Ride-sharing’s future? It may sit on electric motorbikes

- VINDU GOEL, BANGALORE (India)

May 7, 2019-

In Uber’s vision of the future, self-driving cars will whisk us everywhere, eliminating the need for its millions of human drivers.

But as the ride-hailing giant prepares to sell as much as $10 billion in stock to the public this week to help build those vehicles, a low-tech approach to the self-driving future is already emerging in India: motorbikes that customers rent and drive themselves.

Several start-ups—backed by big Silicon Valley venture firms and Uber’s Indian competitor, Ola—are betting that shared “two-wheelers” are better suited to wallets and transportation needs than the cars that are the heart of the ride-hailing industry.

The traditional model of Uber and Ola is reaching its limits, said Vivekananda Hallekere, a co-founder and the chief executive of Bounce, which fields more than 6,000 motorbikes that people can pick up and drop off anywhere in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. The car rides are too expensive for most Indians, the drivers complain about long hours and poor compensation, and the ride-hailing platforms are struggling to make a profit, he said. “You can’t make it affordable with a driver,” Hallekere said. “And if users know how to use a scooter, why do you need a driver?”

By focusing on the large swath of people who cannot afford current ride-hailing services, these start-ups are opening up a new front in the global battle to provide shared transportation services. In developed countries like the United States, Uber undercut the taxi industry and created new demand for rides by persuading tens of millions of customers to hop in a car with an ordinary driver summoned by an app. But in developing countries like India, where two-wheeled vehicles outsell cars six to one, Uber and its competitors must figure out a different approach or risk disruption from below.

India, with 1.3 billion residents, is the world’s largest market for motorcycles. About 20 million new ones are sold annually, from low-powered scooters to heavy-duty Harley-Davidsons. Industry players estimate that 200 million people possess a license to drive at least a basic two-wheeler. On a recent weekday morning, Mallikarjun D., a software engineer, pulled out his smartphone and booked an electric motorcycle on Vogo, a Bounce competitor, for his nine-mile commute to his job at the outsourcing giant Infosys.

Usually he takes the Infosys bus, he said as he put on his helmet and grabbed the bike from a garden that served as Vogo’s neighborhood parking lot. But he was running late, and at a special rate of 10 rupees, or 14 cents, for the full day, he found the bike to be the perfect solution.

“It’s a reasonable cost,” Mallikarjun said. “And it’s helpful for the environment.”

Vogo and Bounce are slugging it out for dominance in Bangalore, India’s tech hub, where Ola is also based and is watching carefully. Vogo requires people to pick up and drop off their bikes at designated locations, while Bounce bikes can be picked up or left anywhere.

Nomita D. P., who was shopping for school clothes with her 10-year-old daughter near the Jayanagar metro station, said she had been using Bounce for about five months. It is cheaper than an auto-rickshaw, the three-wheeled taxis that are common in India, and more reliable than an Uber or Ola car, she said.

“You wait for a car, and then they cancel,” said Nomita, a medical editor who works from home. “A rickshaw

driver will refuse to take you because you are going in the wrong direction.” Right now, Vogo and Bounce motorbikes are hard to find. Both companies are racing to get enough on the streets—aiming for around 50,000 apiece—to make their services truly convenient in Bangalore. Other big cities will follow.

—© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES

Published: 07-05-2019 10:16

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