This SoCal start-up is driving at electrifying more commuters while easing traffic congestion overall. Hear how their all electric car sharing and van pooling plans are shaping up here in Los Angeles and how Chattanooga, Tennessee is connected.
Recording date – January 10, 2018
Bart Sidles: We have a fleet of all-electric vehicles that we rent out for vanpool and car share, and we’re focused on achieving our mission of reducing the cost of commuting, improving the traffic flow, and reducing CO2 emission. People that are traveling on average here or around Southern California, their daily round trip for vanpool is 94 miles roundtrip on a daily basis. We’ve created our own proprietary technology that allows people to create their own vanpool and to get people to join it. And everything is done on our app.
Tom Smith: Welcome iDriveSoCal, the podcast all about mobility from the automotive capital of the United States, Southern California. I’m your host Tom Smith. And joining me today is Bart Sidles. Bart is a director of corporate and business development for a startup company called Green Commuter here in Los Angeles. Green Commuter works out of the L.A. Cleantech Incubator, L-A-C-I, LACI, as they like to say. Bart, thank you so much for joining me today.
Bart Sidles: Absolutely, Tom, pleasure to be here.
Tom Smith: So high level, tell me about Green Commuter.
Bart Sidles: Green Commuter, we are, as you said, we’re a startup company here at LACI. We have a fleet of all-electric vehicles that we rent out for vanpool and car share, and we’re actually B Corp, and we’re focused on achieving our mission of reducing the cost of commuting, improving the traffic flow, and reducing CO2 emission.
Tom Smith: So I’m driving on the highway. I am from Chicago so let me preface that and maybe it was in the Midwest, and I’ve spent time in other in other states as well, but have I seen the old school vanpool signs on the side of the highway in California? And I know you’re from the Midwest as well.
Bart Sidles: Exactly.
Tom Smith: Maybe you can help me with this. Is this a state by state thing? Is this in California?
Bart Sidles: It’s not. It’s everywhere.
Tom Smith: I’m talking about the old school ones.
Bart Sidles: Yeah, well the old school ones where you have usually park and ride. So a lot of times you might see these park and rides where people are able to park and then they do ride. So people…maybe would be good to go back of understanding what vanpool is. Some people know what car share is and vanpool is when a group of people together, which is usually more than four or five, actually, for kind of the federal subsidies which came through the Clean Air Act, it has to have a minimum of five. And you have to have a vehicle that has a minimum of seven seats. And therefore, right now, because we want to remain all electric, the only all electric vehicle that is seven seats is the Tesla Model X, and that’s kind of a fun thing about what we do here at Green Commuters.
And the fact is Tesla Model X, for people that are traveling on average here or around Southern California, their daily round trip for vanpool is 94 miles roundtrip on a daily basis. So that’s a long way to travel. And when can get them into an electric vehicle, A, it obviously helps improve the emissions by putting into a zero emission vehicle. And hopefully, not only converting people from current van pools but creating new ones. We’ve created our own proprietary technology that allows people to create their own vanpool and to get people to join it. And everything is done on our app. And that’s one of the benefits that we have over the legacy vanpool companies where there might be kind of paperwork to keep track of who was on, how far they traveled, to get these subsidies. So it’s very exciting in this kind of new disruptive mobility space.
Tom Smith: And you guys rent the vehicles to groups that gather by way of, is it exclusively through the app or maybe a website too but mostly through the app? Yes, going on to our website, also, we have apps, you can go onto both either Android onto the Google Play Store or into the Apple Store, download our app or, actually, you know, reach out to us as well and say that we have a group of people that we are in a current vanpool and we would like to convert over to an all- electric vehicle. And one that’s fully electric, not hybrid.
Bart Sidles: It’s not a hybrid. We’ve committed to being all-electric.
Tom Smith: The idea for the company came from…
Bart Sidles: The founder, Gustavo Occhiuzzo through another company that he had started— it was kind of a landscape business, he was looking and he saw all these white vans going back and forth kind of in from the valley into Los Angeles. And he said, “You know, there must be a way of updating these terrible, gas guzzling vehicles.” And so he started Green Commuter about three years ago. And his first hire was actually a grant writer because he knows that, especially here in California, there’s a lot of funds that are available to help supplement and to support the idea of greening transportation. And so…
Tom Smith: Lessening the carbon footprint overall, however you do that.
Bart Sidles: Exactly. And so jumping forward a few years is that in March of 2017, Green Commuter launched the first all-electric vanpool in the United States.
Tom Smith: So in March of 2017, you guys just started.
Bart Sidles: Let’s say that was kind of the real thrust of the whole business model. It was a lot of years, a couple of years…
Tom Smith: A lot leading up to it.
Bart Sidles: A lot leading up to it. You can imagine insurance because our business model is being able to get full utilization of a vehicle. And so what we do is we have the vehicle available for vanpool in the morning and then for the return in the late afternoon. But during the day periods, we open the vehicle up through our app, repurpose it for people that want to rent it for a car share during the business day and again at night.
Tom Smith: There’s an interesting stat like I think we use our cars typically 4% or 5%. I mean, it’s brilliant. It makes a lot of sense, but it’s also a lot that could go wrong. Somebody gets a flat tire, or they get in an accident, they whatever, and then all of a sudden, we’re dealing with a lot of schedules being impacted. How do you guys address that? You don’t have to go too deep, but I’m just curious.
Bart Sidles: No, it’s a very good question, and we want to make sure that those concerns are addressed. So because we are using Tesla Model X right now, we have a good understanding, and we know everything about let’s say where the battery charge is. We know the location of the vehicle, and we are in communication with anybody that might be in the vehicle to know if they aren’t getting back to the place where they’re supposed to be, let’s say, point A, that we geo fence that. And so we’re making sure we’re communicating them like, “You should be there in 30 minutes,” to give a buffer. But we also have things that we know like extra vehicles that we were able to deploy within a short period of time to make sure that we can replace a vehicle if needed. Or in a very worst case scenario, we would get some kind of say an Uber, Lyft to ensure that people are always able to get to where they’re supposed to be.
Tom Smith: And are you just operating in Southern California at the moment?
Bart Sidles: Currently our focus is in Southern California. Green Commuter does have operations in Chattanooga, Tennessee. We won a grant to implement and manage car share service in Chattanooga, and we have a great team there. We have 20 Nissan Leafs that we manage, and we have six different stations there, locations in Chattanooga and Nissan Leafs. And it’s amazing that this small city is really able to capitalize on that transition into kind of a new mobility economy. I know. Who would have thought…?
Tom Smith: Did you see the expression on my face? Chattanooga, Tennessee? It’s like, “All right, yeah that’s a technology startup hub.” How did you guys wind up there?
Bart Sidles: It was, again, Gustavo’s foresight and ability to kind of capitalize on opportunities. And it was a grant that we won.
Tom Smith: Okay so it was a grant. It was led by the grant?
Bart Sidles: It was led by a grant very much yeah. And so that helped us in what we’re doing right now of getting a huge learning curve on charging, on car share operations, on customer service. We are hands-on. We’ve got a fantastic team there that manages all that, and we’re in very close relationship on a daily basis. And so that has been a great platform for us to be able to springboard into growing our bigger business here in the Los Angeles area.
Tom Smith: And Chattanooga, I mean we have, what, in the LA DMA we’re looking at…you’d look at the numbers lots of different ways, but say, 10 million people. Chattanooga?
Bart Sidles: Well, Chattanooga, so I give them a lot of credit and Tennessee of being very forward thinking. And so Chattanooga they’ve got, you know, a Volkswagen manufacturing plant there. I mean, they are really at the forefront of where I think a lot of other cities want to be. And so they just saw the opportunity of having electric car share operations there and we were fortunate to be the winners of it. And so they’re looking to expand it. And also other cities have come in to see the success that Chattanooga has had. And so we are talking to other regional cities and other states around there to expand the type of operations that we have in Chattanooga.
Tom Smith: And that’s where I was getting was that L.A. is obviously huge. We have the worst traffic in the world here. And then Chattanooga being much smaller, it gives you two different market samples to really identify, okay, what are going to be the needs as we grow, you know, smaller than L.A. but then also bigger than Chattanooga and perhaps smaller than Chattanooga as well? Lots of issues with the overall model. I would assume that here in L.A. charging stations, the infrastructure is there for it, right? It’s not too difficult to find a place to charge.
Bart Sidles: It’s not too difficult but that is still probably one of the hurdles, especially somebody looking to get into an EV. And for us, we, as well, we looked at this as being a potential hurdle in getting our vehicles charged. So actually, Gustavo, again, with a bit of foresight, he went out and he did a deal and we have a… So Gustavo went out he had foresight, and he bought a bunch of electric charging units, EVSEs. And so what we have done is we actually help municipalities. We’ve done this in Palmdale and Lancaster as examples of helping them put charging units into their parking lots.
Tom Smith: So car share currently just in Chattanooga, vanpool and car share and in Southern California.
Bart Sidles: Correct.
Tom Smith: And how many vehicles do you have on the roads? How many vanpools do you have on the roads in Southern California right now?
Bart Sidles: Right now, as a startup company, we have 3. We will be expanding that to 5 in the next couple of weeks and, hopefully, expanding that to 10 by the end of the first quarter. And then by mid of this year, we hope to get that up to about 30 to 45 because we are looking to maybe have some grants to put in place some additional vehicles.
Tom Smith: And how many car shares?
Bart Sidles: car shares we have the 20 Nissan Leafs. We have one Nissan Leaf here. And so everything is just kind of growing from…
Tom Smith: So you have one Nissan Leaf here and 19 in Chattanooga?
Bart Sidles: Twenty in Chattanooga.
Tom Smith: Twenty in Chattanooga, okay. So I guess your competition is going to be… Is there anybody that’s direct competition or is it kind of like you have the van share side of the competition and you have the…or the vanpool side of competition and the car share side of the competition?
Bart Sidles: It’s a great question. So our competition, let’s start with vanpool. So there is one competitor, and it’s a pure monopoly. It’s Enterprise. Enterprise bought another company in 2016 called vRide, so they became a monopoly throughout the United States. And so what they do is they have those you know Eco Line large white vans or the gasoline guzzling vehicles that are bringing people from the park and rides into their place of work, and so that is our really sole competition right now. There’s nobody else that is providing an all-electric solution because this does have its challenges. But we’ve been able to work around that, and we have a great solution.
We’ve invested a lot into the technology which is why there was that kind of time period until we could really launch because we needed to put everything in place, the insurance, the relationships between us and the drivers or the company, and the technology. And then on the car share side, Zipcar, obviously, is an industry leader. And then you also have…and then some others. There’s some other car share organizations and you have some of the OEMs that have started their own. But then you have the competition of I guess the ride hailing, the Uber and Lyft. But we don’t see Uber and Lyft as competitors. We actually see them as potential partners because they have a fantastic business model. They don’t own the asset, which we actually own the asset and the asset being the vehicle. And for us, that’s been kind of a big hurdle because that takes money to get that asset onto your balance sheet. Uber and Lyft don’t have that. In looking to partner with them is we are able to say, “Look we have the vehicle, and you have drivers that might need vehicles and especially to expand your offering into electric vehicles. This is a way of doing it.”
Tom Smith: Have you guys raised… I know we’re talking here at LACI the L.A. Cleantech Incubator, but have you guys…you mentioned a credit line, right?
Bart Sidles: Through New Resource Bank.
Tom Smith: Have you raised?
Bart Sidles: We have. Yes, we have raised funds through notes as a startup company. We are doing it through convertible note, and we are continuing to raise money. So, yes, we have a handful of investors that have been very supportive in our mission. And as most…the challenge of a lot of companies is funding.
Tom Smith: Money’s important.
Bart Sidles: Money is important and you know we’re looking for partners, obviously. Need to be careful what one says.
Tom Smith: Money’s important and the store’s open.
Bart Sidles: Exactly. And LACI has been a fantastic partner for us.
Tom Smith: How much have you guys raised? You wanna disclose that?
Bart Sidles: We have raised $850,000. And this is in a current round. We raised, in a first note, $375,000. We have an objective to raise $1.5 million.
Tom Smith: And what does the future look like 3 years, 5 years, 10 years? Exit? Growth?
Bart Sidles: Well, I think the growth is unlimited. I’ll say unlimited in terms of you know when we’re talking about just tens of cars right now. I mean, the market, we believe, just in Southern California clearly is 3000 because there are 3000 organized vanpools right now. We believe…
Tom Smith: The majority of those run by Enterprise?
Bart Sidles: Almost. I would say 99%.
Tom Smith: Almost exclusively.
Bart Sidles: Yeah. I mean, there are there might be some other vanpools that might be privately run, but for the most part, Enterprise is providing the vehicle because you know, again, a vehicle is a terrible asset. And so unless you’re getting a full utilization of it, you’re not really getting the full value of it. So yes, Enterprise is the main provider of those. So we see that that is a place that we can…we call it low hanging fruit of just converting those current ones. The idea is what we want to through our proprietary technology and the platform of having people be able to create new vanpools easily is to then grow that number by increasing, let’s say, 3000 organized vanpools to, let’s say, 4000 or 5000. And I use the example of up north in Washington State, in King County, they have I think it’s 1800 organized vanpools in a much smaller community. And so if you look at it proportionally wise, L.A. and Southern California should have much more. And these are just two communities. Obviously, you have the Bay Area, you your hometown of Chicago, and metropolitan areas, you know, Atlanta, and New York. We’ve remained committed and dedicated to all-electric. So we’re keeping an eye out what other OEMs are offering. And so as soon as we do have that, we will want to include those because that just helps in our pricing offering.
Tom Smith: Now why…you said Seattle, right?
Bart Sidles: Outside of Seattle, yeah.
Tom Smith: Outside of Seattle we have 1800 as opposed to 3000 here.
Bart Sidles: I know.
Tom Smith: Those numbers don’t add up.
Bart Sidles: Well it’s just because they…
Tom Smith: Why is it so popular there?
Bart Sidles: I think that…
Tom Smith: How has it become so popular there.
Bart Sidles: I think that education is a big part of informing people about the options. I think it’s also driven by, let’s say, Amazon is a big part of that. So they are companies that are very forward thinking and supportive of how their employees are commuting. And we see that here in Los Angeles. I mean, clearly, you know 3000 is not an insignificant number. But we think that there’s potential for that to grow a lot more than it is right now. So yeah, we’re very bullish.
Tom Smith: All right, Bart Sidles, thank you so much for joining me. The company is Green Commuter carpools…no, semi car sharing and vanpools. The money raising and equity store is open for business with Green Commuter. They’re working out of here in the LACI headquarters, the L.A. Cleantech Incubator. Bart, thank you so much for joining me, very much appreciate it. Best of luck to you guys in your endeavors and helping to make the world a more green place and helping to alleviate congestion in traffic here in Los Angeles. I’m Tom Smith. This is iDriveSoCal. As always, thank you for listening and until next time.