Uber and the remaking of the carpool paradigm
The story is familiar by now. After experiencing success in important markets, Uber initiates operations in a new city. Regulatory and legal discussions abound, exposing the obsolescence of the applicable legal frameworks in resolving the matter.
Despite the noise, users in the city begin to flock to the app, citing decades of taxis’ poor service, high cost and unreliability. The taxi companies get upset (and sometimes, violent) before predictably losing sizeable amounts of their drivers to Uber itself. As a revolutionary technology disseminates, the perennial genie is out of the bottle.
Disputes concerning competition, ethics and business practices in this realm are not going away anytime soon. But there is a more pressing phenomenon involved in this shift.
With all of their implications and controversies, ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are transforming a culture of car ownership that has dominated most societies for a century.
Much is being said about the development of self-driving cars without acknowledging a conceptual baseline for their viability: technology firms have already reached the critical mass to provide “subscription” carpool services for users on a daily or regular route, at least in densely populated areas.
More attention should be paid to this trend, for the following reasons.
Step in the shoes of millions of young professionals struggling with stagnant wages, high rents and a cost of living unknown to their parents.
Would you want to be miserable behind the wheel of a cost-intensive car in mind-numbing traffic, or make a better use of your time as a passenger? If a train or bus is not a convenient option in your location, why not commute in the comfort of a subscription vehicle? You might have the same driver all days, or different ones on different days. You might make friends with the other people in the car, or request that you ride in a “quiet” or “work” car if you don’t want to be bothered.
The automotive industry is already adapting to next-generation carpooling in addition to self-driving cars, understanding that such approaches will be crucial for their continued relevance in circumstances where typical buyers might not want to own a car. Furthermore, the infrastructure built for motor vehicles is already saturated in many urban areas throughout the world, and additional investment in public transit alone will not be enough to tackle growing levels of congestion.
By incentivizing a higher number of passengers per individual vehicle, the large-scale inefficiency of thousands of driver-only cars covering similar routes would be reduced, particularly during peak traffic hours. Mitigating congestion and pollution in roads and highways, fleets of on-demand motor vehicles with regular or semi-regular routes would become more sustainable counterparts to mass transit networks.
Existing public transportation options tend to lack proper or orderly coverage in many cities, and often operate at a net loss, provided massive costs or logistical hurdles do not curtail their construction, maintenance or expansion.
With the economic benefits of better-organized commuting on surface roads and highways, the mathematics of ridership, costs and value-added for public transit could also change.
Rethinking rail and bus services as important complements to an optimized use of motor vehicles should become a comprehensive strategy for policy makers, users and transportation planners worldwide.
Instead of hastily condemning change and technological disruption in transportation, societies should address the structural conditions that lead to such conflicts in the first place. Vehicular innovations have been historically essential to improving our mobility, productivity and quality of life.
When the present state of transportation results in the complete opposite, bureaucratic and entrenched interests will falter in delivering feasible solutions by themselves.
As we prepare for the advent of self-driving cars, optimized carpooling is the closest thing to a logical, necessary and realistic transition. Maybe sharing is caring, after all.