Could Bitlock crack peer-to-peer bike sharing?

When it comes to the share economy, everyone’s looking for the next big thing. Or to put it more succinctly, to be the next Airbnb. Easier said than done as most of the major assets to be shared–homes, cars, offices–are fielding intense competition. And startups going after new niches are struggling to find adequate supply, demand, and a business model that can gain traction and find profit.

One niche in the share economy sector that remains to be cracked is bike sharing. Yes, bike sharing programs are doing well in many major cities. But these are centralized models of sharing where the city or a private company manages the bike stock.

But what about a peer-to-peer approach? Spinlister launched and has had a slow rollout, partially owing to the fact that it had a failed rebranding. An August figure said the company had 2,000 bikes and 10,000 users on the platform.

Last week Bitlock launched via a Kickstarter campaign. To be clear, Bitlock is not purely about sharing. Bitlock is a bike lock that can be managed from your smartphone. It automatically unlocks and locks via lower power Bluetooth 4 connectivity with your phone when you’re within 3 feet of the lock. It also employs special lithium thionyl chloride battery technology, which has very low leakage over time and is designed for low power applications. Bitlock’s embedded battery can do 10,000 locks/unlocks, which translates to about 5 years of frequent daily use or 20 years of shelf life under low use.

But what’s also interesting about Bitlock is that it comes with a social feature that gives owners the ability to give other people access to that lock. Meaning I could own a bike, keep it around town, and give five of my friends the ability to unlock the bike from their smart phones. Pretty cool. $99 bucks gets you the fancy lock on Kickstarter.

What I like about Bitlock’s strategy is that it isn’t just trying to be another sharing platform but actually has a cool product that will excite people who love their bikes and just want to go to a keyless system. Could I see this morphing into a peer-to-peer bike sharing platform that could translate into bike rentals or even be a blueprint for larger community programs where bike coops want to enable sharing?

I think it’s very probable. And what I like about Bitlock’s approach is that it has a valuable product from which it can start to build a loyal following that is already engaged with the product via their smartphones. If Bitlock opts to get more fully into a social sharing direction, the company should have thousands of people already using their locks so they’ll have a database of users, and thus supply, to launch a service.

In terms of the potential viability of a bike sharing business model, hurdles remain. Unless we’re talking about high end road or racing bikes, paying $30-$50 to rent a bike for the day seems a bit too close to the actual cost of just purchasing a bike. Rather, the value exists in the convenience and accessibility to bikes, which is why centralized bike sharing programs in places like New York City have found success.

But Bitlock offers an interesting prospect. In speaking with founder Mehrdad Majzoobi, he noted to me that managing centralized station based bike sharing programs is expensive due to installation, maintenance and load balancing during rush hours so bikes are available where riders need them and so that stations don’t get overloaded. He said that the cost of operating such programs can run to $4,000 per bike.

He feels that a system like Bitlock could cut those costs considerably because bikes are located throughout the city via Bitlock, which is a relatively inexpensive technology and doesn’t require centralized stations. Bitlock doesn’t itself have GPS but uses the GPS in your phone to tag the bike’s location every time it’s locked or unlocked. Once a city reaches a critical mass of Bitlock customers, it should be possible to have a large scale map of all the bikes in a city, where they’re parked, and whether they’re available to be shared.

It’ll be interesting to see if Bitlock’s technology has legs beyond a simple sharing of a bike among friends. But even if it only ever does that, it’ll be one more step towards making the things we own more and more available and utilized by others.