Robin Chase: “The Web 2.0 of Transportation Technologies”

11_zipcar1_225.jpgRobin Chase is the co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar and the founder and CEO of GoLoco, a ride-sharing service that uses social networks like Facebook to connect people who want to carpool. A Harvard University Loeb Fellow, Chase is an authority on the use of wireless and mesh network technology as it applies to transportation. She’ll be giving a talk at Baruch College, 151 E. 25th St., Room 759, at 9:30am on October 19th. There she’ll discuss some of the ways wireless technology can facilitate near-term reduction of CO2 emissions. What follows are some excerpts from a telephone conversation last week with Sarah Goodyear.

Sarah Goodyear: Your talk at Baruch College is titled "The Window of Opportunity is Now: How Wireless Can Move Us to More Sustainable Transportation." Explain what you’ll be discussing.

Robin Chase: The pitch starts with my complete horror that we have less than five years to turn worldwide CO2 emissions around. One of the senior climatologists that I refer to said if that turning point of CO2 emissions happens in 2015, i.e. seven years from now, we have a 50-50 chance of averting catastrophic effects of climate change. I personally would like to improve those odds.

When we think about the transportation world, everything is major infrastructure change: Let’s build more rail, more transit, more walkable communities. Let’s create more fuel-efficient cars and move to hybrids and alternative fuels. Not one speck of that work is going to have a remote impact in the time frame we’re talking about. So while I think those are critical and important things for the medium run and the long run, we need more people focused on what we’re going to be doing in the next five years.

SG: How does wireless fit in?

RC: From my Zipcar experience and from watching congestion pricing played out in London and Stockholm, I’ve learned that money — market pricing, or accurate reflection of pricing — is what turns people’s behavior on a dime. If we’re serious, that’s where we have to go. Marketing is everything and wireless technologies bring us to a totally different world of possibility.

Zipcar and car-sharing is one example of how the ability to rent a car by the hour easily and therefore pay almost full car costs for that hour causes people to drive dramatically less. You don’t run out and buy your quart of ice cream, because it’s going to cost you ten bucks to buy that quart of ice cream. You say OK, I’ll do without, I’ll eat cookies, I’ll pick up ice cream tomorrow.

Likewise ride sharing, which is what GoLoco is all about. There are a couple of reasons ride-sharing has been underused. One of them is stranger anxiety: I really don’t want to step into a car with anybody. The rise of social networks has transformed that equation. We’re all friends of friends, so we can get some level of comfort around that. Then the whole money-changing-hands piece. People think it’s complicated, why bother. They think it’s dirty, embarrassing and awkward. So we can do an online payment system. And the whole matching-up of people finding those rides–that’s what the Internet and our wireless devices in our hands are all about. That we can make those connections relatively easily.

A screenshot of GoLoco users on Facebook

How can wireless technology and mesh networks enable congestion pricing?

RC: What is shocking about the congestion pricing model that was done in London and in Stockholm and in Singapore is that those systems are creating wireless infrastructures on closed networks with proprietary devices. If we’re going to spend out oodles of money for wireless infrastructure for our transportation systems for congestion pricing and for road pricing, we should be making those open networks using open standards, i.e., things that consumers and businesspeople have devices that hook up to. We’d actually do an open source communications platform. And we can transform this required investment in transportation wireless infrastructure into something that’s an economic development boon and that makes information ubiquitous and very, very low cost, while we’re making carbon — the old economy — high cost.

We can turn the cars into wireless hotspots. So imagine the car becoming a hotspot if you’re within a quarter mile to a mile of a car, that is next to another car, that is next to another car, that is next to a gateway. If we open that up to become an open network with open standards, ultimately your laptop and your cell phone and the traffic light and the parking meter will all be part of the same communications network infrastructure. And all that peer-to-peer communication is free.

The transportation wireless connectivity can be in full flow with the rest of the economy. From a technological standpoint, it takes some of the risk out of the investment — when we invest in a closed, proprietary system and the rest of the world moves on, it means you’re going to have a defunct proprietary system in a very short time. If instead we say we’re going to use open standards and we want individual consumers’ devices to be creating this open network, individuals will be swapping out and buying their own devices as things get upgraded. It’s kind of like the web 2.0 version of transportation technologies.

SG: So how would it work for a car owner?

RC: There would be a black box that you put into your car. It would cost around $50. Individuals will have to go buy that device and install it in the car themselves. It’ll just be plugging it into the cigarette lighter. Once you buy that device with your own money and install it with your own money, I’m going to give you double that in tolls for free. So what we’ve done is instead of the city’s having to go around to every traffic light and put up all the cameras, make the millions of dollars in investment, instead of that we’re saying end users are financing the buy for the hardware and the installation. It will bring the start time for the congestion pricing system up, because we don’t have this complicated stuff going on in the hard infrastructure in the city.

SG: What are the civil liberties implications of this type of system?

RC: Locational privacy is in the [mesh network] software, and we need to demand that. It’s being done with other applications for voting. We really need to protect our locational privacy. And with the camera taking shots of people’s license plates at intersections, we lose that. I realize, yes, we’ve lost it with the cameras that exist downtown, and yes, we all carry a cell phone in our pockets, but I think it takes it to a totally other level if every car in America for road pricing is going to be trackable. We need to put our foot down now.

There are so many issues at stake here. For me, climate change would be number one. But I don’t think we have to give up privacy at that altar and we shouldn’t.

SG: What are the chances of getting anyone to listen to your ideas?

RC: I’ve been having success in getting increasingly higher and higher up to get people to listen. This talk in New York is great, in that I hope to catch the ear of some of those decision-makers.

SG: Does your history with Zipcar help you get people to listen to you, to see you not as an activist but as an entrepreneur?

RC: Yep. Absolutely.

SG: In the ritualized drama of New York politics, all this innovation is a lot to get people to accept.

RC: I realize, it is brutally complicated. And I realize the politics and the economics and the factions. But I think we can make the case that there’s a huge win from many aspects to doing it this way. There’s the economic development potential. Everyone’s looking at the whole homeland security resilience of networks — this comes into play. I feel that we can make a choice. But I’m too much of an outsider to be able to predict.

SG: You talked about road pricing becoming a reality on the national scene.

RC: Gas taxes, as you know, haven’t been raised since the early ’90s. As we push for alternative fuel cars and fuel-efficient cars, what is already an inadequate source of revenue is every day more and more inadequate. Policy makers at the highest levels have completely figured this out. The alternative is you have user fees by the mile instead of by the gallon. So it’s 100 percent positively coming, and since we know it’s coming, we should be doing these technology trials and set-ups so that it’s viable, it’s possible. When we put the congestion pricing question into context, it is truly a trial, a behavioral and technical trial, for what road pricing looks like. And the cordon-and-video-camera technique is not what can be done for road pricing. So we have to realize, now is our window. Let’s get it right.

Because of the time frame we’re working with, I want to see the technology out there and viable, so that the day the politicians finally wrap their mind around it, the next day we can turn it on.

Photo: Phoebe Sexton/Harvard News Office

  • Respect the Past

    Interesting Article. Random question for anyone who cares to opine – Would a change from a per-gallon to a per-mile tax disproportionately push people to drive less, yet to also drive less fuel efficient vehicles? (If you are going to be charged the same in taxes for driving a Hummer five miles versus a Prius five miles, wouldn’t that create a perverse incentive to be more inclined to drive the Hummer?)

  • Jonathan

    This thing sounded attractive, but then I ran some numbers.

    It costs less than $50 to get my midsize sedan from Providence to Philadelphia in gas and tolls, about 65% of what “Hannah” is asking each passenger for her one-way trip (Greyhound is $50 btw).

    I wonder whether my girlfriend would be interested in the “sexy blonde chauffeur” business. By my calculations, an enterprising person with a wide social network could bring in $700 per weekend after gas and tolls, more than enough to keep a sporty new Honda Element (or whatever else a sexy blonde should drive) on the road.

    I have mixed feelings about programs like this one that on one hand make themselves out to be environmentally and socially friendly but on the other hand also create excuses for more people to get out on the road and pollute the commons in their private vehicles. What exactly are the deficiencies of Greyhound or Amtrak that this service addresses?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I don’t understand how road pricing can be implemented – and enforced – without tracking the road users. Is that in the interview? I couldn’t find it.

  • Wow. I’ve been following mesh networks for a while now and the last thing I expected was for them to intersect with transportation reform. Mesh networking is pretty much guaranteed to happen given how much of the internet’s value is amateur-generated, and the fact that–ppst!–radio networking is free.

    So, 15 months since I last checked in you can actually buy the little repeaters from Meraki and that’s great, but I don’t think we are going to see repeaters integrated with GPSes, in cars, in 2008. We shouldn’t put the brakes on the current proposal to try something that is less practical given current technology. When we get our c.p. rolled out, Orwellian as it may be (for city drivers, lol), I would love to see some mesh networking entrepreneurs come up with a better and cheaper system in five years. But let’s not lose the unexpected chance we have with this administration by getting all goldilocks now.

    Also, what is up with Robin and the state of Oregon being so weird about gas taxes? I wish I shared their fear of declining revenues tied to fuel use, but I don’t think we’ve turned any kind of corner just because there are a few Priuses on the road. Gas / carbon taxes need to be raised as soon as possible, to finally cure the national “light” truck epidemic. Then we (or they, the exburban lands) can talk about per-mile charging for insurance and road maintenance. Getting c.p. through in NYC is hard enough without the expectation that our system should be the ideal model for the country.

  • boomer

    Hitchhiking was SO much easier.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I’ve encountered a couple of non-internet ridesharing programs. When I was in college there was a big ride board in the student union. I remember checking it several times, mostly for rides to the city, but I can’t remember actually getting a ride that way.

    When I spent my junior year in Paris there was Allostop, which was recommended by several of my French friends. I went to their office one time to ask about rides; I’m not sure I wanted to go any place in particular, just exploring. I think their fee was too high for me at the time.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Also: when I visited Mali, I was told that ridesharing is pretty much obligatory for long-distance trips. It’s considered incredibly rude to refuse a ride if you have room – and it’s usually possible to squeeze someone in. It’s also expected that the rider will compensate the driver in some way, cash or barter. I never found out the rates.

    I still remember my mom picking up hitchhikers in the ’70s. In some ways it was easier, but this GoLoco seems to allow better planning. For example, if you set out to hitchhike to Terre Haute you probably wouldn’t get a one-seat ride, but using GoLoco you might be able to find one leaving within a week.

  • gecko

    yes hitchiking. got to LA in 3 rides and 72 hours back in the early 70s.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The thing about ridesharing is, you have to get scale, and it has to be reliable enough that some people can ditch of their cars and rely on it, saving the fixed cost of driving as well as the variable cost.

    One way to do that is if NYC public servants, most of whom do not work in the CBD and live in the suburbs or suburban areas of the city were to adopt it collectively. IMHO if you aren’t willing to take a couple of your fellow cops/teachers/firefighers with you for a small fee, you shouldn’t be given a free, reserved on-street parking space even in Staten Island or Queens. It could be a big financial improvement for government workers that doesn’t cost the city much.

  • Sarah Goodyear

    @ Angus 3: The bit about how users need not be tracked didn’t make it into this edited version of the interview (like so much else), but here’s the brief explanation Chase gave me:
    “There’s something called zero-knowledge proof in which there is no trusted third party. No one side has all the pieces of information, so there isn’t anyone you could ask to be told, ‘Where was Robin?’ You couldn’t demand it in any way.”
    We didn’t get into it further than that.

    @boomer: Maybe hitchhiking was/is easier for guys. Never has been for women. The attendant risk and anxiety have always been prohibitive for most (although obviously not all) women.

  • george

    Sarah – thanks, but I still don’t get how Robin sees this working without cameras. If people have boxes that they plug into their cigarette lighter, why wouldn’t they just unplug it (or not get the box at all) to avoid being charged? May be I’m missing something obvious here.

  • Sarah Goodyear

    @ George: That’s a good question, and one I never got around to asking. Maybe if Robin reads this at some point she can weigh in…or if someone goes to the talk they can ask ehr and report back.

  • Ian Turner


    I think you’re on to something here. If government employees are willing to grant each other “professional courtesy” when it comes to the issuance of parking tickets, they may very well be willing to grant the same courtesy in ridesharing. At the very least, the city can create a citywide ridesharing information program to enable city employees to coordinate. If it is successful, continued use of employee permits and placards could be made contingent on enrollment in the ridesharing program.

  • Thanks to Streetsblog for the interview. Here is a link to my blog in which I’ve posted answers to many of the technology and privacy questions raised.

    And a quick response to those who questioned the pricing of GoLoco rides, or whether this would increase car use:

    1. Drivers can charge what they deem appropriate for the trip, and this amount is divided by the number of people in the car, including the driver. The average cost of driving today is 50 cents a mile (shocking!). At the end of the day, competition rules. If it is cheaper to take the bus, drivers would learn to charge less.

    2. Will this cause people to drive more? I don’t think so. In NY and Boston, it’ll be usually easier to take a subway. But what if your destination is off the transit grid? what if it requires 3 changes and lots of waiting? In addition to getting to car-dependent destinations, what about people who live in car-dependent points of origin? Those of us living in the big cities have it easy — we have some choices.

    Oh, last comment — taxes by the mile will likely not be one size fits all. Heavier cars create more highway wear and tear; large engine cars produce more pollutants. Each type of car would have a defined tax per mile based on its weight and engine type. You’d know what that was when you bought the vehicle, or by looking it up in a table somewhere.

  • v

    ah, i love zipcar. why? ten thousand reasons, but most recently because it means that for most places i travel for work, i probably don’t even have to think about renting a car. also because the way it operates is absolutely spotless. reserving is easy. picking up the car is easy. filling up the tank is easy. billing is easy.

    also, have seen some brilliant ride sharing systems on campuses. and for staff, not students. departments usually don’t need the cars they have, they just need a costless way to share them for the few times they are really needed.

  • sey

    Many comments about hitch-hiking. In essence, isn’t that the ultimate – safe and anxiety free hitch hiking. Why can’t I go down to the regional highway where nearly every car has excess capacity and get a ride to the nearest city. Hitchhiking had the beauty of no timetables or schedules – completely adhoc. Is anyone working on that concept?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith
  • LeaP~

    I was part of IdeaSpark, here in Raleigh, NC last month. The premise for our groups challenge was that a transportation solution for handicapped people would have wide spread value for the general population. (ie. the phonograph was originally for the blind and hearing impaired, and from that emerged the recording industry and much musical happiness for the masses). The small group that I was a part of hit upon this very idea, a digital ride board. It’s brilliant.

    There’s bits of it in seed form all over the place. Evite has a carpooling option. Those folks picking up hitchikers to use the commuter lane in DC. That silly new show about Carpoolers. Sellers ratings on ebay. Sex offender registers online. With the safety piece in place, what a very cool way to meet people, get where you are going, and cut the carbon.

  • Brook

    This Goloco seems like it’s modeled after which I keep revisiting but haven’t find rides on yet :(.

  • Cindy Sage

    You’ve forgotten something important in this concept. Wireless exposures, if chronic, even at very low-intensity levels, has bioeffects that can reasonably be presumed to lead to adverse health effects. Particularly for children. See If your idea is to be of true public service (and planetary protection) you must not rely on blanket wireless (WI-FI, WiMAX, or any other form of involuntary public RF exposure to accomplish this).

    Best regards,

    Cindy Sage
    BioInitiative Report

  • Jonathan

    Cindy, According to David Ropeik and George Gray’s 2002 book, Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You, “There does not appear to be any risk from cell phone radiation. Remember, a risk requires both hazard and exposure. We’re exposed to lots of cell phone radiation, but not to levels that are hazardous.” Wi-Fi radiation is even lower power than cell phone radiation.

    Please stop scaring people.

  • Major development in human civilization, in terms of Transportation Technologies:

  • David

    Now we have Uber and Lyft, check out for promo codes and more.


Photo: Foo Conner/Flickr

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