Friday, September 26, 2008

Think: Mobility as a Service

Wouldn't it be great if you could pay for your car as you go?

My next-door neighbour who is quite lucratively into broadcasting, bless her cotton-socks, has two cars - ones a high-powered late models Mercedes Benz sports, that just says success in a language any entrepreneur would understand.

But the one she drives every day almost is a Prius. Adorned with its government stickers allowing access down the diamond lane on the freeway, she buzzes around in 45mpg comfort for almost all trips - while the Merc languishes until she needs to take a client out somewhere.

A few of my workmates who live in San Francisco are members of car-sharing organizations like ZipCar and they book a car online when they need one. Living in San Francisco means owning a car is a very expensive luxury, and when you're at the hub of everything you mostly don't need one.

Somewhere in between all this service and ownership there has to be a model that fits. Where is the software-as-a-service
for cars? Who is going to invent AJAX for transportation?

Think. That's who.

In the 90's Norwegian company Pivco were shipping cars to the USA for use in car-sharing programs, and while their first cars were sub-standard by US lights, their new Think Citi brought them to the attention of Ford, the US car giant.

California had created its ZEV initiative requiring manufacturers to have a zero-emissions vehicle in its line-up, and as a result in 1999 Ford bought Pivco and pumped $150M into it, writes Todd Woody in a July 2007 article for Under Fords steward-ship Think's designers worked on an updated Think City, but when the ZEV initiative was out-manouvred by the anti-ZEV lobby, Ford dropped Think like a hot potato, citing "poor sales". Think rapidly went into decline.

Woody describes how cashed up green entrepreneur Jan-Olaf Willums, bought Think for a song in 2006, and set about changing it to a new business model.

Their factory in Aurskog, 30 miles from Oslo in Norway, runs on lean, just-in-time manufacturing principles. Cars are built from commoditized components bought from Asia and Europe, some partly assembled. Polymer body panels from Turkey are fitted to alloy chassis from Denmark. Some batteries are supplied by Tesla. Final quality control is done at the environmentally friendly paperless factory, which Willums plans to duplicate whereever their demand is located.

Last week I met Dipender Saluja of automatiks a Silicon Valley startup who are innovating in vehicle navigation and in-car computing. Saluja had with
him two Think models - the new Think Open convertible prototype, and the current model Think City.

There's two really interesting things to notice about the Think.

One: Its a platform for innovation.

The local factory can easily retool to produce a version suited for the local conditions. Vendors can easily make add-ons and high-value integrations - which is where Saluja's company comes in. Different battery options are available depending on climate conditions or load/usage patterns.

Two: Its a conduit for service delivery.

The lightweight panels and chassis are fraction of the cost and weight compared to the batteries, which are the principle cost of the car. So what about replacing them when they wear out?

As Willums says, with the Think you are not buying a "Thing".

You don't replace the batteries - because when you buy the car for under $20,000, the batteries stay the property of Think, and for a monthly fee just like your phone or internet account the batteries are tracked and serviced when needed. You, or the next owner of the Think never has to worry about the battery life, replacement or recycling. Peace of mind, and known costs.

How does Think know about the battery condition? The car is internet enabled. As well as Think factories being able to keep tabs on it, so can you - battery charge levels can be checked remotely, and you can send Google maps to the cars on-board computer to be used in its navigation system.

The vehicle is a mobile technology platform, allowing you to send emails and potentially do anything your internet enabled computing device can do, from the convenience of your drivers seat - not while you're driving of course.

And the City is all about convenience. The glass of the rear hatch goes from the hatch floor up to the hinge, making the tiny car - its shorter than a Mini Cooper and about as punchy - seem much more spacious than you'd expect, and easy to load.

Racing around the carpark, the Think turns on a dime and nips into tiny parking spots that don't exist for other vehicles. As a second car you'll still have most of your second car park available for stashing that old computer junk you're waiting to recycle.

Whether you're newly green and looking for that convenient car to park next to the Mercedes, or a shopping cart and office commuter to complement your already green lifestyle the Think seems to have it all sown up.

Buying your 4-wheeled personal transportation the way you buy your mobile phone - that seems to make so much more web 2.0 21st century sense.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Ship of Fuels

Am I the only one that finds it amazing to be on the same side of the spectrum as The Economist, when it comes to climate issues?

September 6th issue, in their Technology briefing:

...carmakers that 10 months ago were lining up to lobby Congress against proposed legislation that would oblige them to achieve a fleet average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. It simply could not be done they wailed.

According to the Economist while the grumbling continues the carmakers have woken up to the fact that customers are voting with their wallets, and ditching gas guzzlers because of prices at the pump. No doubt environmental concerns are in the equation too, but its easier to be green when it saves the folding stuff too.

BMW, Daimler and VW (makers of Audi) are leading the charge along with Hyundai, Fiat and Toyota in producing lower-emissions vehicles. These low-polluting foreign cars that are also cheap to run look so good to consumers that USA manufacturers are realizing that their profits are at stake if they don't follow suit.

While the oilmen keep saying "drill, drill, drill", its the volatility of oil as much as its current high prices that has got people moving. Sure we can - maybe - get more oil; and hopefully peak oil maybe won't happen. But I don't know if I'm going to turn up at the pump next week and half my paycheck is gone on fuel, due to some crisis or other.

One interesting thing the Economist says is that the hybrid is just a bridging solution. Its a painless introduction to green, and to electric power. The new hybrids are all plug-ins, says the money magazine, and it will be an easy step for those who are used to their Prius intricacies to find that the 2009 model comes with a 3-pin accessory.

Another recent article (Fall 2008, SWE Magazine, by Charlotte Thomas) discusses the current slew of fuel replacements that tech firms, car manufacturers and universities are working on.

Here the message concurs with what I have been saying - locality is the key. No one solution multiplied wider and deeper is going to work. There are promising new ways to produce fuel-cells, and advances in cellulosic acohol. But for example corn ethanol is not going to provide a country-wide solution, because scale is a deal-breaker.

I loved this quote from MIT Professor Daniel Nocera (quoted in Thomas' article):

Three factors will force governments, industry and consumers to curtail a voracious fossil fuel habit... economics, geopolitical instability, and public awareness of the adverse affects of fuels on the environment.

Fuels are necessarily a tiny part of the end solution because of the massive cost of processing them - many of the processes use much more energy to create the fuel and distribute it than is in the fuel itself. Electricity on the other hand already has a distribution system.

So as interesting as these fuels are they are all bridging solutions too. The hybrid has allowed us to have our long range vehicle - even tho' statistically we never use it.

With alternative fuels, biodiesels and so on, we have an environmentally palatable internal combustion nicotine patch.

So the medicine to break the oil addiction is going to be a lot cheaper on the environment, but its still a stage in the evolution of transportation to a truly sustainable pattern.