Automating Vehicle Occupancy Verification

At Carma, we believe in rewarding high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) travel. Increasing the number of people in a car is the most effective way to fight traffic congestion, local air pollution and climate change. All over the world, government agencies are experimenting in rewards for high-occupancy vehicles, including dedicated HOV lanes, HOV toll discounts, preferential parking access and road user charging. 

However, until now, verifying vehicle occupancy has been impossible. Most agencies deploy roadside law-enforcement for periodic spot checks, but it's not easy to count people in a car that's moving quickly in traffic, in varying weather conditions. It's also dangerous for the police officers, and degrades traffic flow. Other agencies use automated digital imaging systems for peering inside cars - but these fail for the same reasons. 

Carma's patented system takes a different approach. Our smartphone app automatically verifies your occupancy in a vehicle. It does this by using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) communications to detect its proximity to a small in-car device - a Car Beacon - that simply transmits a Bluetooth identifier. In this way, vehicle occupancy is reported to the agency and you qualify for preferential HOV treatment.

One of the great features of the solution is that it requires no user interaction at all. You can keep the phone in your pocket and the app will automatically verify your occupancy. Our product design process focuses on completely remove all barriers to someone adopting behavior change. This is one of the reasons why Carma's solution is ideal for government agencies wishing to verify vehicle occupancy for enabling toll discounts. As you drive through a toll gantry, agencies can simply query for the number of people in your car and apply a reduced rate for carpools.

In this way, Carma is building the future of personal mobility - connected, hassle-free and rewarding. 

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Emmett Murphy is Chief Product Officer at Carma.

Product Design for Behavior Change

Your daily commute is probably automatic behavior. Subconsciously, you've probably worked out the very latest moment you can leave to arrive on time and you have a routine for how you get there. Unfortunately, for most people, that automatic behavior involves commuting in a single-occupancy vehicle.

At Carma, we know that our transportation products will only inspire behavior change if they're completely hassle-free to use. Our product design process is deeply rooted in BJ Fogg's theory that behavior change requires 3 fundamental elements to converge: motivation, ability and triggers.

Even if someone is highly motivated to share a vehicle (e.g. to save time in a carpool lane) and even if they are triggered every morning (e.g. watching cars fly past in the carpool lane), they still need a very simple way to adopt the new behavior. For this reason, our product teams continuously strive to reduce the number of taps required to use our products.

A great example of this is our newest Carma Share feature, enabling team members at Toyota's North American headquarters to book a commute vehicle for private carshare trips during the day with a single tap. Unlike other carshare products that typically include taps for car selection, time selection, insurance waivers, etc, our users can book a car with a single tap. 

Even better - Carma Share users can also access the vehicle with just a single tap of an Unlock button in the app. The car is unlocked (or locked) using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology. This means that a new user can sign up, get approved to drive, book and access a car all within a few minutes. These same cars can be booked for shared high-occupancy commute trips each morning and evening, removing all ability barriers to adopting real, impactful behavior change.

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Emmett Murphy is Chief Product Officer at Carma. 

Ice Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream!

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Now that over 100 TMNA Team Members are sharing the ride to work with Carma, the company rewarded commuters with an ice cream party on May 31, 2018.  Carma Share commuters were treated to an unlimited sundae bar with ice cream flavors and toppings galore. 

Current ride sharers were encouraged to invite team members to come and learn more about getting to TMNA together with Carma.  They indulged in sundaes while the Carma Team answered questions, demonstrated bookings through the app, and noted requests for future routes and schedules.  

Clearly Toyota Team Members are not vanilla!  As the 2 1/2 hour come-and-go party wrapped up, only a few scoops of ice cream remained.  Chocolate, strawberry and vanilla were enjoyed by all!  

Cupcakes with Carma

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Toyota is an industry leader recognized globally for its cutting-edge, innovative company culture. Therefore, it was no surprise their employees showed up by the hundreds on May 22, 2018, when Carma hosted Cupcakes with Carma, offered Toyota team members the opportunity to learn more about our corporate rideshare program at their Plano headquarters.

In addition to the delicious cupcakes and great conversations that took place during the informal, come and go style gathering, Carma employees gave live demos to Toyota team members showing them how easy it is to use the service. Toyota team members were also encouraged to suggest new departure times and locations for consideration as the community continues to grow.

Multiple team members made their first booking using the Carma Share app during the event, making Cupcakes with Carma a true success.

Autonomous Cars Will Get Road Rage Too

Picture the scene. It’s a typical morning commute, marked by traffic congestion and frustration. Except this time it’s not drivers complaining to each other about the traffic, it’s autonomous cars. That sounds ridiculous, but it is the current trajectory for the future of personal mobility. The allure of Elon Musk’s vision for autonomous vehicles is understandable, particularly with proclamations that “within two years you’ll be able to summon your car from across the country”, all of the obvious safety benefits to come, and all the cool tech that goes with that.

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However, a missing dimension when we paint this vision is our daily pattern of car utilization. The efficiency of our transportation system doesn’t improve simply because cars will drive themselves more efficiently than we can. A predictable tidal wave of traffic congestion will still hit all of our cities every weekday morning and evening. In fact, it will get worse.

The pervasive wisdom is that autonomous cars will appear and disappear as we wish, wherever we go. Our primary transportation resource (256 million cars and counting) will essentially live in the cloud. Personalized mobility on demand. Most articles written on the subject portray a transportation system that is seamlessly efficient, the ultimate product of the sharing economy. And a recent article in the Wall Street Journal explains that “Twenty-five years from now, the only people still owning cars will be hobbyists, hot-rodders and flat-earth dissenters.” Common perception is, therefore, that this version of the future is inevitable. It is not.

Today, the average occupancy of a car is 1.1 people at commute time. That’s the reason you waste a week of your time every year simply sitting in traffic. Research has shown that even a small (2–5%) reduction in traffic volumes can lead to a giant reduction in total traffic delay (25–27%). And yet, instead of our cities competing on commute-time occupancy scores for federal transportation funding, we continue to invest $80 billion annually on new roads and $87 billion in wasted fuel and lost productivity. Not to mention the harmful impact on local air quality, with the American Lung Association reporting that almost half of us are breathing air polluted enough to make us sick.

At the same time as making these investments, we celebrate the arrival of the autonomous car as the solution, with President Obama recently announcing $4 billion over the next 10 years on autonomous vehicle technology. That $4 billion is largely earmarked for safety features, a very worthy cause — but auto and tech companies need to also start investing in better understanding car utilization patterns. Without learning today how society can better use cars, the autonomous car of the future is unlikely to have a greater occupancy at peak travel times, and it will be riderless a large portion of the time, as it moves to and from the “cloud”, thereby driving occupancy rates down further.

Today, the average American household has 2.28 cars, each one sitting idle 95% of the time. For most Americans, there is no alternative. Most people live and work in America’s suburbs and exurbs; they don’t take Uber to get to work, and they don’t live near a transit stop. They’ve been left behind by a downtown mindset in mobility innovation and neglected in our collective vision for Shared Autonomous Cars, if we even have one. A recent MIT studyshows that the entire population of Singapore could be served by approximately 1/3 of the total number of passenger vehicles currently in operation — but getting to that point requires a giant collaborative effort, fueled by Tesla-levels of iteration and inspiration, and ultimately leading to societal behavior change.

There is, therefore, an urgent and fundamental need to change our long-established car utilization patterns. The same (high-occupancy) car that takes you and your neighbors to work must be the same car that takes your colleagues to off-site appointments during the day, and your family to a restaurant or Ikea or the beach in the evening.

At Carma, we're proud to be working with Toyota to make this a reality. Our fleet of Toyota hybrid vehicles are available to Toyota team members for a shared commute to work, and for private errand trips during the day. The logistics are challenging and we learn new lessons every day, but we believe that car utilization patterns are fundamental to the efficiency of our wider transportation system. Not just for the next generation, but for today’s.

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Surely it’s time for Silicon Valley to apply the same urgency to ensuring cars are shared and filled throughout the day as it has to summoning a car from 3,000 miles away. The conversation around autonomous cars has to start encompassing the logistics of how a car gets utilized for 24 hours, not just for 1. That technological and behavioral challenge is one that faces us today, not just in 10 or 15 years time. If we don’t change course, we’re heading towards a future in which zero occupancy vehicles further clog up our already congested roads. And nothing is more likely to trigger robots taking over the planet than having robot cars stuck in traffic every day, right?

A version of this post first appeared in Fast Company (Co.Exist).

Emmett Murphy is Chief Product Officer at Carma