The future of mobility will be multi-modal, shared and zero emission.

An interview with ZipCar founder, Robin Chase

This interview is published in The Beam #5 — Subscribe now for more on the topic

Robin Chase is a transportation entrepreneur who became famous for co-founding Zipcar, the largest carsharing company in the world. The successful entrepreneur wasn’t about to stop there, going on to co-found Buzzcar, a peer-to-peer carsharing service in France (now merged with Drivy); as well as GoLoco, an online ridesharing community; and more recently Veniam, a vehicle communications company building the networking fabric for the Internet of Moving Things.

Robin has received numerous awards in the areas of innovation, design and environment, including Time’s 100 Most Influential People, Fast Company Fast 50 Innovators, and BusinessWeek’s Top 10 Designers. We were thrilled to interview this successful entrepreneur, and have a chance to ask her about her vision on the future of mobility.

“Our actions (or inactions) over the next few years will determine the fate of humanity. Each of us need to look at what we personally can offer up to the transition to a new sustainable economy.”

We know you for your entrepreneurial vision. But where does your passion derive from? At what point in your life, and why, did you decide to make a contribution to fighting climate change through your business ideas?

In 2013, the World Bank released a report, 4 Degrees, Turn Down the Heat. In the climate community, it was getting a lot of buzz so I finally read the executive summary. I was deeply disturbed and in disbelief. Was the pace of warming predicted and urgency of action action required true? I sent two quick queries to colleagues who are leaders in the climate movement. They both affirmed the findings and the predictions.

While general concern about the environment had been in my head for a long while, the reality of the trajectory we are on and its catastrophic consequences had not yet been burned into my brain and heart. They are now. Our actions (or inactions) over the next few years will determine the fate of humanity. Each of us need to look at what we personally can offer up to the transition to a new sustainable economy. For me personally, the last 17 years have given me an understanding of the role of transportation, technology, and new business models, and therefore the standing to speak about it.

You have contributed to the shift in how people use automobiles. Where do you see the future of mobility going?

The future of mobility will be multi-modal, and when it involves a motorised vehicle, that vehicle will be shared and zero emission. Here is why I feel confident about that statement: the majority of people currently live in cities and we know an even higher percentage will do so in the future. If you live in a city, you can access most things without a car. For most of your trips, it is fastest and most convenient to: walk, quickly bike (once the road infrastructure has been adjusted so that you feel safe), or take transit that cuts through congestion in priority lanes. Add to these realities the fact that real estate is too valuable to devote to car storage.

Our transportation future is driven wholly by economics and technology. The economic choice for both individuals and cities is to do away with personal car ownership. Technology has made sharing simple: from knowing when the next bus is coming and navigating transfers quickly, to paying for small transactions effortlessly, to being able to rent a whole car, or a seat in a vehicle quickly, easily and cheaply. Transit apps, carsharing and ridesharing have been made possible by the Internet, GPS, and the instant access we all have with cellphones in our pockets.

When we layer in self driving cars (fully automated vehicles), that are already being piloted in cities around the world, that allow low-cost dynamic pickup and drop-off, and we can clearly see the end of the road for personal car ownership. These Fleets of Autonomous Vehicles that are Electric and Shared (FAVES!) will complement and supplement mass transit. We will have a new category of private “public transport.”

The zero emission part falls into place once you are using vehicles efficiently. When a vehicle is used most of the day, and puts on a lot of mileage, fuel costs become significant and the financial choice is clearly to go electric. This falls into place once we start intensively using vehicles through sharing. I would point people to this very short video I made about our future choices of mobility in cities.

According to you, how important is the development of smart grids?

One of the ways I thought about Zipcar, in hindsight, was that it was collaborative consumption (many people sharing a few specific assets) as well as collaborative production: people’s individual and local demands are collaboratively building and collaboratively financing a fleet of shared vehicles. If we think of such a fleet as a sort of infrastructure, this idea is really intriguing. Can we collaboratively build and collaboratively finance infrastructure? Yes! This is what a smart grid can do. Individual buildings, owned by individuals or institutions, can each invest in solar for their own properties. Together, their excess contributes capacity and resilience to the entire grid. The same is true of wind power or other renewable energies. Instead of relying on a few huge large pieces of infrastructure, we now have the ability and technology to build large resilient, redundant, and ultimately reliable power grids collaboratively.

As an entrepreneur working to build a more sustainable world, do you feel supported by global politics?

If by politics we mean governments, at the federal level in the United States, I am clearly not supported. But many states, cities, and other countries around the world are beginning to support these ideas. And politics should really be rooted in the people, and the majority of people are behind addressing climate change. The challenge is the huge inertia and impediments built up over the last century in regulations and taxation that have built and shaped the status quo. We are where we are today because our past choices led us here.

Rapid technology and environmental change is reshaping economic models and power structures. Sometimes in the public interest, but other times not. It is easy to look around and see how the old paths and patterns are broken. It is as if the foundations of our entire economic and social systems have softened and are in movement. Now is a rare moment in time for us to rethink, restructure and rebuild to make the world we want to live in, and the world we can live in.

Last presidential election in France saw one candidate (Benoît Hamon, socialist party), build his entire campaign on the universal income. Are you in favour of this idea? And how do you think it could change the world we live in?

I am in favour of doing many Basic Income pilots because of two technology-related trends, one of which we are already experiencing.

Over the last decade, and continuing into the future, we are seeing the “platformization” of businesses. As I describe in my book, Peers Inc: How People and Platforms are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism, platform companies grow faster, learn faster, adapt and localise faster than traditional ones. Everything that can become a platform will become one. Platform companies outsource as much of their work as possible. We are seeing the fallout of this in labor. Every country has different labour laws and social safety net benefits, and all of these are coming under pressure with this new way of working. Increasing numbers of people do not have full-time jobs with benefits.

I expect this trend to accelerate in the future with the rise of artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles. Huge swaths of the economy are in rapid transition. Many people say that these technical breakthroughs will result in new jobs. Perhaps. But for specific individuals in specific locations, such jobs will not be found, nor in time.

Basic Income is a way to temper this transition. I also see it as a means of sharing the benefits of automation and platforms, both of which enjoy enormous economies of scale.

While Universal Basic Income will reduce individual insecurity, I also believe it will unleash creativity, innovation, and rising quality of life felt by all. But to know for sure, let us do many pilots and understand what is the shape, amount, circumstances, and surrounding regulations, benefits, and taxation that would come of it.

Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou

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