The Two-Wheel rEVolution. And, Is Uber Goobered? (#CleantechTalk 32)

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Hello again, listeners, and thanks for bearing with us as we try to get back onto a regular schedule! This episode’s recording date was March 1st. Just think of us as beaming to you from, oh, one-twelfth of a light-year away. 🙂

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The rEVolution On Two Wheels

Nicolas started us off with his report from the San Diego Electric Bike Expo. Gocycle’s use of lightweight magnesium for its bike frame is surely an expensive one, but on further reflection, it might be that for mass-market bicycles, as with mobile phones, there’s no such thing as “too light.” Easy disassembly should add greatly to the convenience factor, as well.

Cost is something of a bigger challenge, which might affect electric-assist bikes as well as velomobiles (basically, covered electric-assist bikes). While not sold in the United States, Nissan currently sells a four-door subcompact called the Micra in Canada for $9,988. (I’m not kidding, and that’s $9,988 in cheap Canadian dollars!) In developing countries, entry-level vehicles can be $5,000 or cheaper.

The problem isn’t so much that bikes or velomobiles are expensive (Velocity Velos is nicely transparent in listing pricing) so much as the fact that cars are made in such huge volumes that they’re cheap. It might take an OEM about 30 person-hours to assemble an “average” vehicle, with the number being under 20 hours for a sedan. Even at all-inclusive, salary-plus-benefits labour costs of $50 per hour, that’s just $1000 of labour per car. This is partly why repairs are so astonishingly expensive — if it takes a garage 5 person-hours to fix your subcompact, it’s taken them ¼ as much labour to make the repairs as the manufacturer needed to put the entire vehicle together! (Yes, it does take labour to make the thousands of sub-components, but those are all reflected in the price the OEM pays for the various parts.)

I mentioned velocycle startup VeloMetro during the podcast, in part because it (like me) hails from Vancouver, and because its demo video features bike lanes I use when I ride to work. VeloMetro’s first product, the Veemo, looks beautiful, and the company has added solar panels to the roof of the cabin since I last chatted with the company about it. (These could be really helpful in trickle-charging the batteries; there’d be less need to tether Veemos to chargers when they aren’t in use.) We’ll see in the coming years whether VeloMetro’s per-minute pricing allows the company to get around the problem that in small volumes velomobiles don’t have much of a price advantage over mass-produced subcompacts.

Uber: Goobered?

I would have called this Überdämmerung, but Uber isn’t dead. Yet.

By now, everyone has heard of the horrifying and apparently virulent sexual harassment at Uber. As terrible as that stuff is, its corporate culture can probably be fixed, if they fire all of those responsible, and bring in / promote a more wholesome team. That includes the CEO, if necessary: as the expression goes, a fish rots from the head down.

The more immediate threat to Uber, as many have pointed out, is Google. Even if Google were to somehow lose its case, its roughly $86 billion in cash-on-hand is even larger than Uber’s valuation. If Google wants to — and I do suspect it wants to — it can probably keep Uber tied up in the courts for years. Local and municipal governments don’t have the money to do that sort of thing, especially when a few million dollars to their opponents can ruin officials’ chances for re-election.

The most immediate threat to Uber, though, could be that it loses money — a lot of money. This article is part of a now nine-part (!) series of expose of Uber over at Yves Smith’s NakedCapitalism site. (Get it? Adam Smith vs. “Eve” / Yves Smith?) The author is doubtful that Uber can go from being a high-cost producer who subsidizes rider fares from its tens-of-billions-of-dollars cash stockpile, to being a low-cost provider of services.

Also concerning for sustainability advocates is the data Gregor MacDonald posted on his excellent blog, about how low-cost ride-hailing services might actually be pulling more transit users away from transit than pulling single-occupancy-vehicle drivers out of their vehicles.

We’ll file finding that under the category “sustainability isn’t easy; but, nothing worthwhile ever is”.  😐

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Matthew Klippenstein

Matthew Klippenstein is a renewable energy consultant in Vancouver, Canada. He has chronicled the Canadian electric car market for since 2013, and has provided commentary (in English and French) for print, television, radio, web and podcast media. An early guest on "The Energy Transition Show", his work has also been discussed on "The Energy Gang".

Matthew Klippenstein has 37 posts and counting. See all posts by Matthew Klippenstein