BANGALORE, India — In Uber’s vision of the future, self-driving cars will whisk us everywhere, eliminating the need for its millions of human drivers.
But as the ride-hailing giant prepares to sell as much as $10 billion in stock to the public this week to help build those vehicles, a low-tech approach to the self-driving future is emerging in India: motorbikes that customers rent and drive themselves.
Several startups — backed by big Silicon Valley venture firms and Uber’s Indian competitor, Ola — are betting that shared “two-wheelers” are better suited to wallets and transportation needs than the cars that are the heart of the ride-hailing industry.
The traditional model of Uber and Ola is reaching its limits, said Vivekananda Hallekere, a co-founder and the chief executive of Bounce, which fields more than 6,000 motorbikes that people can pick up and drop off anywhere in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. The car rides are too expensive for most Indians, the drivers complain about long hours and poor compensation, and the ride-hailing platforms are struggling to make a profit, he said.
“You can’t make it affordable with a driver,” Hallekere said. “And if users know how to use a scooter, why do you need a driver?”
India, with 1.3 billion residents, is the world’s largest market for motorcycles. About 20 million new ones are sold annually, from low-powered scooters to heavy-duty Harley-Davidsons. Industry players estimate that 200 million people possess a license to drive at least a basic two-wheeler.
How viable these services will be over the long term is unclear. Like Uber and Ola in their early days, both companies are offering promotions to bring down the price of rides, which requires a lot of spending.
“You want it to be habit-forming for the customer,” said Anand Ayyadurai, Vogo’s co-founder and chief executive, who said costs would come down over time.
“It’s a very complicated, very hard business,” said Shailesh Lakhani, a partner at venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, which has invested in Bounce. “That said, the amount of demand is insane.”