Talking Robots, Connected Scooters and Sharing Rides at the Web Summit

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Nov 14, 2016

LISBON, PORTUGAL—If you just focused on the myriad people in animal costumes handing out tech brochures, the press of computer geeks, the rows of booths—each promising a breakthrough that would change the world—you’d have sworn you were in Las Vegas and attending the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

The Web Summit isn't CES big, but it's very big. (Jim Motavalli photo)

But no, this is the European version, Web Summit, until this year held in Dublin but now in Portugal, albeit with everything in English for a multi-lingual crowd of 53,056 people (not CES, but still big) from 166 countries.

Food options include dinner from a classic VW Microbus. (Jim Motavalli photo)

You don’t need a tour, though—the highlights will do. I chaired a couple of events, and I’ll start with the second one—featuring an energetic but unassuming fellow from Seattle named Horace Luke, the founder of GoGoRo. No, you haven’t heard of it, but it’s done for battery swapping what Israel-based Better Place—which spent a billion dollars in the attempt—failed to do.

A GoGoRo scooter on the streets of Taipei, where two wheels rule. (GoGoRo photo)

GoGoRo’s first play is the electric scooters it builds and sells in Taipei, Taiwan. Some 15,000 paying customers have purchased the Big Data-enabled (Luke is a refugee from mobile phone giant HTC) scooters, and they never have to wait around while they charge. That’s because the battery packs—about the size of a bread loaf—are easily swapped for charged ones in six seconds. There are hundreds of battery-swapping stations around Taipei and another one station opens every day. Luke’s vision is to cut into the smog and greenhouse gas shrouding Asian megacities. “A scooter’s gas engine pollutes five times as much per kilometer as a car,” Luke told me. “There’s not much filtering.”

Horace Luke of GoGoRo: He's making EV battery swapping work--in Asia. (Jim Motavalli photo)

It didn’t take long to get rolling. GoGoRo was announced at CES in 2015, and by August of that year it had shipped its first scooter. It doesn’t seem to matter that Luke was a phone guy with no previous vehicle experience. 

The scooters, which are highway capable and quite peppy, have some 80 sensors on them, and when the customers plug in their depleted batteries they carry a raft of data with them—including the bike’s service history, whether it was dropped by the owner, and whether the turn signals are functioning.

Nicholas Brusson of BlaBlaCar. Coincidentally, "BlaBlaCar" was on the short list of names for our lousy show. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Scooters aren’t as natural a fit for Europe and the U.S., but GoGoRo’s second location, in cooperation with Bosch subsidiary Coup, is Berlin, Germany. It works a bit different there, with a ride-sharing model. Without even having to go through membership rigmarole, anyone can locate one of the Coup scooters on their smartphone, rent it (three euros for the first 30 minutes), and leave it wherever they want within the operating zone. Several thousand people have already opted in since last August.

High-tech BMW i8 plug-in hybrids waiting for test rides at Web Summit 2016. (Jim Motavalli)

Speaking of transportation innovation that’s beneath the American radar, have you heard of BlaBlaCar? I thought not, but it’s huge in Europe. Think of it as a giant digital ride board. If you’re in, say, Paris, and you want to go to Madrid, all you do is sign on to BlaBlaCar’s phone app and find a selection of drivers headed that way. You’ll get a driver rating, and can even shop by car model, if you don’t want to travel by bare-bones VW.

BlaBlaCar’s CEO and founder, Nicholas Brusson, showed me how it works on his phone, and it seemed simplicity itself. Why don’t we have BlaBlaCar in America? Brusson said the service has spread to 22 countries, including Brazil, India, Germany, Spain, Poland and more, but he’s not sure about the  U.S., because we’re so big, among other things.

I hitchhiked a lot in my misbegotten youth, and thought nothing of traveling across three states that way, but today I’d never even consider it—and neither would most sane Americans. I once visited the Pudding Shop in Istanbul, Turkey, and discovered the premier ride board straddling Asia and Europe—from notes posted there, I could have grabbed rides in one direction to England, and in the other to Katmandu, Nepal.

BlaBla feels like the successor to all that, with a lot of the fear of the unknown taken out. “We are a trusted community,” said Brusson. “Using BlaBlaCar, you know the driver, how much you’re going to pay, when you’re getting picked up, and where you will be dropped off.” The more passengers, the cheaper it is because the occupants share expenses.

Also at Web Summit was an all-American transportation solution. Via, operating in Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago, decided to try and improve on public transit with shared rides around big cities. It was founded in 2012, and is already offering 200,000 rides a week in New York. Anywhere in Manhattan is just $5, not as cheap as the subway but not hugely more expensive, either.

Elmar Frickenstein heads BMW's self-driving car efforts, and he's getting ready for 2021. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Also an example of American initiative was Hyperloop One, the 750-mph electric-and-magnetic rapid transit train first doodled on a napkin by Tesla’s Elon Musk, then turned into an open-source experiment. Josh Giegel is the ad-hoc team’s president of engineering, and the company has raised $160 million to date. It’s first agreements are in Dubai (for the Abu Dhabi run, which takes two hours by car, but just 12 minutes by Hyperloop), Finland (for a possible connection to Stockholm) and Holland (no route yet).

BMW was out in force and you could sign up for rides in the company’s i3 and i8 electric cars, and a prominent speaker was Elmar Frickenstein, who directs self-driving car efforts for BMW. I was able to spend a few minutes with him before he left for the airport.

“We started our initiative 10 years ago with test cars on the Nurburgring race track, and we can make fully autonomous driving happen by 2021,” Frickenstein said, pointing out that his production cars can already park themselves.

Frickenstein called for cross-industry cooperation on developing standards for self-driving cars—similar to what is happening with shared patents on hydrogen fuel cells. “We need collaboration on the technology both inside and outside the car, including machine learning and artificial intelligence,” he said.

The full suite of cameras, radars and sensors (Lidar remains a wild card) needed to get to the ultimate Level 4 and 5 sitting-in-the-back-seat-with-your-cellphone isn’t actually invented yet, not to mention the regulatory, legal and insurance obstacles. Frickenstein said he’s not sure if the industry will respond to his call, but it should.

Speaking of artificial intelligence, I was able to spend a few minutes with Sophia, the Hanson Robotics talking head. She’s startlingly lifelike, with a striking resemblance to the robot girl in Ex Machina. She smiles, blinks, nods her head, thanks to multiple electric motors and very convincing skin and eyes. And she answers questions.

“Do you get sick?” Sophia was asked. “I can only catch computer viruses,” she said.

Do you sleep?” Sophia thought a moment. “I guess I sleep when I’m turned off,” she said. Versions of Sophia will soon be available for rental, promoting your business or whatever. Does $120,000 a year sound like too much? 

Hanson Robotics' Sophia can smile, nod her head, answer questions, and is president of the Uncanny Valley Homeowners' Association. (Jim Motavalli photo) 

Another cute robot was from Starship Technologies, and it’s aimed at solving the “last mile” delivery problem. According to Ahti Heinla, a Skype co-founder and CEO of the company, “Our vision revolves around three zeroes – zero cost, zero waiting time and zero environmental impact. We want to do to local deliveries what Skype did to telecommunications.”

The Starship Technologies remote delivery robot aims to solve the last-mile problem. (Starship Technologies photo)

The remote-controlled robot is the size of a big vacuum cleaner, and it can carry the equivalent of two grocery bags, making local deliveries in five to 30 minutes at much less cost than standard trucking. Ultimately, he sees your goods plucked out of a robotic warehouse by a robotic arm, loaded on a self-driving truck, then deposited in his last-mile solution for the final delivery. Your package may be untouched by human hands.

Asked why his pod on wheels looked like something out of Star Wars, Heinla said that people expect robots to resemble their-science fiction conceptions. So actual science ends up emulating fiction.

The Portuguese are very tech-savvy by the way, and their startups were out in force. The president told us the country is “open for business,” so this may be a good destination for a trained workforce. The subway is good and fast, and it even goes to the airport.

Here's GoGoRo's Horace Luke on video:


Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One