Bike-sharing platforms bring last-mile connectivity to India

A revolution is brewing in India’s micro-mobility space, especially in last-mile commuting, and it is being driven by a new breed of tech companies. Currently confined mainly to Bengaluru and Hyderabad, it is just a matter of time before the transformation spreads to the whole country.

Cab-hailing was revolutionised by innovations made by companies such as Uber, Grab, Didi Chuxing (formerly Didi Kuaidi) and even India’s home-grown Ola. Now Indian firms such as Bounce, Vogo, Drivezy, Rentongo, Ontrack and a few others are using emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, Big Data and analytics to come up with dockless bike-sharing platforms in order to make last-mile connectivity — always a huge challenge in India — seamless and hassle-free.

This is how it works. When you want to go from point A to point B in the city, simply go to the app on your phone, check the availability of a bike (read scooter) nearby, choose the one that is closest to you and walk the short distance to reach it. Once there, punch in the one-time password (OTP) you got at the time of booking on a keypad embedded in the scooter. This unlocks the ignition and also the handle and the helmet, which is kept below the seat. And you are ready to go. 

When you reach your destination, search for a public parking slot on the app and leave the scooter there. Once you end the trip, the vehicle gets locked again until the next customer takes it out.

In 2016, three first generation entrepreneurs saw dockless bike-sharing as an opportunity when Bengaluru was about to commission the first phase of its Metro project. By then Vivekanand Hallekere, a chartered accountant, and Anil G, a finance professional, had quit their high-paying jobs at KPMG and Varun Agni, the third co-founder, who has a masters degree in telecommunications, had already tested the bike rental space through a company called Wicked Ride, which still runs a large fleet of bikes across 10 cities.

“We realised that the biggest thing about last-mile connectivity was the ability to leave the vehicle at the end of the trip. And the only way to do that was to make it keyless and technology played a huge role in making that possible,” says Varun Agni, chief technology officer at Bounce, which is backed by investors such as Sequoia and Accel Partners.

Because the concept was entirely new — China was doing something similar, but only for cycles — the company had to set up an R&D team to develop its unique keyless technology which connects the scooter to the backend command centre via GPS. Bounce owns a patent for that technology now.

The company makes all its scooters keyless by replacing the standard lock with its proprietary remotely controllable lock. It then installs the keypad, the communication module, the GPS unit and a bunch of internet of things-powered sensors for the helmet, fuel tank and the battery unit.

The server controls the vehicle remotely through automated commands. For example, if the helmet is not kept back in its designated place, the scooter will not get locked and the customer will continue to be charged for the ride. Also, since the entire city of Bengaluru has been geo-fenced, if anyone tries to steal the vehicle and take it outside the city, the command centre gets an alert and can immobilise the vehicle by switching off the ignition. 

And in case a user gets slapped with a traffic violation fine, there’s a solution for that too. “If we receive a ticket for a fine, we match it with whoever is riding and until the customer clears his dues, we bar him from using the service,” says Agni.

Similarly, since the public parking slots and the paid parking slots are all mapped and geo-fenced, if a user tries to park the vehicle in a no-parking area, the system automatically tells him or her not to do so.

Bounce CEO Vivekanand Hallekere reveals that the company is now experimenting with a different technology, one where you don’t have to enter an OTP and the scooter, too, doesn’t have a keypad. Instead, the user’s phone itself will act as the key, connecting to the scooter via Bluetooth to unlock it. This feature, Hallekere says, will be useful when Bounce launches in tier II and tier III cities.

Bounce’s crosstown rival Vogo is also rolling out a similar technology, wherein a customer can unlock the ignition via the click of a button on the phone app. “It reimagines what a truly seamless customer journey could look like,” says Anand Ayyadurai, CEO and co-founder of Vogo. “There is no complex interaction on the scooter anymore — just on the phone. We have received rave reviews from users and will be scaling this up across our entire scooter base soon,” he adds.

One major worry for bike-sharing firms is the possibility of parts getting stolen. So most of them have their own anti-theft solutions. The parts of Bounce’s scooters cannot be removed without special tools while Vogo claims to have secured most of the theft-prone parts in its vehicles. For example, it has replaced the rear-view mirrors with a stainless-steel mirror which, it says, can’t be removed by a regular screwdriver. Besides, the hexagon nuts on the wheels have been replaced with sphere nuts and these too cannot be removed by regular tools. Moreover, the fuel tanks of Vogo scooters are installed with an anti-siphon net which blocks the entry of a pipe into the tank to prevent the theft of fuel.

A key element of the success of dockless bike-sharing platforms is their use AI and machine learning to understand and forecast demand patterns. Bounce, for example, churns historical user data to figure out where the rides will originate. Based on that, the company offers instant discounts to incentivise users to leave the scooter at a particular service spot “because we have an algorithm running which can say that at this time and in this part of the city, there is demand,” says Hallekere. 

Are these platforms scalable? Bounce, which runs a fleet of around 5000 scooters in Bengaluru, does around 4 million km of rides every month. And the company expects to have around 25,000 bikes in a year or so. Interestingly, none of the scooter rental companies own these vehicles (they are mostly owned by banks and non-banking finance companies). Hence, their investment goes mainly towards building the technology, managing the fleet, marketing and so on.

Clearly, when it comes to last-mile commuting, dockless bike-sharing is an idea whose time has come back.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel