Technology

Seattle’s Shared unveils a moped-like e-vehicle for ride sharing – and plans to make it self-driving

Riders checking out Shared’s electric vehicles in Portland. (Shared Photo)

Seattle startup Shared is cruising into the tumultuous bike-and-scooter sharing space with a “micro-vehicle” of its own design, a sort of stripped-down electric-powered moped with burly, super wide tires. Internally, the Shared team calls it a scooter, but a new moniker is in the works.

So why reinvent the shared-vehicle wheel?

“When you ride one, you understand the advantages,” said CEO and co-founder Braydon Batungbacal.

The vehicle has a low center of gravity and the wide tires make it easier to balance than other two-wheeled devices. The tires also provide better traction in bad weather and can maneuver over uneven surfaces. The battery can go for 40 miles between charges. The vehicle can manage steep hills and speeds of up to 15 miles per hour.

The device is sturdy, making it difficult to steal compared to other lightweight scooters, while also creating a more comfortable ride for larger users.

The heft of the device is important for its other planned use: the self-driving, autonomous transport of goods.

“We see a future where micro-transport vehicles aren’t just littered everywhere for passersby to go from A to B, but where they’re autonomous, intelligent and capable of more than just transporting people,” Batungbacal said.

Shared team, from left to right: Thomas Chang, chief strategy officer; Alexander Mikhail, chief technology officer; Jason Atherton, chief business officer; and Braydon Batungbacal, CEO. Not pictured: Tarani Duncan, chief operating officer. (Shared Photo)

Shared launched in February and raised $600,000 in a pre-seed round.

The e-vehicle’s design is a riff on similar devices sold in Korea and China. Shared deployed 15 of the vehicles in Portland in June to see how they performed. The trial went well, and the company is rolling out 200 of the vehicles in the city by early August. Riders pay $1 to unlock the device and 35 cents a minute to drive it. Because of the size, it’s suitable for roads and bike lanes, but not sidewalks.

There a plenty of bumps in the rented-vehicle road for Shared to navigate. Social media is littered with images of rental-bikes stranded in trees or dredged from lakes. Headlines tally the number of people killed riding the smaller e-scooters. Cities are struggling to police the introduction of the vehicles onto their streets, alternately banning certain devices, running pilots for slower roll-outs and charging six-figure annual fees to rental companies.

Turning a profit is also a struggle for these companies. Bird, one of the most well-funded and largest scooter startups, lost nearly $100 million in the first quarter of this year on revenue of just $15 million, The Information reported this week.

While Shared’s vehicles aren’t a bike or a standup scooter, the company falls into the e-scooter space for regulatory purposes. Batungbacal said they’re working with cities to develop rental programs that meet their different transportation needs and provide accessibility to a broad market, including low-income users.

Last month, the city of Portland announced it had approved permits for two companies, Shared and Razor, to provide rental e-scooters with seats. Bolt, Lime and Spin are renting standup scooters in the city. All five are part of a yearlong e-scooter pilot. Portland also offers bike sharing, but does not yet have an e-bike rental program.

Shared Chief Operating Officer Tarani Duncan. (Shared Photo)

Shared plans to roll out its vehicles in Oakland, Calif., in September. The city of Seattle is developing a pilot program for testing e-scooters that should go to the city council for approval this fall. Shared hopes it will be able to introduce their vehicles in the Emerald City by early 2020.

The startup is simultaneously working on the vehicle’s autonomous capabilities, and expects to have a self-driving prototype ready for internal testing by the end of this year, and hopes to get a working version on the streets of a test city by the close of 2020.

Batungbacal said that the autonomous function would allow users to summon a vehicle to their location. The self-driving devices could also transport goods, addressing some of the “last mile” delivery challenges faced by retailers such as Amazon.

“We really think [autonomy] is going to be the future of the space,” Batungbacal said. “And it’s a lot more feasible to do autonomy with vehicles that do 15 MPH.”

Batungbacal, who is 26 and dropped out of the University of Washington’s computer science program, has been a founder or co-founder of seven startups. His company Spreesy, which allowed people to sell directly on Instagram, was acquired last year by CommentSold. Glu Mobile purchased another of his startups, a company called Poke Radar, that showed players of Pokemon GO the real-time locations of rare Pokemon. 

We caught up with Batungbacal for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Shared “micro-vehicles” ready to hit the streets. (Shared Photo)

What does your company do? Right now, we offer an alternative model for micro-transport catered to rides within cities of longer duration and distance. Foot scooters are typically used for short 1-to-2 mile trips. We wanted to start by offering something more equitable, comfortable and easily rideable for riders of all body types that appeals to a wider demographic for taking longer trips throughout cities or to and from surrounding areas within cities. Our units are a strong fit for rides anywhere from 1-to-8 miles, which is the typical range we’ve seen in our first market. We’re still in an early testing phase and continuing to validate whether or not our alternative is a strong fit for more markets.

Inspiration hit us when: We realized how underdeveloped and slow moving even the largest companies in this space were from an innovation standpoint. While they’ve scaled quickly (scaling is not innovating), the systems and governing technology behind them are still relatively primitive and their thinking is too small in scope for their application within cities.

Shared CEO and co-founder Braydon Batungbacal. (Shared Photo)

We started out building a full working prototype of our units in under three weeks, from the ground up – hardware, software, firmware, Android and iOS application and more — and deployed it into a local city to see if anyone even cared for what we’d built. After seeing people pleasantly respond to it, we felt it was time to move ahead and enact a bigger vision for what we could bring to cities in the future.

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: We’ve raised a small pre-seed amount at this point, enough to launch our first few markets and deliberate on whether or not the form factor we’ve chosen is an ideal fit for cities. We plan to raise a seed round in September 2019.

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: We’ve specifically kept a very lean team of incredibly talented people, which allows us to move very fast. Most of us have had individual exits in past companies and over a decade each of relevant technical experience in industrial-grade product and hardware development, infrastructure, ops, DevOps, mobile application development, systems architecture, and much more. I am extremely confident in our ability to execute with speed, iterating to the most quality product we can produce. We’re a purely technical team of entrepreneurs who have all individually proven our grit.

The smartest move we’ve made so far: We chose to test everything along the way and not make assumptions. We’re data driven with our decisions and we’re not letting individual egos drive the product. The product development drives itself relative to our overarching vision. We determine the right questions on how to validate or invalidate hypotheses that we think may or may not lead to that end vision and we iterate from there.

The Shared e-vehicle is heftier than shared Razor scooters, which should cut down on thefts. (Shared Photo)

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: We’ve learned from everything so far and stayed flexible. We’ve done a number of tests that didn’t pan out how we thought they would. But being data and test driven, even “failed” tests have continued to push us forward.

Our favorite team-building activity is: Coming up with hypotheses, figuring out how we can validate or invalidate them, and iterating.

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: We look for passionate, talented people who have worn a number of hats in different roles and are adaptable, wanting to make a real, measurable impact. Thinkers, innovators and people who believe the best product decisions don’t come from an ego-based hierarchy, but by simply proving the most optimal solutions and working together as a team to rapidly prove hypotheses and accomplish goals.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Just do it, and always test your assumptions.

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