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What Uber & Lyft Say About the Future of Transportation

by Chris Poindexter

Our transportation options, which have been relatively stable for over a hundred years, are currently undergoing a major transition. Traditionally there have been private conveyances and public transportation — and rarely did the two ever converge. Today the lines between public and private are starting to blur, and exactly what comes out of this process of change on the other end is not entirely clear at this point… but there are some clues.

Technology is rushing headlong into transportation, threatening to undermine the stable, cozy relationship we’ve developed with our cars over a span of generations. One potentially-massive disruptive technology is self-driving cars. While today, totally self-driving cars are reserved for an elite few at Google and a handful of automotive development shops, you can go out today and buy a car that can maintain speed and lane position on the highway and automatically apply the brakes to avoid accidents. The first tentative steps toward cars driving themselves are already sitting in showrooms across the nation.

Technology is also changing our options for public transportation. Customers are flocking to two competing services, Uber and Lyft, that allow people with cars to connect to people who need a ride. The companies screen both driver and passenger to a limited degree, and make the whole process of getting from point A to point B a cashless transaction. When you order a car through Uber or Lyft, the credit card you have on file is billed automatically, so there’s no money being passed back and forth on the spot.

Imagine your car out picking up rides and making money by itself while you’re at the office…

Compare that to the experience of taking a cab. Even though cabs all have credit card capability today, I’ve never been in a cab where the driver didn’t communicate clearly, by either attitude or word, that taking plastic was a major inconvenience. Although a few cab companies are experimenting with smartphone apps and technology, very few are advertising those options. Checking the websites of several larger taxi companies serving our local area did not yield any that were advertising smartphone apps.

Uber and Lyft provide driver and passenger with real-time data on each other’s location, and provide photos of the driver and passenger to one another. There’s no waiting around outside in a bad part of town, and no hailing cabs from the street, which like putting up a sign advertising that you have cash and you’re from out of town.

With the new ride-sharing technologies threatening both established business interests and public transportation, it’s no surprise ride-sharing companies have come under attack from state and local regulators. In June, Uber was ordered to cease operations in Virginia until the company receives proper authorization to do business in the state. Cities across the nation are still coming to grips with the new services, and both Uber and Lyft have started supplying additional liability coverage for riders in an effort to placate regulatory concerns.

Uber, which gets its backing from Google, has reacted aggressively, hiring top lobbyists in several major metropolitan areas. Both companies maintain they’re not cab companies and shouldn’t be regulated like cabs; which puts them at odds with actual cab companies, which are regulated by taxi commissions in many areas. It doesn’t help that, in many cases, catching a lift with either Uber or Lyft is more convenient and usually less expensive than taking a cab. The resentment and resistance is almost guaranteed to continue.

Cabs, Uber, Lyft, buses, and trains themselves all may run headlong into the future of driverless cars, which will equally threaten all of them. Imagine your car out picking up rides and making money by itself while you’re at the office, and you get an idea of the possibilities. While ridesharing services can be seen as disruptive to the status quo, driverless cars will be disruptive to our entire view of transportation — and the threat to the status quo will evolve to include auto manufacturers and car dealerships.

Younger people are driving the new trends and already changing their relationship with transportation, buying fewer cars and putting off getting their drivers licenses. It may be too soon to pronounce America’s love affair with cars over, but it’s definitely riding shotgun in the hospice minivan.

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