Why the sharing economy needs the Internet of Things

Sharing economy companies such as Lyft, TaskRabbit and Spinlister (bike sharing) usually assume that the person renting has proximate access to the thing being rented so that they can hand off and reclaim the goods. In contrast, automatic unlocking and tracking is one way that organizations that manage fleets of assets achieve scale.

Imagine the friction if, for example, Zipcar required that someone meet each customer in order to hand over the keys. Even traditional car rental companies are moving toward streamlining rentals. Similarly, the bike-sharing programs run in many cities such as Barcelona, London and New York City rely on terminals or apps to allow unattended check-outs and returns. Breather also relies on remote locks for the properties it lists.

Sharing economy companies would also benefit from these kinds of tools. Of course, technology is here today to allow consumers to remotely unlock and start their cars and open their doors, but they can sometimes require complicated or time-consuming installation.

Lock-Bot, though, is an example of a product that is especially made for people who host living spaces on services such as AirBNB, but who may not have immediate access to that location, e.g., a second house or pied-à-terre. It can also be helpful for facilitating entry for guests who may arrive in the middle of the night after a late flight. The cylindrical device holds harmonically combines cellular, Wi-Fi and RFID. After a booking is confirmed, the renter is sent a code that is used to unlock the Lock-Bot, which opens to reveal a physical key attached to an RFID keychain. At the end of the rental, the renter returns the key to the Lock-Bot, which return notified the renter that the key has been returned.

Unfortunately, Lock-Bot, which has been slated to sell for about $80 (at least to backers)  didn’t come close to its $100,000 funding goal on Kickstarter. Its audience may be too small at this point to drive a successful campaign. However, Airbnb is now big enough that it could consider financing the product or something like it as an aid that could expand the audience for its service; the device could be rented or come free with a specified level of renting for its biggest income providers.

Indeed, according to a recent New York Times article, almost half of Airbnb’s $1.45 million in 2010 revenue in New York City came from hosts who had at least three listings on the site, according to New York State attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman. Even better for the company, it could lock in the device to its service via its own app to help protect against competition.

While Lock-Bot has been designed for housing providers, the concept could be applied to other sharing economy services — an add-on for garages that detects when a SideCar car has been returned or a bike and lock that includes GPS and cellular to notify when a Spinlister bike rental is starting or ending. As the cost of connectivity continues to drop, sharing economy companies will have increasing incentives to equip their customers with tools that make their members more competitive with centrally managed ways of accessing services.