On Mobility: Still Searching for Buried Treasure

I met with Shai Agassi in 2007. Back then, Shai was a young and successful leader at software giant SAP who wanted to reinvent how the world powered their cars. I arrived at the meeting with 20 years of experience working on sustainable mobility solutions. We met for one hour. Shai explained his plans for his new venture, but he never asked me even one question in the meeting. As a result, I wondered why my experience was of such little interest to him.

At the time of our meeting, I had already created a new micro-mobility company that NHTSA recognized as a new vehicle category. I had begun working with the University of California Institute of Transportation Studies on the coming shared mobility future, and new opportunities in ridesharing (10 years before Uber launched). I had worked with leaders in transit and city planning, and was serving on the U.S. Transportation Research Board. I knew the larger surface mobility ecosystem really well. I was also named one of the 40 top designers in the U.S.

I was excited to be meeting with Shai. He already had a large personal net worth and enjoyed access to world leaders. So, I spent a few days creating a unique large laminated poster of the mobility future, which I hoped would help expand his urban mobility understanding.

In the meeting, Shai told me mainly about his ideas for what was to become the company Better Place, and how he aimed to be the next Westinghouse, powering the world’s cars with electricity from his swappable batteries. I then showed him my mobility poster, but he didn’t ask me one question about it, or my thoughts on his new venture idea. I thought that was strange.

If Shai had engaged with me, I would have told him it would be unfortunate to install hundreds of billions of dollars worth of battery swap stations across the globe, only to see his customer’s cars in many major cities not moving in traffic congestion. Or, how the shared mobility future can reduce the cost of transportation by up to 80 percent (a new figure from a Rocky Mountain Institute report). His idea was not a comprehensive solution.

What would have made Shai listen to me? If I had a successful exit from a new mobility venture, would he have listened to me then? Perhaps Shai wanted to see if I had transformed a country’s mobility system already, like a country down in South America, or somewhere else? But nobody has any wins to show in this space as of yet.  

How does one with a lot of experience in the new mobility space be seen as a key resource to a wealthy newcomer that knows very little?

Sometimes I think taking on this urban mobility future is like trying to eat an elephant for lunch. There is just no way to do it very easily. I guess you have to cut off a foot and eat that, then another piece?
I also see this situation as being like someone trying to find a well-buried treasure on a remote island.

Let’s say there was $500-billion buried on Catalina Island, just 10 miles off the coast of Orange County, California. As someone that began working on sustainable mobility, I went to the island 20 years ago. I arrived, and have spent years trying to find where the treasure is. But Shai arrived in 2007, 20 years after me, and he didn’t have any interest in talking with me, as he likely saw me as someone that couldn’t find the treasure. He was going to be the one to find it. As for myself, and others that were early to the island, we are closer to knowing where that treasure is than ever before. 

Shai went on from our meeting to raise $800-million, and lose every penny of it in only 3 years. He might as well have put the money in a dump truck and poured it into the ocean. It was shocking to me how foolish the venture capital firms that backed him were.

In the end, Shai didn’t find the treasure. And I’m still digging.  

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Dan Sturges is mobility design consultant for team red and has been supporting “transformative” transportation projects for nearly 30 years. He trained as a car designer and worked as an entrepreneur to bring to market a new intermediate vehicle category. He supports a wide range of vehicle design and mobility planning efforts for both government and corporate entities.