Oliver’s World of E-Bikes, Autonomous Cars and Higher Planes

Wellington, NZ

Welcome to the latest instalment of transcripts from our influencers! podcasts, talking to people making a major difference to cycling or micromobility in Australia and around the world.

We’re skipping out of sequence this issue and jumping straight to the most recent episode of influencers!, featuring long-standing micromobility commentator and visionary Oliver Bruce.

Our fast-forward to Episode 12 is part of our announcement that Oliver, a pioneer of the micromobility revolution and still a central figure in the movement, will be a headline speaker are the inaugural Micromobility Conference & Expo in Sydney in November.

Some people seem to live on a higher plane than most of our routine suburban lives. Oliver’s resume confirms he qualifies for that category. After an eclectic global education, Oliver has held a wide range of roles including strategic advisor, corporate manager and angel investor. He’s among a select group of Edmund Hillary Fellows in his native country of New Zealand and co-host of the influential Micromobility Podcast he co-founded with the inventor of the term micromobility, Horace Dediu.

Micromobility Report: I’m going to start somewhere I’ve never started before in this series and that’s education. You’ve got one of the most diverse global education profiles I’ve ever seen on LinkedIn. Canada, Maine, Qatar. How did that come about?

Oliver Bruce: I was really lucky. There’s a set of 15 schools around the world called the United World Colleges. They were founded by Kurt Hahn who founded Outward Bound and a couple of other things. The idea behind them when they were set up in the ’60s was to educate the next generation of global leaders.

The idea was to bring students together when they were 16 to 18 and put them all together from all around the world. I ended up going to Canada with a scholarship. It blows your mind when you’re a kid from Rotorua, a small town of 60,000 people in NZ to all of a sudden be bunking with people from all over the world.

I was very curious about the world and so off the back of that, having graduated with the International Baccalaureate, I ended up in the States on scholarship at a very specific school. It was called College of the Atlantic and I did a program in politics, ecology and business. I was always interested in solving climate change.

For me it was like, you have to get the business people on board. We live in a capitalist world. How do you get the policy people making the right policy for business leaders? That led me to graduating from school and going: “Cool, I want to work in policy.” I worked in policy for a year on climate change and environmental stuff and thought “actually, I don’t think this is really my calling”.

My partner had grown up in the Middle East and her family was still there, so we ended up in Qatar. While I was there, there was a course in scientific commercialisation that was available through the Qatar Science and Technology Park. It was run by the University of Gothenburg, one of the top commercialisation universities in Europe.

I picked that up and then bounced around. I kept following my nose and ended up building industrial projects in Qatar which, I can tell you as an environmental activist,

was like “what am I doing here?”. Living somewhere like Qatar, you really realise if we’re serious about climate change, we have to work out how to build better solutions.

Qatar has people from all over the world coming and saying: “Hey, we’d like to buy your gas and oil.” Why on earth would they not do that?

For them the mentality was “this is our inheritance”.

That’s really what led me to wanting to work in tech, wanting to work in disruptive innovation. That led me to working at Overwatch, which is what I did when I came back to NZ and Australia, and has led me to the work I do now with micromobility.

MR: I want to backtrack for one second to what you said about the College of the Atlantic, which I’ve Googled and is in the most incredible location. You studied at the intersection of political science, ecology and economics to learn how capitalism can be harnessed for a sustainable future. You attended as a Davis Scholar, taking you to the United Nations, the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, the Copenhagen Climate Summit and coffee plantations high in the Guatemalan mountains. It must have been amazing to live those experiences.

Oliver: Yes, it was an amazing university. I’d been in NZ after being in Canada and I knew I wanted to work in climate. The challenge we have in Australia and NZ is our universities are very deterministic and quite regimented in the way you study.

You pick law or you pick engineering very early. In the US they’re a lot more: “Hey, just go get a liberal arts education, study what’s interesting to you and will make you broadly educated.” That was really attractive.

College of the Atlantic was one of the most flexible programs I’ve ever seen in an undergraduate for something like that. They had one of the best undergraduate environmental policy courses at the time, which is how I ended up at the UN and in the Copenhagen Climate Summit. We went to the UN as student delegates and studied with policy makers who worked in that space and in the NGO space. Getting real exposure to that was amazing because I came home to NZ and spent a lot of time talking to my peers and was just blown away by the opportunities I’d had in that regard.

MR: Your professional career sounds equally stratospheric and exotic.

Oliver: If anything, it was just failing backwards. I didn’t really have any intention of doing any of the things I did. That’s not entirely true. I knew I had a mind for investing. I’ve always thought that was interesting. I just figured it would take me a bit longer to get there.

Qatar was a bit of a shock to the system. I ended up there not from a career intention. That was more of a life decision with my partner at the time. We decided we would go there and be with her family. I got to study and work under the former head of business development for one of the largest Indian business houses who was at the time building industrial projects in Qatar and the wider Middle East.

They were amazing. He really took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew, which was a lot. He’d done amazing things in his life and he really spurred me on to say “what do you want to build with your life?”. From there I said “I really want to work in tech”.

Having been a climate change activist, I left Copenhagen depressed. I was like: “There’s no way the international policymaking framework has the power to really make the changes required.”

The next couple of years was me really getting to terms with that and going: “It’s not going to be a political solution. What we really need is to work out how to get those businesses involved that will build the solutions and change the Overton window of possibility.”

In 2009, if you’d said: “Hey, we’re going to be building two million electric cars a year.” Everybody at the time would’ve said: “You’re totally and utterly mad. There is nobody building electric cars. There’s nothing on the roadmaps of building electric cars or anything like that.” Then all of a sudden Tesla comes along and builds the most compelling car, not just electric car, of all cars, and forces everybody else to want to compete against that.

Now I think it’s the only area of growth in the auto sector.

If you can build a compelling solution, it really changes the conversation. It allows folks to say “we can see a pathway and a solution”. I could see that was a thing and I wanted to work in tech when I was in Qatar and Uber. I thought that the real way I was going to address climate change, was to work in autonomous cars.

I knew autonomy was going to make a really big difference if you could combine it with electric cars, towards being a service. All of a sudden, if you pay $200 a month and you get a car outside your house anytime you need it within five minutes, you can really let go of owning your own car. That’s why people pay $30,000. It’s for the option to say, right outside my house, I have an option to go where I need to go reliably.

I was pretty sure at the time that Uber was going to be the service to build that. They were really building the business model around it and I managed to get a job with them in NZ and in Australia, in a team called Strategic Projects, working on all the future integrations.

By 2018, it was pretty clear these autonomous cars are a long way away. What I’m working to help build is a very compelling service.

At the same time we were investigating, how would we drive a greater uptake of electric cars into our fleet, so we can reduce the emissions of anybody who’s wanting to move around our cities?

It was really clear when I did the math, that wasn’t going to be the solution. It wasn’t going to be a material part of the solution going forward, at least for another couple of years. I still hold high hopes for autonomy. I still think that vision will come to be. I just think it will take probably longer than I certainly thought in 2015.

MR: Essentially what you’re saying is you’ve reached the conclusion that moving a 100-kilogram person around in a 2000-3000 kilogram vehicle in a city, and the space it takes to park, just doesn’t really stack up.

Oliver: That’s perfectly it.

MR: I’m also particularly interested in your angel investor activities. What do you look for in a company before you decide to invest, particularly in micromobility?

Oliver: I’ll take you through micromobility first and then I can talk about angel investing.

I’ll explain it the context of my career. I left Uber and was looking around saying: “If I’m really serious about radically reducing emissions in transport, what is going to be that technology I can point to and say if we do a lot of this, we’ll probably make a big impact?”

I had been in touch with Horace Dediu, my co-host for the podcast over the years. Horace is one of the foremost thinkers on disruptive innovation. He worked with Clayton Christensen at the Harvard Business School, then went back work for Clayton at the Clayton Christian Institute, looking at technology adoption curve over 140 different technologies.

Horace is an incredibly deep thinker. He is trying to spot where the opportunities are. He had been at Nokia working in strategy in 2007, 2008. When the iPhone was announced, he said to everyone at Nokia: “This is a really big deal. You should all pay attention.” He was laughed out of the room. At the time, the attitude was these PC folks aren’t just going to walk in here and take this over.

He said: “No, this conforms to all of the things that I think about for disruptive innovation.” It’s a new computing platform. It’s a new way to think about solving what he calls the job to be done of things. Computing is a very broad purpose. In the beginning, smartphones were not particularly compelling but they became more and more capable over time and ended up becoming the predominant computing platform and usurped absolutely everything of how we have done things in the past.

We’ve got four or five billion smartphones in the world. We were never more than about a billion computers, maybe 1.5 billion computers. You just have another order of magnitude with these smaller, lower-serving computers.

He had thought: “Apple at this point will now get into car manufacturing. They’re going to make a meaningful contribution in the car industry.” When I hit him up, I said: “I’ve just left Uber. It turns out I’ve made a little bit of money in early stage investing in other areas and I am really keen to support you. I want to do another thing on cars.”

He said: “Actually, it’s not cars. It’s electric bikes and scooters. They have all the characteristics that were in the early days of mobile phones.” We don’t have an iPhone yet in the micromobility space, I still believe this, but there is a Nokia 3310. We can see there are really compelling use cases for these vehicles. What we think of as micromobility is all of the things that have come out of the smartphone wars. Cheap batteries, cheap accelerometers, cheap cameras, cheap computing resources, cheap motors. All of those things getting put into other things.

You can see it with consumer drones, you can see it in other things. We think there’s going to be a whole new explosion of different vehicle types that are small and lightweight. Horace and I have spent our time exploring this space since 2018. We were doing this right before the emergence of Lime and Bird and the other scooter manufacturers.

We said: “We think putting all these things together, especially into e-bikes and scooters and potentially these other lightweight electric vehicles, is very compelling.” As a theory. Now, we’ve looked at the data to see is our theory correct? In NZ, e-bike growth has been anywhere from 50% to 100% a year for the last five years.

We will sell more electric bikes and scooters next year in NZ than we will new cars. Not just electric cars, all new cars. When people buy an e-bike, they use it three to four times more than if they have a standard car. Anybody who has ridden an e-bike knows why. It’s a very magical experience. All of a sudden, I feel like I’m amplified. I feel like I’m superhuman and I want to get out and ride this thing because it allows me to go and do a whole bunch of stuff that I traditionally wouldn’t have done on a bike.

They’re a sleeper hit. Nobody is paying attention to this.

What we have done with the Micromobility podcast since 2018 is just cover this phenomenon and talk to anybody who’s in the space who’s building, which is how we’ve got to know a couple of folks in Australia, including Mina Nada at Zoomo.

We also run Micromobility Conference. We have one coming up in Europe on June 1st and 2nd in Amsterdam. Then we’ve got another one coming up in the US later in the year, which will be announced very soon.

We can see there’s this whole new vehicle space that’s going to emerge. It’s really going back to the disruptive innovation framework Horace was really good at doing. We feel like these vehicles are like the smartphones compared to the cars. You think of the cars as a laptop. Everybody wanted a computer because it was a really useful tool and I completely agree. I still use my laptop. I use it all the time but I use my phone way more.

We can see that cities will end up being rebuilt around micromobility as a predominant form of transport because the cost of being able to use these vehicles is going to be incredibly low. When you’ve got electric and low-cost componentry, what happens when all of a sudden it only costs you five cents per kilometer to travel anywhere?

You can travel there at speed. It’s not quite as fast as the car but it’s compelling within an urban environment where 60% or 70% of people live in the world these days.

That’s our thesis. It seems to be confirmed so far, and we’re seeing a huge amount of growth in that.

I’m conscious of the question you asked about angel investing and how I think about that space.

I’m broadly very positive on the sector. I think micromobility is a very fast-growing sector. The challenge is there is a long history of vehicle manufacturers, carcasses of vehicle manufacturing companies that exist. I do think there are companies out there that are going to be the defining companies of our generation. Those are the ones that typically I’m looking for.

I’m looking for something that has a really compelling design, because I think there’s a real cultural element to micromobility in the same way that people buy cars because they’re a particular design. I think we are going to start seeing micromobility designs that are striking, that set the culture and the tone for a new way of being in a city, so very interested in solutions that look like that.

Secondly, we have really compelling manufacturing and operational supply chain stuff. The big problem we have seen historically has been, you can have an amazing product but if you can’t manufacture it, it’s not really worth anything. Some of the best companies in our generation have really struggled with that. VanMoof for example, who make incredibly beautiful e-bikes, they have really struggled. They manufacture them in Taiwan, they export them all over the world; still a really hard business even though it is going incredibly well.

Boosted, who made some of the most compelling electric scooters to date, got absolutely slammed by Trump’s tariffs from China and unfortunately went under.

I look for those things because I’m very high risk in that regard. The angel money I look at, in some ways it’s a philanthropic donation into the space. But I’m making that bet because I think there’s a really high potential upside for the companies that really nail this space and can build something.

MR: Would you be able to name a couple or does commercial confidentiality constrain you?

Oliver: I’m very happy to name the ones I think are compelling. There’s a company called Nimbus, who are building a tilting three-wheel. Nobody’s really built something like this. There’s a number of three wheelers that exist out there. The thing that is compelling about Nimbus: two wheels at the front, one at the back and tilting means your front area can be really narrow. This thing’s only about 85-90 centimeters wide.

As it turns corners, it allows itself to adjust. The thing I think is really compelling is when you want to go down the middle of a road. Why do people buy motorbikes? People buy motorbikes because they can lane split and go down the middle of the motorway, especially in a big traffic jam, but then motorbikes have other downsides.

You might fall off and get clobbered.

I don’t want to have to put all this safety gear on to be able to drive.

I don’t want to have to get the licenses because there’s a whole another licensing regime.

If it rains, I get wet. Nimbus looks at that and says: “Cool. For the same footprint as a motorbike, I can have a single seater pod with a small amount of space in the back for a small child or another person if we need to put them in or some groceries, in a fully enclosed environment.”

Because it’s a three-wheeled vehicle, there’s this weird category called an autocycle, which emerged because of the Piaggio Ape, a little ute that they used to drive around the streets of Rome. Piaggio, the Italian car maker, actually started making the Vespa as well.

Australia and NZ, you can drive these autocycles on a car license. They’re insurable as a car, they’re importable as a car, you can register them in New Zealand for $400. There are some companies that have seen that and exploded it. There’s one called Arcimoto. I’ve driven an Arcimoto and it feels like a Nokia 3310. It’s like: “Hey, I feel like there’s something compelling here about the phone. It’s not particularly smart. It doesn’t have some of the features and functionality that I want.”

The Arcimoto doesn’t tilt, so its two front wheels are quite wide and because it’s two front wheels are quite wide, you can’t do the lane splitting, it’s not fully enclosed and it’s quite long.

The Nimbus you can park directly into the curb. There’s something really interesting there. The entire vehicle will be about 450kg and they’re aiming for a price point of about $10,000 Australian.

You’ve got a vehicle that would fit onto most fleets because it’s a single seater pod. Most times, people are only transporting themselves, especially if it’s available on a car rental fleet or a scooter fleet or something similar. You can walk up to it with your phone, unlock it, pay on a per hour basis. Suddenly you’re paying $5 to $7 an hour and that becomes really compelling for intracity transport.

Until now, we haven’t had people trying to build these solutions and there’s been a whole range of reasons. One is, it costs a lot to be able to go build solutions like this. The reality is, micromobility and components that go into these vehicles are coming way down in price.

Food delivery was a niche some people did whereas now, substantial businesses have been built in the food delivery space and they’re looking for vehicles. Car rental or micromobility scooter companies haven’t existed and now they do.

People have connected smartphones that have all the payment mechanisms already in place. You can build very compelling services in that space that couldn’t happen even five years ago.

MR: I can see you are very enthused and it always comes through in your podcast. I’d like to focus in on your micromobility.io, Micromobility America, Micromobility podcast, Micromobility Europe – the stuff you’re doing with Horace and others. What attracted you to this organisation and what your main activities are like going forward?

In the context of that, you are speaking to me from Wellington, NZ. How come you’re not in New York or Silicon Valley – more in the centre?

Oliver: Why aren’t you, Phil? This is the thing. One of the amazing things that exists nowadays and is very underappreciated is that you can do a lot of these dates on the internet. I advise companies globally from NZ.

I do travel and with the Micromobility Conference, we work out how to bring all these people together. We do that twice a year and we have incredible speakers coming to these spaces.

What we’ve really focused on at Micromobility Industries is to bring together the builders and to celebrate the entrepreneurs who are building in this space. That is the most interesting part of this whole journey. Micromobility has opened up a whole new space for entrepreneurship and for new vehicles to emerge and we want to celebrate that explosion of possibility.

We’re focused on Europe and we’re focused on the States, just because that’s where we see the highest concentrations of startups.

For me, the podcast is an incredible tool for being able to discover and tell the stories of those companies doing it. I know that has helped spur me on.

I advise a lot of micromobility entrepreneurs; for example, when they’re going to talk to investors. “Go and listen to Oliver and Horace. They will tell you why this space matters, why you should be investing in it, why it has a compelling future.”

Ten years ago, it was incredibly challenging to be able to raise capital in this space. Hardware, we don’t want to touch it, especially vehicles.

There’s nothing compelling about that. Yet, I think the part we are doing well is we are really good at telling the story and bringing together people who are believers. There’s a very funny gentleman by the name of Riley Brennan, who runs something called Trucks Venture Capital, a firm in San Francisco based on mobility startups.

He calls going to those conferences “being in the church of Dediu” – this is Horace Dediu obviously. It’s religious. You have an opportunity to really believe – get an understanding and believe in the thesis of why this matters. I’m loathe somewhat to think I help run a religious cult. But I certainly think there’s something to be said for getting out there and being able to articulate the significance and importance of this underappreciated solution to the challenges we face in the world.

Don’t spend one-third of your income on transport. Work out how to radically reduce that. You want to have cities that are more connected and people who are happier because they’re not spending all their time travelling in cars or stuck in traffic. I’ve got a solution for you in that space.

You want to radically reduce emissions? As it turns out, this is the way to do it.

Emissions from an electric scooter is 1/100th of a standard car.

MR: What do you see as the most important advances and growth areas from now until 2025? What do you think is going to advance most quickly? What you think will be most significant? We’ve talked about Nimbus. What about something else?

Oliver: I’m broadly very excited about anything where you’ve got a connected service and a new vehicle type. I didn’t invest in Zoomo. I really should have. They have nailed the use case really well, just saying people with delivery drivers want something that’s reliable. They want a vehicle or an e-bike that’s reliable and at a fixed cost per week – and they just build a service around it.

I think we will continue to get better and better quality vehicles coming down the pipe. I look at the new VanMoofs or Cowboys that are being launched, or Rad Power Bikes and I just go: “We are going to get to the point where there’s an inflection point where costs are really going to drop and we’ll get to real volume manufacturing – into something very compelling for a couple of thousand dollars – and then you pair that with a subscription-style model. All of a sudden, having an e-bike like a VanMoof or a Cowboy where you can explore a city at the same cost as what it would be to get a public transport pass and a third or one-quarter of what it would cost you to run a car.

You know you can get the vehicle serviced and it’s reliable. I just think it’s going to be incredibly compelling for a lot of urbanites and I think that’ll change the conversation at the government level around infrastructure and what we need to be building. I think that’s pretty cool and very achievable within three years.

MR: Let’s just ask the same question with the longer timeframe. Maybe you define how far into the future, but 2025 onwards, what do you see as the big developments most likely to happen and really change the world in this space?

Oliver: It’s actually not specifically around the vehicles. I think the vehicles will come. I actually think the most interesting thing that’s going to happen is how that impacts how we think about building cities. One of the coolest interviews I’ve done – and it’s going to go out very soon – is with a guy called Ryan Johnson. Ryan founded and runs a company called Culdesac. They want to build the first car-free city in the US.

MR: Is he the one doing the city in Phoenix, Arizona, next to the light rail?

Oliver: Yes. He’s doing it in Tempe, right next to light rail. He’s very compelling and the thing I loved about him is he comes at this from a totally non-ideological perspective. He said: “Look, I used to run Opendoor.” Opendoor was a way you could sell a house to a company; effectively, a private equity firm. You’d go online, they would estimate what your house is worth, and you could sell it there and then, and have cash in the bank the next day. You didn’t have to go through the selling process or anything like that.

For a lot of people, that was a compelling way to sell a house. He was one of the early operations people there and helped build the company. He came out of that and said: “What we also got when we were building that company, was all of the other insight about what people wanted.” Most people want to live in a walkable neighborhood or a neighborhood in which they can easily ride their bikes around.

Most people say that and yet only eight percent of people in the US actually do that. The reason for that is because of the car, because we all end up living in really sprawling cities, with terrible zoning laws, that have built their cities around cars. Until now, you try to make a case that “We want to build a bike-friendly city”, you’re laughed out the room.

What Culdesac is doing – building cities or urban developments that are walkable and are micromobility first – is going to cause a cultural change of what people want and will demand from their city leaders.

I’ve had a really amazing journey with the micromobility thing, from spending a lot of time with people who are policymakers and people who had been working in transport policy for 35, 40 years.

One of the senior guys at one of the top engineering firms in NZ said to me, once we got him hooked on micromobility: “We have had in the transport planning toolkit, cars, public transport and walking and maybe bikes, but nobody really wanted the bike thing. We’ve had that for the last 40 years. All of a sudden you are proposing that these vehicles are actually going to provide us with a very viable point-to-point solution that, if you build the right infrastructure for inner city, will actually unlock the city. It’s a whole new way and a new tool for us in this toolkit, to really move people around at scale.”

If, in 10 years’ time, we’re talking about people building micromobility-first real estate developments or saying “I want to be a micromobility city”, that’s where it gets really exciting.

Autonomous transportation I still think is going to be a thing. I’d love to see autonomy happen. In the meantime, micromobility cities would be really exciting.

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