The Reinvention of the Bus Route

A staple in every town and city around the world, the cheap yet reliable bus route has been allowing people to get from A to B with ease. In the last year or two though it’s been going through something of a reinvention all thanks to the smartphones in our pockets.

If you want to get around a big city, let’s say London, there’s now a swathe of different options that are very competitive with the old school public transport like buses and tubes. There’s now at least five mobility companies that I’m aware of in London operating public transport like services. Let’s explore them.

Uber

Probably the one everyone knows about is Uber, specifically Uber Pool and in some US cities Uber Pool Express. Uber Pool links up riders that are going to roughly along the same route. It’s usually 10-20% cheaper than a regular Uber but can take a bit longer as you’re diverted to pick-up and drop-off other passengers. I’ve found, particularly in London, that it’s not a very popular service. 

In some US cities they’ve been trialling a new service called ‘Express Pool’ which makes riders walk a short distance to a more appropriate pick-up point which may be with other riders. A bit like a bus stop?

Gett

Gett is a company extremely similar to Uber but it’s almost exclusively black cabs. One of their newer services is called ‘Gett Together’. It’s a service I’ve actually been using for a couple of months and it’s brilliant. During the morning and evening commute times Gett has black cabs operating fixed routes where people get picked up and dropped off anywhere along them for a fixed fare of £3. At the moment they have three routes running in London which go one way during the morning commute and in the reverse direction in the evenings. These routes typically link up the outer boroughs with Central London and the main transport hubs such as Waterloo, London Bridge and Clapham Junction.

I’ve used this service quite a bit as it runs directly past my flat and within a five minute walk of the office. It’s a brilliant service. The only minor annoyance is that London’s Black Cabs are so unbelievably uncomfortable. It’s also actually faster to cycle this route for me which I tend to do when the weather’s a bit nicer. I used Gett Together a lot over the winter and when it was snowing.

Chariot

Now this is an interesting one as it’s an offering directly from a major vehicle manufacturer - Ford. Ford actually acquired the early stage start-up in September 2016 just two years after it was founded. It’s quite new to London and operates four short routes which work in a similar way to Gett except that they only pick-up and drop-off at actual bus stops. It costs £2.40 for each journey or you can buy a weekly or monthly pass which could bring the cost down to £1.60 per journey. They’re also able to use the bus lanes in London which massively helps with avoiding congestion. The only issue I see with Chariot in a city like London is that public transport is really quite good so I hope they can make good use of data to fill in the public transport gaps.

One of their routes goes right past my flat but doesn’t go anywhere useful for me so I’m to use it. I see them driving past constantly and interestingly always look empty. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen one pickup or drop-off a passenger yet.

To get a real sense of the potential of Chariot it’s well worth taking a look at their San Fransisco Bay Area routes. One of the most interesting offerings is for Private routes which are put on by companies for their staff and visitors. In SF there’s some 55 private routes from companies like Amazon, GoPro, and Packard. Making it as easy as possible for employees to get to work without driving is really important in a modern city and putting on a train station to work private bus service is a great way of doing this. A good example of this is the Boston Scientific ‘Last Mile’ route which runs from their office and stops at all the major train stations.

 

I’m quite excited to see how Chariot develops.

ViaVan

This is another offering from a vehicle manufacturer, this time Mercedes Benz Vans. They’ve partnered with a company called Via which offers a mobility platform which essentially does the same thing as Uber Pool - it puts together riders who are going in the same direction. They direct riders to street corners which ViaVan calls ‘Virtual Bus Stops’ to avoid lengthy detours to pickup and drop-off passengers. The service started in London in early April and it’s first city was Amsterdam a short while before in March. It’s soon to start in Berlin. It’s not clear what the pricing is like for ViaVan but they have an introductory £3 per ride anywhere in Zone 1 and I’m guessing it’ll be quite competitive with Uber.

I think the nice thing ViaVan has to offer above the likes of Uber Pool is that they’re using nice Mercedes Benz people carriers which are far more comfortable than the old Prius that you’re likely to get with Uber.

Citymapper

Citymapper did something quite interesting. About a year ago the route finding company (their app is brilliant by the way) spotted a gap in London’s night bus route. They were able to see this as they have lots of data on where people are trying to get from and to and what transport options are available to them. The gap they spotted led them to trial a quite conventional bus route that ran from A to B and stopped at normal bus stops to pickup and drop-off passengers. It of course added a bit of technology to help them run more efficiently but overall it was just a normal bus. It turns out they found it quite hard to do anything innovative with a traditional bus service. They wrote a fantastic blog post about their difficulties which seem to mostly stem from outdated regulations. They eventually stopped running this service and developed something they’ve called ‘Smart Ride’.

Smart Ride seems quite similar to the other services I’ve written about here in that it groups riders going in the same direction and it (sort of) operates along routes dropping off and picking up passengers anywhere along it. The difference I can see though is that they operate a network of routes so you can get picked up and dropped off anywhere along one of the lines.

 Citymapper Smart Ride Network

Citymapper Smart Ride Network

Citymapper say that this network can be responsive to differing demand levels, congestions and special events. They’re aiming this at somewhere between a taxi and a bus and using nice 6 seater people carriers (Mercedes Benz V-Class I believe). Rides are currently priced at £3.

I’m yet to use this service but it looks quite promising.

 

So that’s a super quick overview of some of the really interesting and promising new mobility services running in London that are (sort of) reinventing the bus route. I think the future of these types of services is very bright. Certainly having used Gett Together quite a bit I can say that they’re always quite busy and loved by both riders and drivers it seems. 

My 3 Best Subscriptions

Businesses of all shapes and sizes have fully embraced the subscription model over the last ten years with a huge swathe of new companies starting up under the subscription business model. I count myself having around 10 subscriptions (with a relatively loose definition), but here’s my top three.

1. The Economist

This is a new subscription for me. I’ve been subscribed to The Economist for only about a month but already I’m extremely impressed with the quality of content. I’ve always followed them online but the limitations of the paywall were always quite annoying so I decided to subscribe.

An Economist subscription gets you the print edition delivered every Friday and of course access to all the online content plus the audio edition and something I find very useful, The Economist Espresso. This is a daily rundown of the most important stories delivered on a separate app - great for a quick read on the morning walk to work.

The full subscription (Print + Digital) costs an initial £12 for 12 weeks and then renews at £53 per quarter which over a year works out at just over £3/week. Alternatively they do yearly subscriptions which get cheaper the more years you subscribe.

All the details are here: https://www.economist.com/subscribe

2. Pact Coffee

The staple of every morning routine, a good cup of coffee. Pact offer a range of really flexible coffee subscriptions depending on frequency, budget and type of brewing you do. The thing I like about Pact is that all their coffee is ethically sourced directly from the farmers meaning they pay much higher rates to the farmers than fair-trade sourced coffee. They also deliver in recyclable packages and their pods are also 100% recyclable. In 2016 they released a transparency report which details all of this and more.

So, with Pact you start off by selecting your package type; Filter, Pods, or Espresso machine, then decaf or ordinary, then the size of the grind which all depends on the method. Then you get to choose your budget. Here they offer three options; House, Select and Micro Lot (see the screenshot below). Finally, choose your frequency, and you’re done. The flexibility and choice is huge.

Pact Coffee Options

Each time you get a different coffee delivered to your door with a little sheet explaining where it’s from and the sort of taste to expect - I’ve not had a bad one yet. Of course you can also adjust your subscription at any time and if you run out mid way through you can get your order sent out straight away.

Personally, I have two subscriptions. One is a fine ground for my Aeropress which is great for just one cup at a time, and another is a coarse ground for my Cafetiere - perfect for a few cups.

All the details on their website, and using the code 'JAMES-98790A' gets us both £5 off. :)

3. Charged

Charged is another news subscription but is much more curated than a subscription to a large news site such as The Economist. Charged is all about tech news and is run by a great writer called Owen Williams (you should follow him on Twitter as a minimum). 

With Charged you get a daily briefing (here’s an example) and access to a community (via a forum and Slack channel) which is a great place for discussions. You get all this without any adverts too which is nice. In addition to the paid-for briefings and community access Owen also has a free weekly newsletter and a (sort of) regular Podcast.

The subscription is just 8 EUR per month or 80 EUR for a year.

All the details are on the website char.gd and I think you can use the code ‘bestfriends’ to get 25% off for three months (that code is not affiliated to me at all)

3 Trends to Watch in 2018

It’s my favourite time of the year again. A good time to look back and learn and to look forward at what might come our way.

So, the first bit, looking back and learning. This time last year I wrote ‘3 technologies to Watch in 2017’ which included Start-up Banks, Virtual Personal Assistants, and Cellular IoT. I think at least the first two of these were quite spot-on. 

Looking at the start-up bank community we saw Monzo who are probably the most popular launch their full current account and raise almost £100 million including £2 million in crowdfunding. This time last year they were at around £20 million spent through their system and 200,000 customers, now they’re in to £100s millions spent and around half a million customers. Other big players such as Starling Bank also went from strength to strength and the very popular N26 (a German start-up bank) announced they’re launching in the UK too.

On to Virtual Personal Assistants. This was definitely the year for VPAs. The Amazon Alexa continued to dominate the market with the ever popular Echo range of devices and a number of companies announced Alexa integrations in to their products such as cars and TVs. We also saw the launch of the Google Home range of smart speakers and Apple announced their yet to be released smart speaker with Siri integration (interestingly they delayed the launch missing the critical Christmas market).

With Cellular IoT there were a number of grand plans from service providers that were continually delayed throughout 2017. Vodafone had promised commercial launches (although not in the UK) in the first half of 2017 which were subsequently delayed until the second half. We did though see plans and trials continue to develop with  both O2 and Vodafone UK announcing initial trials on their UK networks. I don’t think Cellular IoT quite had the year I was expecting.

Now for the interesting bit. What to look forward to and focus on in 2018. I’ve changed it slightly to look at general trends rather than just technology.

1. 5G Hype

With the first release (Phase 1) of 5G standards by the 3GPP in December 2017 we can expect the 5G hype train to continue rolling on throughout 2018. I don’t think we’ll actually see much in the way of real 5G deployments but there’s no doubt the service provider marketing departments will be doing everything they can to use the ‘5G’ term. We will see more and more trials taking place and hopefully some real plans for proper deployments at least on a small scale. Do be very weary of the hype though, take all press releases mentioning 5G with a pinch of salt and ask if it’s actually just 4G. Oh and follow Dean Bubley and William Webb who both give great views on the subject and see straight through the marketing hype.

2. Declining Social Media Usage

This is something I’ve picked up a number of weak signals on. It could just be my filter bubble but I think it’s something worth watching. There seems to be a trend developing in people feeling that social media usage is not good for their mental health. This has come about following a number of studies on the subject and sites such as Twitter becoming rather toxic throughout 2017 (although some of Twitter’s policies towards the end of the year may subdue this). Personally, I’ve noticed a huge decline in the amount that friends and family post to Facebook. Even going on the chronological timeline (Menu —> Most Recent) it’s still full of company posts rather than friends posting.

Another thing I’m increasingly seeing is people taking breaks from their devices, from simply keeping it on ‘do not disturb’/silent to going on digital detoxes. This is something to look out for in 2018.

Additionally, there seems to have been a shift towards more private use of social media, mainly through the use of messaging apps like WhatsApp. Where previously friends would communicate on Facebook they’re now doing it more privately in WhatsApp group messages. Personally, my communication is now almost entirely through this method.

3. Enhanced Privacy

Now I wasn’t quite sure what to have has my third trend, I debated between Enhanced Privacy and Multi-Cloud Architectures but thought multi-cloud was a bit too techy (perhaps I’ll do a separate post on that topic). While privacy has been a big topic for a number of years, mainly since the Snowden revelations, I think it’s picking up another tail wind. The general pubic are becoming much more aware of the subject following a number of high profile data breaches throughout 2017 and the previous couple of years. In 2018 we also see the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) across the EU including the UK. Although GDPR doesn’t contain anything much more than we already have across various legislation the size of the potential fines has caused companies to finally sit up and listen. 

We’re seeing companies of all shapes and sizes really start to think about the personal data they hold and take action to anonymise it or remove it entirely, and provide mechanisms for all the aspects of GDPR such as the right to access, erasure and portability. This has already led to companies for example getting rid of their marketing newsletters (presumably they don’t get the return to be able to take the risk of non-compliance).

I think we’re going to see companies thinking much more carefully about the data they collect, hold and process, leading to much more privacy for the general public.

 

So there’s a few things that are worth watching through 2018. 

What else should be on the list?

Weather Tech is Thriving

Most don’t know that I’m a weather nerd (now you do), in fact I used to run a mildly successful severe weather site and still run the Twitter account @cardiffstorm. Anyway, when I saw an article on a company using cellular comms to provide high resolution weather forecasts I decided to take a deeper dive in to ‘Weather Tech’ (yes, that’s how I use some of my spare time).

The company I refer to is ClimaCell and it recently raised $15 million in Series A funding. They’re a perfect example of the old ‘Software’s eating the world’. ClimaCell provide ‘hyper-local weather prediction’ primarily by looking at the interfered RF of cellular networks and comparing it to the known signal of different weather types. So, essentially they know what the RF signature is like on a clear day and they know what it’s like when it’s raining at certain rates. Then by using the real-time data they get from the cellular networks they can infer the current conditions on a street-by-street basis. They also combine this data with secondary and tertiary sources such as the more traditional weather radars and weather stations. This allows them to provide these hyper local nowcasts and forecasts just by using existing data and some clever analysis. They claim an accuracy of 90% vs 50% just using radar. These very local nowcast and forecasts can be very valuable to industries such as sports, agriculture, construction and aviation.

Another company that sparked my interest is Spire. Spire has a constellation of 100s of small satellites that it uses to provide weather data among other things such as maritime tracking. It does this in a not too dissimilar way to ClimaCell in that it uses GPS Radio Occulation to gain an understanding of the temperature, pressure, moisture levels etc in the atmosphere by seeing how the RF signals change as they pass through. Spire recently raised $70 million in Series C funding. Back in late 2016 Spire were one of two companies awarded the first ever commercial satellite contract from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who are probably the worlds biggest meteorological organisation.

The final one that I noticed is a young company called Understory. They have developed a network of weather stations across metropolitan areas in the US such as Kansas and Dallas where severe weather is particularly prevalent. Their weather stations measure a range of factors such as hail intensity, size and angle, wind speed and direction, rainfall, dew point, pressure, among others. They do this every second and upload all the data to Understory via a cellular connection. Their network produces over 50,000 data points every second. According to the company they have one station for every 1 km square. Understory make their money primarily selling this hyperlocal on-the-ground data to insurance companies who can ensure claims are true and accurate and provide proactive communications to customers. However, this data is also very valuable to other industries such as retail and agriculture. Understory last raised $7.5 million in Series A funding in 2016 plus an undisclosed investment in late 2017.

It’s great to see the thing that us Brits talk about the most being given great attention by the startup community and the investors that power them.

3 Technologies to Watch in 2017

I think it would be good to start with a quick review of my three predictions from last year. The first one was Virtual Reality (VR). I think I got this one mostly right as the Playstation VR and Oculus Rift both reached consumers within the year and received extremely good reviews as did some of the Playstation VR games. I say mostly right though as the reach has been pretty limited to those who are well ahead of the curve and to some gimmicky examples mainly for marketing purposes. Although judging by the App Store charts this Christmas VR certainly seemed top of the list with many of the top 20 apps being VR apps.

Secondly was Personal Fitness and Health Tracking. I think this was pretty spot on. We saw a major shift in the wearables market over the last 12 months away from them being a smartphone accessory to being specialised fitness and health tracking devices. There was a clear focus on fitness in Apple’s marketing of the Watch and new Watch 2 in the latter half of the year along with the Watch 2’s new features mostly being around fitness. We also saw the French wearables company, Withings, being purchased by Nokia for 170 Million Euros in a bid to ‘accelerate entry into Digital Health’. Again this Christmas Fitbit was in the Top 5 apps in the App Store.

Finally, I discussed Electric Vehicles although focussed on Plug-in Hybrids (PHEVs). This, I think, was mostly right. The Tesla Model X did start shipping but in quite limited numbers. Details of Faraday Future’s offering were not really released in any detail but will be in the upcoming CES 2017. Most vehicle manufacturers released PHEV versions of some of the vehicles and sales of Low Emission Vehicles in the UK increased by 48% compared to last year. There’s still some way to go on this one though. Perhaps I was a year or two early on this one.

So now let’s get in to 2017. We’re starting to get in to a strange stagnant period, almost a ‘no mans land’ between old tech and new tech. Between the Smartphone and the next generation, between human powered tech and AI powered tech. I think 2017 is going to see some hyped up technologies tank - Autonomous Vehicles top my list as the hype fails to materialise in to anything close to the publics and medias (wrong) expectations.

We’re going to see some interesting things happen though as seeds sewn over the last few years begin to grow.

  1. Start-up Banks

In Europe, and particularly the UK, there has been a flurry of FinTech (Financial Technology) start-ups raising Venture Capital over the last two or three years. This combined with the relaxation of banking legislation meaning a number of start-ups have been granted banking licenses in the last year means that these start-ups are about to flourish and begin massive growth. Let’s take a look at one of my favourites - Monzo. In the last year they were granted a restricted banking license and according to their roadmap (yes they've released their product roadmap for all to see) they’ll be launching their ‘full bank’ offering within 2017. Earlier this year Monzo reached £20 Million spent through them which although is a drop in the ocean compared to the 100s of billions spent by consumers each year it does show rapid growth. Here’s two infographics showing April 2016 spending and August 2016 spending - the increase is huge and can only continue upwards through 2017.

We’ve also got Atom Bank and Curve growing in the UK while Germany is a hot bed of start-up banks with N26 and solarisBank to name a few services that are growing in popularity.

2. Chat Bots & Virtual Personal Assistants

I put these two together as they use similar technologies, mainly natural language processing and to some extent machine learning (the combination often termed Artificial Intelligence (AI)). Messaging apps have, over the last few years, become a focal point with over 1 billion monthly users each on both WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger (both owned by Facebook). Since Facebook launched bots on it’s Messenger platform earlier this year the number of bots has grown to beyond 30,000. In China the use of messaging apps as a platform is nothing new, they’ve been using them for shopping, banking, taxis and more for a number of years. With it now becoming immensely easy to develop chat bots companies are beginning to realise their value, particularly in customer relationship management.

Marketing powerhouse Ogilvy & Mathers have recently gone in hard on Chat Bots with them saying “messaging platforms are the new internet, chatbots are it’s websites”. There’s a good presentation here by their Innovation Partner - James Whatley.

Personal Assistants are certainly nothing new. We’ve had Siri and OK Google for years but let’s be honest, they’ve been a bit shit. With recent developments in Natural Language Processing though they’re getting a lot better. Over the last year we’ve also seen the unexpected popularity of the Amazon Echo (Alexa) virtual personal assistant. This was one of the most popular gifts this Christmas and has mostly been sold out since it’s launch.

So now with Chat Bots and Virtual Personal Assistants we’re pretty much there with the voice recognition bar some corner cases so I think this year we’re going to see them becoming a bit more intelligent in their answering of questions and performing tasks - something they’ve been lacking so far.

3. Cellular IoT

An interesting area with huge potential is the infrastructure and services to support the Internet of Things (IoT). I believe that one of the most interesting of these infrastructure items is Cellular IoT, specifically NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT). Through 2016 we saw the 3GPP standard develop and become part of Release 13 (LTE-A Pro).

As I wrote earlier this year there are many IoT specific network technologies such as LoRa and Sigfox that do the job quite well but something they’re potentially lacking is open standardisation, Quality of Service (QoS), and coverage. So SigFox for example is proprietary, it uses unlicensed spectrum so cannot give QoS guarantees, and only has relatively limited coverage (although this is growing significantly).

NB-IoT overcomes these potential issues which for many use cases may prove to be show stoppers.

Vodafone, who are very big in the M2M (Machine-to-Machine) arena are investing heavily in NB-IoT and have spent the last year or two conducting trials and will be opening up the first networks in the latter half of 2017. They also have their eyes set on a number of critical use-cases including autonomous vehicles and drones - both of which need QoS and coverage at least.

Now I have to admit that writing this post was a bit of a struggle. As I said at the top, 2017 is going to be a strange year for a lot of tech as we sit in this odd period between major developments. Let’s see how it pans out.