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Why Halo is betting on a remote car sharing service


Self-driving cars are often marketed as a safe and convenient mode of travel that allows customers to watch movies, scroll through TikTok, or take a nap — all without worrying about taking control. Whether it’s in a personal vehicle (to remind everyone there are no personal autonomous cars for sale right now) or a taxi service like Cruise or Waymo, the big sales pitch is that you don’t have to drive.

Halo has a different approach. The Las Vegas car-sharing startup is working on fleet autonomy. The problem is that customers don’t have access to self-driving features. Instead, the technology is used only as a valet service for those looking for a short-term rental.

Halo is like Car2go, ZipCar, Gig Share and other car sharing services with the added benefit of delivering the vehicle to a customer’s destination through a teleoperation system that allows a human to drive the vehicle through the city streets from a remote location.

Image Credits: Halo

Well, eventually. Currently, most vehicles in the fleet are delivered to customers by human drivers. But the company is testing its remote driver system with a small subset of vehicles in Vegas and hopes to expand that pilot to customers in June or July of this year. (The company previously planned to remove the operator behind the wheel for human safety and not use the remote driver system until the end of 2022.)

To handle human-free (sort of) deployments, Halo built its own remote controllable system. A person in the office drives a vehicle in a rig similar to what high-end iRig gamers use, but with a real car on the other side that has a top speed of 25 miles per hour.

Navigating to Profitability

Self-driving vehicles have been at the heart of many failed attempts. One of the biggest disasters was when Uber invested heavily in the technology before eventually selling its autonomous division to Aurora. Autonomous Ubers should be the path to profitability for the company. Instead, it turned out to be too difficult and costly.

Halo founder Anand Nandakumar has no illusions that technology is just around the corner.

“What I found was that autonomous (technology) takes another 15 years to be commercially ready as a real, commercially viable product,” Nandakumar told TechCrunch.

Delivering EVs to customers isn’t so much about showing what the company can do, but more about streamlining the business in the long run. Currently, a driver handles about four to five personal deliveries per day. Once these drivers go remote, that number jumps to 10 deliveries per day.

The idea is that Halo loses money on delivery of the vehicle, but loses it and makes more back when the customer drives the car around at $12 an hour. That’s cheaper than offerings from Uber or Lyft, and delivery times should be comparable to those taxi services.

By distributing its vehicles across a metropolitan area (in conjunction with local authorities), Halo aims to deliver a car to a customer within six to seven minutes. After that “the car is kept by the customer for several hours. So we make a good chunk of margin in the time the customer keeps the car,” Nandakumar said. At that point, the vehicle can be remotely navigated to the next destination or deployed to a parking spot.

To bring Halo even closer to ride-hailing services in the future, it hopes to introduce one-way rentals in the future. Currently, all rentals are return flights. Delivery and collection is done at the same location. By picking up the vehicle in one place and dropping it off in another, customers do not have to search for a parking space. They could theoretically just get out of the car and let it drive off on its own.

“What we’re saying is that people don’t mind driving their own cars,” Nandakumar said.

A fiscally healthy new world

Halo is trying to grow while avoiding some of the pitfalls — such as runaway costs and parking restrictions — that have plagued other ride-hailing and car-sharing companies.

Nandakumar notes that the company has been running lean since its inception four years ago. They have a small crew and rather than expanding quickly, Halo has been laser-focused on making sure what they sell works well in Las Vegas. The remote-controlled vehicles will be deployed with a small fleet in downtown Vegas.

Nandakumar believes Halo can start with a fleet that is 1/10 the size of what a traditional car-sharing company would need. It also works closely with the city to secure parking – a seemingly minor but crucial detail that has shaken the ambitions of car-sharing companies in the other cities.

And don’t expect Halo to evolve into a self-driving ride-hailing service. The company’s revenue comes from customers who drive the vehicle alone. Nandakumar notes that a robotaxi business plan would not be profitable. Instead, the self-driving and remote driving technology can be used to remotely move the vehicles around the city for optimal deployment.

The hardware and aftermarket

A short drive in one of the company’s remote-controlled Kia Niro EVs is usually uneventful. While behind the wheel and communicating with the actual driver in Las Vegas, Nandakumar only takes control once to navigate around a traffic bollard. With a self-imposed top speed of 25 miles per hour for all remote-controlled vehicles, it’s a mostly very slow, very boring experience.

The EV itself is equipped with six cameras mounted on the roof that provide a 360-degree view of the world. The front of the vehicle uses five cameras for a 210-degree view of the world. Essentially, the driver can see more of the world from a distance than the people in the SUV.

Everything is bolted on, including the antennas of three of the major mobile networks. The idea is to have network redundancy. If one connection fails, there are two more to fall back on. Halo is also working with T-Mobile to give the higher priority vehicles access to the carrier’s network. This should – in theory – help keep the vehicles running during times of high network usage.

Halo plans to add the Chevy Bolt to the fleet. Of course, it will have to hurry, as GM has decided to end production of that vehicle at the end of the year.

As for future vehicles, Nandakumar is talking about adding EV pickups. Most people only need the towing power of a truck for a few hours, he mused. Why not offer them one that will be delivered to their home and then drive off after the trip to Home Depot?

What’s really interesting is that all of these hardware additions to the vehicle can be removed. No wires are cut and no drilling is involved. Essentially, Halo’s EVs can be returned to their original condition without much hassle, allowing Halo to sell the vehicles when they’re done with them.

Another way Halo is fiscally responsible in a highly volatile market. All of these car-related businesses have been a gamble. Halo’s approach uses what’s working now rather than waiting for what’s ahead. And if you’re going to gamble on car sharing, it might as well happen in Vegas.

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