Recap and takeaways of the Micromobility panel at Moving the Future 2020

I moderated a panel on micromobility at the annual Moving the Future Conference at Harvard Business School. I had the fortune of discussing this decade’s favorite topic with four heavyweights in the industry. We had the panel discussion on Groundhog Day, when Punxsutawney Phil saw no shadow and thereby predicted an early spring (ain’t that the truth),

We discussed the potential for micromobility, the cannibalization of walking and transit usage, aggregation of micromobility vehicles, and what the future of the vehicle looks like. Here’s all the good stuff and memorable lines from the 40 minute conversation.

The micromobility panel includes, in order from left to right:

  • Matt Warfield, a new mobility planner with the City of Boston Transportation Department
  • Tarani Duncan, a product strategist and advisor to pioneering autonomous micromobility company Tortoise and spatial analytics company Zoba
  • Assaf Biderman, CEO and founder of Superpedestrian, a robotics company building the next wave of intelligent and connected micromobility vehicles
  • Andrew Salzberg, former head of transportation policy and research at Uber and current Loeb fellow at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard
  • Samuel Clay, moderator and graduate student in design engineering

Do you see micromobility moving a meaningful chunk of drivers out of cars?

  • With cars, putting them on the road with phones was enough to create demand. But with bikes, putting thousands on the road doesn’t have the same effect because demand depends on the design of streets. Obvious to bike advocates but not so much to the rental fleet companies.
  • Operators are thought to posses all these tools to robustly calculate demand but that is not the case and this is a huge problem that needs to be solved. Spatial analytics are a huge part of making micromobility work as a tool for trip planning and that’s going to take time to build.
  • Multiple modalities is not a new solution to reducing vehicle miles traveled. Mass transit, from the bus, light rail, and subway, are really good at serving a certain portion of the trip demand, but what about people in the suburbs? Today you can only deploy where you can ensure demand, and that means downtowns and mainly where walking would have been the dominant mode. Mayors / city officials are saying that they’re not interested in micromobility for the less than 1 kilometer trips that saves rich people from walking. But now they’re working with operators to shape micromobility into the planning of the city and that’s a slow process.
  • The city of Boston currently has no e-scooter operators. And that’s because the city does not yet see the added benefit of scooters relative to their risk. Ideally, we are providing options for people to forgo car trips, however, it has been shown that e-scooters take away ridership from public transit, walking, and using bike share. There needs to be a connection at the end to public transit in order to justify itself and the city is not seeing that happen.
  • The city of Baltimore is starved for transportation options. Public transit is not necessarily reliable and not designed to move people through the city. Baltimore like many American cities is car centric. And even the bike share system in Baltimore wasn’t doing well. Bird then launched in the city and provided the impetus to come up with a policy to address micromobility. So the city of Baltimore shut down the shared docked bike system and ramped up the scooter pilot, which allowed the city to focus more on equity in terms of who was being served by each mode. This pilot was so successful due to the latent demand for transportation options.

Are micromobility operators doing enough to ensure a healthy future? Assuming micromobility continues growing at the rate it enjoys today, and with only so much walking it can cannibalize, what does transit ridership look like in the next few years?

  • Having top line growth be the only concern has been a recipe for conflict with cities. Cities are reluctant to let something like micromobility grow as fast as it wants to without knowing what the consequences are. If the focus shifts to better management of fleet effectiveness, for example with the help of autonomous scooter company Tortoise (and others like the autonomous bicycle company Weel), the dynamic would then improve between operators and cities.
  • And the recent change in tone of the VC market, specifically the tightening of belts, might hasten be a turning point for these micromobility businesses. Cities should take this opportunity seriously or it may go away before long.
  • Looking at Seleta Reynolds and LADOT’s Mobility Data Specification (MDS), there’s a big opportunity for cities. Here’s an API for the city to define geofencing rules and not have to provide enforcement themselves. Let the city decide where to park, what should be the speed limit, and have the city be responsible. And if they’re wrong, let them worry about it and make changes to fix it.
  • Micromobility has been a trojan horse for conversations about how we allocate public space and for what ridership privacy means for data collection.
  • So the future of operators in the physical realm will include partnerships with cities in the form of mobility hubs and protected bike lanes. But with data there’s contention because MDS is de-identified but never truly anonymized. That means that with research people can be individually located in a dataset based on a few observations. Should cities have access to data at this level? Probably not but neither should micromobility operators.
  • We’re also seeing profound implications on the routing network. The city of Los Angeles is telling mapping companies to exclude certain roads and areas from routing directions, which has network effects on the road network. We’re seeing cities reining control.
  • The city of D.C. will subsidize public bike share programs. In a V.C. funded world there’s an approach of one company winning above others, but that is challenging when you consider how cities should be operating their own transit system.
  • Operators don’t need individual routes in order to interface with their data. It’s not a take it or leave it situation. What cities really want is to know the capacity of each mode moving in the city and that can be managed without individually identifying users.
  • Important to watch not only how many cities take up MDS, but how many later shelve it.
  • Thinking about the city of Boston, there’s a lot of vehicles in the city that are sitting unused. And with e-scooters, we’re probably going to convince some people to drop their cars. But e-scooters will not necessarily replace car trips in general and the impact for a city like Boston will be fairly low. But I think it will create opportunities for cities to do better things than just store vehicles on the road.

Let’s go up the value chain and continue talking about data. We now have multiple aggregators of shared scooter/e-bike availability, fixing the problem of half a dozen apps on your phone. What is the role of the consumer interface for micromobility?

  • There’s this question of what is the most efficient use of vehicles. If you have multiple operators that don’t talk to each other, you end up with a surplus of vehicles, and this is due partially to the fact that we currently lack a way to connect operators together.
  • The conversation on data has mostly been about operator-to-regulator, in the form of MDS, but there’s also the importance of operator-to-consumer, in the form of how users access vehicles. There’s been a few dust-ups recently, one where Lyft shut down Transit’s access to unlocking its bikes and where Lime shut down Scooter Map’s access to vehicle locations.
  • This also becomes less of a question if competition goes away and there’s a single operator in a city, perhaps if the transit agency is running it. But if there is going to be a competitive market with multiple modes working together, then the question of how to integrate them and on what terms becomes important.
  • It’ll be a while before aggregators will be seen on the market, at least not until vehicles are an online asset in a massive sense, possibly with autonomy. But aggregation will really have an impact if the routing algorithms do a lot better job when travel time and vehicle miles traveled can be minimized, then we’ll have meaningful impact for operators.
  • Mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) has been such a buzz word but it’s not yet working. So aggregation of mobility platforms is a nice thought but if vehicles aren’t where you need them when you need them, then it doesn’t matter. The success of aggregators is less about displaying digital information and more about positioning the right vehicle at the right time. Similar to how a bus stop would be known to a potential customer, knowing that a vehicle is at or near a location when you need it is more important than seeing where they are now.
  • If you look at the trip origins for micromobility companies, customers aren’t looking in the app ahead of time. People see a vehicle and then they use it.

What does the future of the vehicle look like? There’s quite a few changes that have happened since the gen 1 scooters, and now gen 3 is deployed and we’re talking about gen 4 and its cognitive abilities. What does adding onboard intelligence imply and what does that opportunity look like?

  • If you look at the industry today, there’s no gen 1, gen 2, or gen 3s. They are all gen 1. Scooters today are basically technology from the 70s, with their extruded aluminum and L shapes. Micromobility will have many different shapes depending on the distance and the task and also on the shape of the city. Mechanical improvements take you only so far.
  • For personal vehicles, you’re going to take care of it to a certain extent. If the brakes are not working, you’re going to take it into service. You’re going to ensure the battery is charged. Once you deploy vehicles in the streets, that equation is broken because you’ll need as many caretakers as riders. It doesn’t scale up. At the same time, you have a much higher utilization of the asset.
  • So the only way to take care of the problem is to automate inspection and have the service quality be a lot higher. So the vehicle needs to be able to ask itself before every ride: am I safe to ride? are the battery cells all connected? am I in the right temperature range? are the brakes working? If the vehicle can do that, and our vehicles do that, that’s when we’ll see higher safety levels and lower costs. Otherwise we won’t be able to make money on this and companies won’t be able to survive.
  • There’s a classic mistake in transportation which is over-capitalization and lack of investment in maintaining what we’ve built. We can see that in the $5 billion invested into micromobility to date. Sensors, telematics, and maintenance data that you can grab from the vehicle remotely is all interesting.
  • The push ahead of autonomy is about generating a return for a vehicle even with all of its wear parts. Those wear parts, such as brake pads or a bell or a light, are designed for ease of maintenance. And a big problem area is simply getting the earned revenue to be more than the cost to buy it and maintain it.
  • My concern with telematics is that if we are going to place vehicles in the field, we’re responsible for those vehicles. And we have a lot more R&D to do in creating a safe vehicle that can last a long time and is easily maintainable by trained employees.
  • Telematics is too little too late. Knowing that a vehicle is broken somewhere in the field is not as good as preventative measures to protect itself in real-time. We’ve been able to deploy automation that prevents fires.
  • But vehicles fail more often than you realize. And if you’re next to a car and your vehicle is not stable, this is a major safety concern. And then cost follows, whereas when 20% of vehicles failing switches to 5%, it changes your model completely.

Thanks to our four panelists and to Horace Dediu and Chase Stubblefield for keynoting the conference. You can follow each of us on Twitter to stay up to date on micromobility news and opinion: @TaraniDuncan, @andrewsalzberg, @superpedstrian, @chasestubb, @asymco, and @samuelclay.

The New Garden of the World — Review of The Machine in the Garden

The Machine in the Garden, written in 1964 by Leo Marx, explores the relationship between the pastoral ideal and the industrial progress that ostensibly is in opposition to that ideal. This book is not necessarily a literature review, although it enlists a half dozen full-length writings to understand the cultural symbols that encode the interplay between imagination and reality.

The urge to idealize a simple, rural environment is strong throughout the two centuries of progress that mark the industrialization of the United States from the American Revolution through until the end of World War II.

The literature that Marx introduces to illustrate the division between the two realms are masterworks that also serve as products of their times. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and Ethan Brand by Nathaniel Hawthorne are instruments played in the concordant symphony of poetic realism that unites the two fronts.

At no point does Marx introduce the actual machines of the machine age to refine his point, instead preferring to rely on mid-Nineteenth century literature and art to capture the sensory images of the age.

Marx asserts that the authors of the 1800s addressed the alienation and environmental blight that accompanies that rapid industrialization that the building and deployment of the continental railroads brought with them.

The central question that Marx attempts to address is how come there is an attitude of hostility towards civilization? What is it about the products of industrialization, which bring us a miracle of goods and services that enrich our lives in innumerable ways, that provides us the impetus for abandoning them in order to reduce the technical complexity that has befallen us? What is attractive about the pastoralism that is represented by the untouched landscape, revered at Walden Pond, that is unspoiled and identified by nature as much as a rejection of the artificial world?

The romantic pastoral, a literary device embodied in the semi-primitivism of the cultivated landscape, is located chiefly by its opposition of the forces of civilization, the so-called fever of the world. It’s hard not to be taken by the opposing scene of the abstract when faced with the overwhelming force of a dehumanizing and polluting industry.

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Everything you need to build your own Turn Touch smart remote

Back in 2014 I was driving up the 101 coming back from a YC alumni Demo Day and I had a lightbulb moment about the way I wanted to control my new Hue lightbulbs. That’s when the idea of Turn Touch was born. I’d had some experience building open source hardware projects for my home, and developing open source art installations for Burning Man at a slightly larger scale, but I had never thought I’d build an open source hardware project that would be commercially available (or at least available on Kickstarter). Turn Touch is now available to buy for $49 if you don’t feel like building your own.

There are four steps to building your very own Turn Touch:

Step one: Laying out the buttons and writing the firmware

Step two: Designing the remote to have perfect button clicks

Step three: CNC machining and fixturing to accurately cut wood

Step four: Inlaying the mother of pearl

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Building Grove — interactive trees that come alive to your breath at Burning Man 2016

Grove is a set of 10 interactive biofeedback sculptures, a conversation between humans and trees. Each tree is made of steel tubes, thousands of LEDs, and custom breathing sensors.

Grove is a 2016 honorarium installation at Burning Man and is the second installation made by the group that made Pulse & Bloom in 2014. The core team is ten people: Saba Ghole, Shilo Shiv Suleman, Severin Smith, Steve Lyon, Hunter Scott, David Wang, Francis Coelho, Naeemeh Alavi, Luke Iseman, and myself, Samuel Clay. Grove was conceptualized by the artist Shilo Shiv Suleman as part of her larger series exploring nature, intimacy and technology called Beloved.

Here’s how Grove works: you sit down at the base of a tree and a flower opens up in front of you as it senses your presence. As you breathe into a pink flower lit from inside, the tree fills up with your breath, rising white streams overtaking multiple slowly descending green lines. As you breathe, the tree shimmers with light as it becomes a nighttime desert oasis.

This post offers details on how this installation was built, from the custom circuit boards to the blooming flower and breathing sensors. You can access the complete source for Grove on GitHub.

Grove is made up of ten trees, each of which has its own breath sensor and set of two thousand LEDs across four 5 meter 144 LEDs/meter LED strips and 16 high current LEDs in the leaves. That takes both a lot of power to run and a lot of manpower to setup. This is what that setup looks like.

This photo and a few others below are by Daily Swa Laurel

How the electronics are made

Since the trees light up with your breath, we need to consider how the breath is sensed and then how the thousands of LEDs are driven.

These are five stages to making the electronics work together:

  1. Designing a breathing sensor
  2. Making the main control board
  3. Driving high current LEDs with a custom lighting board
  4. Writing the firmware
  5. Powering ten trees in Grove
Continue reading Building Grove — interactive trees that come alive to your breath at Burning Man 2016 (4421 words)...

Open letter to my family in Ohio: I am still coming home for Thanksgiving this year

Dear Mom and Pop,

This was going to be an awkward year for us from the start. Thanksgiving is normally a time when we, two dozen immigrant Jews and first-generation Americans, come together to eat a turkey stuffed with oranges, served with a side of smoked fish and a dozen competing salads.

Before the election, I thought the greatest thing that would divide our dinner table would be my recently adopted vegetarianism. But us Jews are all about dietary restrictions. Eight breadless days of weight loss every year during Passover. Fasting from food and water every year for the day of atonement. Two sets of plates for Shabbat and for everyday. I was certain that refusing meat wouldn’t stop me from feeling embraced and loved at the table.

A russian salad feast courtesy of my friend Andrey Petrov

But then last week you voted for Trump. Jewish refugees from the Ukraine now living in Ohio voted for Trump. You have told me several times that Obama is the worst president in our lifetime. And so you voted for Trump.

Continue reading Open letter to my family in Ohio: I am still coming home for Thanksgiving this year (961 words)...