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Interview: Transport entrepreneur Robin Chase on self-driving cars and mesh networks

  1. Self-driving cars will have a broad impact, including where and how we live
  2. Chase moved on swiftly after first business project failed to take off
  3. Mesh networks are 'most resilient' and 'scalable'

Robin Chase is the co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar, an American car-sharing company that helped to establish the foundations of the collaborative economy. She is also co-founder of Veniam, a company which plans to build large Wi-Fi mesh networks using moving vehicles such as taxis. 

Chase is also the author of the book Peers Inc: How People and Platforms are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalismwhich explores how the collaborative economy is changing the nature of capitalism.

WikiTribune talked with Robin to learn more about the impact of self-driving cars and her approach to business.

The interview has been edited for clarity. 

WikiTribune: Tell us about your background and how you got into entrepreneurship.

Chase: A long time ago a headhunter told me that when he hired for startups, he always chose people who had the instinct to figure out how to make something themselves rather than hire someone to do it for them. This definitely describes me.

I had tried a short-term staffing and consulting business right after business school, with a friend, called “Project Professionals.” The idea was rather like a temp agency for highly-skilled people — a curated group of freelance consultants. My co-founder was supposed to find the jobs, and I was to do the fulfilment. We had a hard time selling our services and so couldn’t make a go of it.

My Zipcar co-founder is the one who brought the idea of car-sharing to me. Once I heard of the idea, I knew, one, this is what the internet was made for (sharing specific resources easily across many people); two, wireless would make this possible (getting reservations from the Internet to the car); and three, this was a service I personally wanted.

Can you talk to us about Veniam, the “Internet of Moving Things” company you co-founded, and why you believe this model has a potential to succeed?  

My co-founder João Barros had been working for a decade on connecting vehicles to one another. When we met, we both had a vision and a belief that mesh networks was the most resilient and scalable type of network, and that cars were the exactly right place to try such a thing because their batteries were constantly recharged when driving.

…Undercharging …is is why we choose to drive rather than walk, bike, or take shared transport

Can you explain to us the coalition you founded, The Shared Mobility Principles for Liveable Cities? What are its goals and what has been accomplished so far ?

I saw two problems. First, I was talking to an e-hailing company and the person there noted that while cities never describe what their goals were, they did complain when they weren’t happy. Another time I was chatting with an urban planner and she said it was difficult to cut through all the advice and other city examples that were sent her way.

So, I convened with some of the world’s best city and transportation NGOs. Over many months of discussions we found that we all agreed on ten principles that made for our best advice, applicable to 90 percent of the world’s cities. There is one common vision cities share, and now agreement about how to achieve it.

The goal of the principles is to get all the stakeholders aligned around the same future. It is exciting to see that governments, NGOs, and private sector service providers are all expressing their support for and agreement with the principles. Go check it out and sign up your entity. The companies who have signed on move more than 100 million people every day.  

Do you think the sharing of ideas, or what you called in one of your articles “the cooperative capitalism,” can scale up and even compete with the dominant capitalistic system?

This is challenging to answer in a short way. I encourage you to read my book, Peers Inc, because the internet now exists, companies grow faster, learn faster, and adapt faster when they become platforms and harness the excess capacity that exists everywhere.

As a transportation entrepreneur, how do you think self-driving cars will affect your industry?

Self-driving cars are going to change not only the industry, but also how and where we work and live, and how and where we build. The single most important thing to keep in mind when you are thinking about their future impact is to realize that we have spent the last hundred years making driving a car cheap and convenient: undercharging for the real costs of air pollution, congestion, parking and curb access, and even the user fees associated with paying for our roads. This is why we choose to drive rather than walk, bike, or take shared transport.

Autonomous vehicles take the single most expensive thing out of the car: the driver! This means that choosing to move a car will be even cheaper than it is today.

If we keep these wrong price signals, we are going to over-consume self-driving cars at an even higher rate than we do our personal cars: traffic jams and air pollution everywhere. But we do have choices and we can make changes. See this short four-minute video to see how the status quo leads to hell and proactive action could take us to heaven.

What’s one piece of advice can you give for a young entrepreneur who is envisioning building a new platform based on collaborative economy?

Practise intellectual honesty. Know what you are good at and what you are not! Hire accordingly. Understand what parts of your company are working and which are not! Don’t lie to yourself and fix them as fast as you can.  Startups beat out old companies when they learn quickly and continuously. So, practise intellectual honesty: see reality and work with it.

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