Friday, September 26, 2008

Think: Mobility as a Service


Wouldn't it be great if you could pay for your car as you go?

My next-door neighbour who is quite lucratively into broadcasting, bless her cotton-socks, has two cars - ones a high-powered late models Mercedes Benz sports, that just says success in a language any entrepreneur would understand.

But the one she drives every day almost is a Prius. Adorned with its government stickers allowing access down the diamond lane on the freeway, she buzzes around in 45mpg comfort for almost all trips - while the Merc languishes until she needs to take a client out somewhere.

A few of my workmates who live in San Francisco are members of car-sharing organizations like ZipCar and they book a car online when they need one. Living in San Francisco means owning a car is a very expensive luxury, and when you're at the hub of everything you mostly don't need one.

Somewhere in between all this service and ownership there has to be a model that fits. Where is the software-as-a-service
for cars? Who is going to invent AJAX for transportation?

Think. That's who.

In the 90's Norwegian company Pivco were shipping cars to the USA for use in car-sharing programs, and while their first cars were sub-standard by US lights, their new Think Citi brought them to the attention of Ford, the US car giant.

California had created its ZEV initiative requiring manufacturers to have a zero-emissions vehicle in its line-up, and as a result in 1999 Ford bought Pivco and pumped $150M into it, writes Todd Woody in a July 2007 article for money.CNN.com. Under Fords steward-ship Think's designers worked on an updated Think City, but when the ZEV initiative was out-manouvred by the anti-ZEV lobby, Ford dropped Think like a hot potato, citing "poor sales". Think rapidly went into decline.

Woody describes how cashed up green entrepreneur Jan-Olaf Willums, bought Think for a song in 2006, and set about changing it to a new business model.

Their factory in Aurskog, 30 miles from Oslo in Norway, runs on lean, just-in-time manufacturing principles. Cars are built from commoditized components bought from Asia and Europe, some partly assembled. Polymer body panels from Turkey are fitted to alloy chassis from Denmark. Some batteries are supplied by Tesla. Final quality control is done at the environmentally friendly paperless factory, which Willums plans to duplicate whereever their demand is located.

Last week I met Dipender Saluja of automatiks a Silicon Valley startup who are innovating in vehicle navigation and in-car computing. Saluja had with
him two Think models - the new Think Open convertible prototype, and the current model Think City.

There's two really interesting things to notice about the Think.

One: Its a platform for innovation.

The local factory can easily retool to produce a version suited for the local conditions. Vendors can easily make add-ons and high-value integrations - which is where Saluja's company comes in. Different battery options are available depending on climate conditions or load/usage patterns.

Two: Its a conduit for service delivery.

The lightweight panels and chassis are fraction of the cost and weight compared to the batteries, which are the principle cost of the car. So what about replacing them when they wear out?

As Willums says, with the Think you are not buying a "Thing".

You don't replace the batteries - because when you buy the car for under $20,000, the batteries stay the property of Think, and for a monthly fee just like your phone or internet account the batteries are tracked and serviced when needed. You, or the next owner of the Think never has to worry about the battery life, replacement or recycling. Peace of mind, and known costs.

How does Think know about the battery condition? The car is internet enabled. As well as Think factories being able to keep tabs on it, so can you - battery charge levels can be checked remotely, and you can send Google maps to the cars on-board computer to be used in its navigation system.

The vehicle is a mobile technology platform, allowing you to send emails and potentially do anything your internet enabled computing device can do, from the convenience of your drivers seat - not while you're driving of course.

And the City is all about convenience. The glass of the rear hatch goes from the hatch floor up to the hinge, making the tiny car - its shorter than a Mini Cooper and about as punchy - seem much more spacious than you'd expect, and easy to load.

Racing around the carpark, the Think turns on a dime and nips into tiny parking spots that don't exist for other vehicles. As a second car you'll still have most of your second car park available for stashing that old computer junk you're waiting to recycle.

Whether you're newly green and looking for that convenient car to park next to the Mercedes, or a shopping cart and office commuter to complement your already green lifestyle the Think seems to have it all sown up.

Buying your 4-wheeled personal transportation the way you buy your mobile phone - that seems to make so much more web 2.0 21st century sense.