At first glance, it seems like classic Silicon Valley hubris. In the summer of 2017, two entrepreneurs raised $3.3 million for a “moving hotel” startup called Cabin that transports passengers between San Francisco and L.A. overnight.
Outside the Valley, people might refer to a similar disruptive innovation as–a bus.
An expensive one at that. Rides cost $85 to $115 each way. Hour-long flights between the two cities typically cost less.
But according to one of Cabin’s investors, the company signals a new way of thinking about getting from point A to point B–one that ties directly into the incoming wave of autonomous vehicles. While some look at Cabin and see a sleeper bus, Ann Miura-Ko, cofounder and partner of the venture capital firm Floodgate, sees the future of transportation.
Miura-Ko has a keen interest in the transportation industry. She founded Floodgate in 2008 and was one of the earliest investors in Lyft. When she made an investment in 2010, the company was still called Zimride and was focused on ride-sharing at universities. Today it has an $11 billion valuation and operates in more than 360 cities.
With Cabin, she has a similarly long-term vision. When people no longer need to focus their attention on driving in a car, they’re free to do a host of other things. The way cars are designed right now, the options for spending your time in the backseat are limited, mostly to what you can do on a screen (while in the driver’s seat, screens can be very distracting). But for Miura-Ko, that’s thinking too small. She envisions a transportation network where autonomous vehicles are specialized to enable certain experiences.
“They’re not just a bus in which people sleep to go from Santa Monica to San Francisco,” she says. “It is literally a hotel on wheels. There’s a lounge space, there are attendants, it is hospitality on wheels. If you can imagine, it could become a restaurant, a cafe, or a bar on wheels. My belief is that this is just the first iteration of that.”
To be clear, Cabin is a crude first iteration of that. The company purports to offer a luxury hotel experience, but it has not won universal appraise. One reviewer compared it to a hostel; another likened the private sleeping pods on board to coffins. The company’s buses also are not autonomous.
But there’s a bigger idea at play. Miura-Ko envisions an ecosystem of on-demand vehicles with various things on offer. “You think of all these storefronts you see around you–nail salons, hair salons, gyms,” she says. “All these experiences can be done on your way to something. You can get your hair done on the way to the theater. Instead of going to work an hour early so you can work out at the gym, you work out on the way to work.”
For Miura-Ko, it’s a significant business opportunity–and it’s not just limited to getting more done on your commute. “If I forgot to buy a gallon of milk, I can call upon a vehicle that goes from the farmer who grows apples, and [it can] deliver apples to me directly. You can have a direct relationship with the person who is making,” she says.
The key here is the intersection of autonomous vehicles and a ride-sharing network–neither of which Cabin is offering. But that doesn’t concern Miura-Ko, who says that it took Lyft two and a half years after she invested to refine its product. Cabin’s CEO Tom Currier tells Co.Design via email that the company is thinking about how autonomous vehicles will impact transportation, though he did not specify whether the startup plans to invest in autonomous cars.
The kind of shift Miura-Ko is thinking about will only come to fruition once self-driving cars become ubiquitous, which could take decades. (Still, they’re coming: One report from BI Intelligence claims that 10 million autonomous vehicles will be on the road by 2020.) It’s a problem Lyft already appears to be thinking about. The company has announced partnerships with Alphabet’s autonomous vehicle company Waymo and the more traditional automakers General Motors and Ford, all of which are working on building self-driving cars that could then become part of a broader autonomous ride-sharing network.
Cabin might seem silly, but the larger conceit–making the insides of our vehicles do more for us–has a compelling logic. Twenty years from now, we might all be napping in coffins on our way into the office.