Monday, January 15, 2007

Ben Rosen and the Poool commuting technology

I just had breakfast with Ben Rosen, founding partner of the Sevin Rosen venture capital firm and now retired. Ben's firm was the lead investor in my first startup 25 years ago. As a matter of fact, Steve Dow, who was the associate who found us way back then, is still an active partner with Sevin Rosen and is one of Benetech's advisors. Ben is also on the board of Caltech, which is my alma mater.

I wasn't surprised to find that Ben has a great idea for a technology social enterprise, and it was fun to talk about it. Ben's been thinking about global warming issues for quite a while, and came up with an idea that could be implemented quickly and make a major impact on pollution and congestion. The concept is improved ride sharing technology for commuters to make carpooling more practical. Ben grabbed my attention with the following quote about the problem:

Traffic is worse than it's ever been...
but better than it will ever be.


More people and more cars in the U.S. (and many other places) combined with minimal new roads will increase our problem. Ben continued by describing automobile commuting as a transportation system that typically operates with 20% load factors, because a typical car could hold five people and usually holds one! Imagine an airline that operated with that kind of load factor.

There are existing ridesharing matching services, but they haven't had the dramatic impact needed. The particular aspects of Poool (the working name for the software) is a web-based service that matches employees of large employers together. Because you are all going to (more or less) the same place, you can implement something that looks like a hub network with the place of work at the center rather than gazillions of point to point connections. By adding in some fail-safes (like a backup motor-pool or taxi for the few who missed on connecting), you could have a system that is more flexible and adapts to ad hoc carpooling instead of fixed carpools. Imagine the cost savings to the employer if fewer parking spaces were needed for employees. Imagine the benefits to society if we reduced even 10% of the commuting burden: getting rid of traffic congestion would save more than 10% of pollution and time.

Poool could be built today, but it's not clear that the incentives are quite right for adoption by large employers. Although there are obligations on employers to address mitigation of traffic impacts from their commuting employees, these are relatively weak. But, I have a feeling that as a society we're moving in a direction that will make Poool (or something similar) more likely. We already have companies giving large incentives to buy hybrids, or paying for public transportation, or removing the de facto subsidization of free parking.

There are many more details to the Poool concept, but that's the essence. It's a great idea that could help society, but where the financial structure right now does not seem to offer an attractive for-profit opportunity.

No comments: