: 13:39.)

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So I’m going to talk about two stories today. One is how we need to use market-based pricing to affect demand, and use wireless technologies to dramatically reduce our emissions in the transportation sector. And the other is that there is an incredible opportunity, if we choose the right wireless technologies, how we can generate new engines for economic growth and dramatically reduce C02 in the other sectors.

I’m really scared. We need to reduce C02 omissions in 10 to 15 years by 80% in order to avert catastrophic effects. And I’m astounded that I’m standing here to tell you that what are catastrophic effects, a three degree centigrade climate change rise that will result in 50% species extinction.

It’s not a movie. This is real life. And I’m really worried, because when people talk about cars, which I know something about, the press, the politicians and people in this room are all thinking, Let’s use fuel-efficient cars. If we started today, 10 years from now, at the end of this window of opportunity, those fuel-efficient cars will reduce our fossil fuel needs by 4%. That’s not enough.

Now I’ll talk about more pleasant things. Here are some ways that we can make some dramatic changes. So the ZipCar is a company that I founded seven years ago, but it’s an example of something called car sharing. What ZipCar does is we park cars around dense urban areas for members to reserve by the hour or the day, instead of using their own car.

How does it feel to be a person using a ZipCar? It means that I pay only for what I need. All these hours for a car sitting idle, I’m not paying for it. It means that I can choose a car exactly for that particular trip. So here’s a woman that reserved Mini-Mia and she had her day. I could take a BMW when I’m seeing clients. I can drive my Toyota Element when I want to go on that surfing trip. You know? And the other remarkable thing is that, I think, it’s the highest status of car ownership. Not only do I have a fleet of cars available to me in seven cities around the world that I can have at my beck and call, but heaven forbid that I would ever maintain or deal with the repair or have anything to do with it. It’s like the car that you always wanted that your mom said that you couldn’t have. I get all the good stuff and none of the bad.

So what is the social result of this? The social result is that today’s Zip car has a 100,000 members driving 3,000 cars parked in 3,000 parking spaces. Instead of driving 12,000 miles a year, which is what the average city dweller does, they drive 500 miles a year. Are they happy? The company has been doubling in size every since I founded it, or greater. People enjoy the company and it’s better, you know? They like it.

So how is it that people went from the 12,000 miles a year to the 500 miles? It’s because they said it’s $8 to $10 an hour and $65 a day. If I’m going to go buy some ice cream, do I really want to spend $8 to go buy the ice cream? Or could I do without? Maybe I’ll go buy the ice cream when I go do some other errand. So people respond really quickly to it, to prices.

The last point I want to make is that the car would never be possible without technology. It required that it was completely efficient. It takes 30 seconds to rent – to reserve a car, go get it, drive it. And for me as a service provider, I would never be able to provide you a car for an hour if the transaction cost was anything. So without these wireless technologies, this as a concept could never have happened.

So here’s another example. This company is GoLoco. I’m launching it in three weeks. And I’m hoping to do for ride sharing what I did for car sharing. This will apply for people all across America. Today 70% of the trips are single-occupancy vehicles. Yet 12% of the rides to work are currently carpool. And I think that we can apply social networks and online payment systems to completely change how people feel about ride sharing and make that trip much more efficient.

And so when I think about the future, people will be thinking that sharing a ride with someone is this incredibly great social event out of their day. You know, how did you get to TED? You went with other TEDsters. How fabulous. Why would you ever want to go in your own car? How did you go food shopping? You went with your neighbor, what a great social time. You know it’s really going to transform how we feel about traveling. And it will also enhance our freedom of mobility, you know? Where can I go today and who can I do it with? Those are the types of things that you will look at and feel.

And the social benefits, the brightest single-occupancy vehicles, I told you I think 75%, I think we can get that down to 50%. The demand for parking is down. And the CO2 emissions. One last piece about this is of course to be enabled by wireless technologies. It’s the constant driving that’s making people want to be able to do this. The average American spends 19% of their income on their car. And there’s a pressure to reduce that cost, yet they have no outlet today.

So the last example of this is congestion pricing very famously done in London, when you charge a premium for people to drive on a congested road. In London, the day they turned the congestion pricing on, there was a 25% decrease in congestion overnight. And that has been persistent in the years that they’ve been doing congestion pricing. And again, do people like the outcome? Ken Livingston was re-elected.

So, again, we can see that price plays an enormous role in peoples’ willingness to reduce their driving behavior. We’ve tripled the amount of miles we drive since 1970 and doubled them since 1982. There’s a huge slack in that system. With the right pricing we can undo that.

Congestion pricing is being discussed in every major city around the world and is again wirelessly enabled. You weren’t going to put tollbooths around the city of London and open and shut those gates. And what congestion pricing is, is that it’s a technology trail and a psychological trail for something called road pricing. And road pricing is where we’re all going to have to go. Because today we pay for our maintenance, and wear and tear on our roads with gas taxes. And as we get our cars more fuel-efficient, that’s going to be reducing the amount of revenue you get off of those gas taxes, so we need to charge people by the miles that they drive. Whatever happens with congestion pricing is that those technologies will be happening with road pricing.

Why do we travel too much? Car traveling is under-priced so we over-consumed. We need to put this better market feedback. And if we have it, you’ll decide how many miles to drive, what mode of travel, where to live. And work and wireless technologies make this real-time loop possible.

So I want to move now to the second part of my story, which is, you know, when are we going to start doing this congestion pricing, road pricing is coming. When are we going to do it? Are we going to wait 10 to 15 years? Or are we going to finally have this political will to make it happen in the next two years? And I’m going to say that’s going to be the tool to turn – turn out usage overnight. And what kind of technologies – wireless technologies are we going to use? This is my big vision.

There is a tool that can help us bridge the digital divide, respond to emergencies, get traffic moving, provide new engine for economic growth and dramatically reduce CO2 emissions in every sector.

And this is a moment from The Graduate, to remember this moment, you guys are going to be the handsome youmg guy and I’m going to be the wise businessman. “I want to say one word to you, just one word. Yes sir? Are you listening? Yes I am. Ad Hoc Peer to Peer self-configuring wireless networks.”

These are also called “mesh networks.” And in a mesh, every device contributes to and expands the network, and I think you may have heard of it before. I’m going to give you some examples. You’ll be hearing a little today from Alan Kay. These laptops, when a child opens them up, they communicate with every single child in the classroom, within that school, within that village. And what’s the cost of that communication? Zero dollars a month.

Here’s another example in New Orleans. Video cameras were mesh enabled so they could monitor crime in the downtown French Quarter. When the hurricane happened the only communication system standing was the mesh network. Volunteers flew in and added a whole bunch of devices. And for the next 12 months, mesh networks were the only wireless that was happening in New Orleans.

Another example is in Portsmouth UK. They mesh-enabled 300 buses. And they can speak to these smart terminals. You can look at the terminal and be able to see precisely where your bus is on the street. And when it’s coming, and you can buy your tickets in real time. Again all mesh-enabled. Monthly communication cost, zero.

So the beauty of mesh networks: You can have these very low-cost devices. $0 ongoing communication costs. Highly scalable. You can just keep adding them, and as in Katrina you can subtract them. As long as there’s some, we can still communicate.
They’re resilient. Their redundancy is built into this fabulous decentralized design.
There isn’t anybody in Washington lobbying to make it happen or in those municipalities to build out their cities, because there’s zero ongoing communication costs. So the examples that I gave you are these islands of mesh networks, and mesh networks are interesting only as they are big.

How do we create a big network? Are you guy ready again for The Graduate? This time you will still play the handsome young thing, but I’ll be the sexy woman. These are the next lines in the movie. Where did you do it? In this car? So you know when you stick this idea, where would you expect me, Robin Chase, to be thinking is, imagine if we were to put a mesh network device in every single car in America. We could have a coast-to-coast free wireless system.

I guess I just want you to think about that. And why’s this going to happen? Because we’re going to do congestion pricing, we’re going to do road tolls, gas taxes are going to become road pricing. These things are going to happen. What is wireless technology? Are we going to use a good one? Maybe we should use a good one. When are we going to do it? Maybe we shouldn’t wait for the 10 to 15 years this going to happen. We should pull it forward.

So I’d like us to launch the wireless internet – interstate wireless mesh system. And require this network be accessible with open standards. Right now in the transportation sector, we’re creating these wireless devices. I guess you guys might have FastPass or EasyLane -– that is single-purpose devices in these closed networks. What is the point? We’re transforming just like a few little data bits when we’re doing road controlling, road pricing. We had this incredible excess capacity. So we can provide the lowest-cost means of going wireless coast to coast. We can have resilient nationwide communication systems. We have a new tool for creating efficiencies in all sectors. Imagine what happens when the cost of getting information from anywhere to anywhere is close to zero.

What you can do with that tool? We can create an economic engine. Information should be free, and access to information should be free. We should be charging people for carbon.

I think this is a more powerful tool than the Interstate Highway Act and I think this is as important and world-changing to our economy as electrification. And if I had my druthers, we would have an open-source version in addition to open standards. And this open-source version means that it could be – if we did a brilliant job of it – it could be used around the world very quickly. So going back to my – one of my earlier thoughts. Imagine if every one of these buses and telcos were part of a mesh network. When I went this morning to Larry Brilliant’s TEDTalk prize. These fabulous networks. Imagine if there were an open-source mesh communication device that can be put into these networks, to make all that happen. And we can be doing it if we could get over the fact that someone is – this little slice of things is going to be for free and we could make billions of dollars on top of it. But this one particular slice of communications needs to be open source.

So let’s take control of this nightmare, implement a gas tax immediately, transition across the nation to road tolling with this wireless mesh, require that the mesh be open to all with open standards, and of course use mesh networks.