Local ride-for-hire startup scores part in EU driverless transportation experiment

A Vancouver-based tech startup that began life as a platform for arranging carpools is now on a team competing to design systems for an experiment in autonomously operated, on-demand transit services in Europe.

The Mount Pleasant-headquartered firm, called Spare, is part of a Norwegian/Canadian consortium selected as one of five competitors in a European Union-supported experiment to test fleets of automated buses in six different cities.

Spare CEO Kristoffer Vik Hansen said his firm was invited to join the Norwegian-based team, under the name SAGA, based on its work applying its technology to on-demand service-scheduling for transit systems in Oslo and Stavanger, Norway.

“It tells us people are confident in what we’ve done so far has some real legs,” said Vik Hansen about Spare’s invitation to SAGA’s shortlisted bid. “And (that) there is some seriously good technology being developed in Vancouver.”

Spare was founded by former University of B.C. computing science and engineering students Vik Hansen, Alexey Indeev and Josh Andrews, who put together an app-based ride hailing service that matched commuting drivers with passengers willing to carpool.

“Basically, what it does is it fundamentally looks at how can I pool passengers into vehicles (going to common destinations)?” Vik Hansen said. “And how can I route those vehicles to make the most-efficient pickups and drop-offs possible?”

Called Spare Rides, the service ran from its launch in 2016 until early 2018 with approval from the B.C. Passenger Transportation Board, which has rules that allow for such carpooling as long as it involves vehicles and passengers going to common destinations.

Vik Hansen said once they had that platform established, it wasn’t too big a stretch to apply the method to other types of transportation, such as more flexible, on-demand forms of public transport. The idea is, instead of relying on passengers to adhere to fixed schedules on bus routes, buses run when passengers book trips via a smartphone app, website or phone reservation.

From left, Josh Andrews, Kristoffer Vik Hansen and Alexey Indeev at the Spare labs office in Vancouver on Jan. 4.

Vik Hansen said the system collects information to create a “data-first” approach to scheduling transit more flexibly from planning the most efficient fixed routes to deciding when it’s better to run strictly on demand and even offering door-to-door service.

And once such on-demand technology is applied to transit generally, Vik Hansen said it’s a natural extension to include such platforms as driverless, autonomous transportation systems now under development.

Spare will be providing the passenger-booking, dispatching and vehicle-routing system for SAGA’s bid in the EU-funded experiment for Future Automated Bus Urban Level Operation Systems, which goes by the acronym FABULOS.

SAGA was selected as one of five finalists for the “pre-commercial procurement” phase of the project. The next step is for each bidder to put together a feasibility study, which will include designing the system’s architecture and methods for integrating their technology.

FABULOS will put the most promising ideas into prototypes for lab testing in the fall of 2019, with the three best prototypes put on the road for testing in small fleets of buses in Estonia, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal starting in 2020.

It’s a small project, worth up to 5.5 million euros ($8.4 million Cdn), but for Spare it’s a chance to take part in the promise of a massive societal shift in transportation where such transit systems become more convenient than owning a car.

“Obviously, being part of that could be a huge opportunity for us,” Vik Hansen said.

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