Optibus turns from buses to flexible vehicle market

Israeli startup wants public transportation companies to use its app to better serve travelers from door to door

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Optibus' software helps bus scheduling to solve real time problems (Courtesy)
Optibus' software helps bus scheduling to solve real time problems (Courtesy)

Israeli startup Optibus wants to enable public transportation providers to give users a service that is akin to a taxi ride, cheap and direct, but at public transportation prices.

Today, if you don’t want to use your car, and you want to get quickly from point to point, you can hail a taxi or get an Uber. Now, however, Israeli startup Optibus says it is developing software that will do the same, but for public transportation.

This is how it would work: when users want to get from one point to another, they’d pick up their smartphones, open an app, give it their location and destination, and voila — a public minibus would drive up to their home and give them a lift to public transportation. If the train is the best way to get there, for example, then the minibus would drive them to the closest station. When they get off the train, another public service vehicle would drop the passengers off where they’re going.

Ride-hailing companies, like Uber, Gett and Lyft, are competing to take control of the streets of urban centers globally. Uber, for instance, offers users its UberPool service in New York, allowing customers to share a ride and split the cost of the trip for a guaranteed fare with other Uber riders. Optibus software will allow public transport operators to offer a similar service, but at cheaper, public rates, Optibus CEO Gady Shlasky said in an interview.

“Our software is what will help bus operators survive in the face of this new kind of competition,” Shlasky said.

The Netanya-based company already sells its schedule-optimizing software for bus fleets to all the operators in Israel as well as Keolis North America; Nobina, the largest bus transportation group in the Nordic region; and other bus operators in North America and Europe. Now it is in talks with bus operators, municipalities and public transportation authorities to adopt its new software and adapt their services to the new flexible, door-to-door model.

“They are always looking to improve the service to their citizens,” Shlasky said.

Keolis is holding the first pilot of autonomous vehicles for use in public transportation in Las Vegas, using Optibus software. “They use our system to assign vehicles to a fixed route,” he said.

“Our expertise is our ability to quickly assign drivers and vehicles to a trip, and solving problems in real time, finding alternative buses, and finding real-time rescheduling solutions,” said Shlasky. “Now we are developing a new product based on our core technology that will allow us to create an app for flexible public transportation that will enable more and more people to avoid personal cars.”

Optibus software uses algorithms to perform deep analysis and number-crunching on anything that could affect public vehicle schedules: traffic, weather, drivers who call in sick, rock concerts that increase passenger loads, road closures. Battery life of electric buses is now also part of its considerations.

Environmental concerns are pushing European to use electric buses on a larger scale. This poses even bigger challenges to bus operators, said Shlasky, and a further opportunity for Optibus.

“The battery life of electric buses is limited and operators will have to take into consideration the life of each battery until recharge into their scheduling,” he said. “We have adapted our system to this new challenge. We can optimize schedules in seconds.”

Optibus was founded six years ago and has raised more than $1 million from private investors and Israel’s Chief Scientist’s office.

Shlasky is in talks with a car manufacturer who is looking to take a stake in the company, he said. The company is in the process of raising $5 million-$10 million in funds from VCs and private family funds and strategic partners, he said.

“Just as mobile phones revolutionized our lives, we are now witnessing a revolution in public transportation,” said Shlasky. “Future generations won’t need to buy cars or get licenses, but they will use point-to-point public transport.”

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