Selling a Novel Idea

By Carmen Nobel Print this article Print

New York, London, Seoul and other major cities are desperate to eliminate traffic gridlock. Congestion fees may provide relief, but Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase believes she has the perfect wireless solution. 

Selling a Novel Idea

Chase admits that her concept is a tough sell among government officials and technology companies that would have to be responsible for such a network. There’s good reason for skepticism. Nobody has ever deployed a mobile mesh on such a large scale. The system relies on unlicensed wireless spectrum. And some organizations have not deployed open-source technology.

But she’s selling hard—meeting regularly with city and corporate executives who have shown interest in traffic-congestion pricing. “What’s happened in the past is that I’ll talk to the secretary of transportation or the congressman or the mayor, and they nod, and then they say, ‘Let me get my technology advisers’—typically, career engineers in their mid-50s, who then say it’s wacky,” she says.

But Chase maintains it’s not wacky, it’s just novel.

“Prior to Zipcar, car sharing was considered a fundamentalist, fringe, commercially [unfeasible] venture,” she says. Today, there are tens of thousands of Zipcar vehicles on the road, and 30 percent of the company’s customers have either sold their cars or decided not to buy a car, according to Zipcar’s Web site.

Chase envisions a partnership along the lines of the Apache Software Foundation, an open-source software consortium whose projects include the popular Apache Web server, and whose sponsors include Google, Hewlett-Packard and Yahoo.

“For the open-source mesh network, you’d want to have big companies involved—IBM, Cisco, Google, Intel—three or four of them to back it,” says Chase, who’s in touch with all of them. Cisco’s urban development executives seem impressed with her idea.

“When you look at what happened with municipal Wi-Fi systems—hundreds of them have been created, but most of them have been failing because of the way the business model was designed,” says Nicola Villa, global director of Cisco’s Amsterdam-based Connected Urban Development initiative. Currently partnered with cities such as Amsterdam, San Francisco and Seoul, Cisco aims to decrease vehicle carbon emissions by increasing traffic efficiency through various wireless technologies. Amsterdam and Seoul both have voiced interest in traffic-congestion pricing.

“The cities that have created real impact are those that considered, ‘What am I going to use this for, and how do I create a viable business model?’” Villa says. “We are at a turning point in new business models being created for cities. Those business models are about what kind of [application] clusters will be built on top of the infrastructure. From an application and services perspective, the work that Robin is doing is very much in the right direction.”

This article was originally published on 2008-02-21
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