The Future of Transportation.. today.

crystal-ballI’ve been thinking about what Google looks like in five years. At a macro level, they have detailed information on every event, flight, hotel, and traffic, what could they do? Or at a micro level, they have the same information on more and more people plus detailed geo-data with our personal trackers.. er.. phones, what could they do?

But recently, I realized I’m thinking much too small..

I look at my 9 month old son and realize he may never own a car. I don’t mean “he lives in NYC or DC, so he doesn’t need a car” but where he never owns a car no matter what city he chooses.

Let’s start with where we are today:

We have to get somewhere, we call a car (Uber, Lyft). The first benefit is obvious: we don’t need to worry about parking, gas, and all the other things that go along with driving. A second order benefit is that drunk driving immediately drops. In cities with these services, drunk driving arrests have dropped anywhere from 20-60% according to The Daily Beast and CNBC. Less drunk driving means less accidents and less fatalities.

Taking one step:

If I know where you are (phone), where you need to be (calendar), how to get there (maps), and how long it will take (traffic), the system can figure out when and where to send the car to get you there in time. Eventually, being late becomes less common and some drivers are less stressed and distracted. As a result, accidents become less common and being late becomes more rare.

I used to think this was 2-3 years away. Then last week, I tried to combine the Google Calendar and Uber APIs. Despite zero experience with the Uber API, in about five hours, I was able to build a script to read my calendar and schedules rides accordingly.

This code is ugly and should not be used in production. There are a ton of hacks and bad assumptions – hardcoded OAuth tokens, a static starting address, etc – and it should be a mobile app anyway. This is merely a proof of concept to show what can be accomplished in an evening or two. What could a good team do in a week?

Taking the next step:

Once we consider self-driving cars – Business Insider predicts 10 million by 2019 – things change again.Early studies show self-driving vehicles are safer and more consistent, so less accidents and less fatalities. All of these result in less emergency services. Even when there are accidents, updates can reroute you around them.

The cars could automatically pick up the kids from soccer practice without us having to do a thing. In fact, why not have the car responsive to the kids’ calendar too?

Taking the next step:

Think of your car now: what percentage of the time is it idle sitting in a garage or parking space? On a per-hour-of-usage basis, it’s probably one of the most expensive items you own. Fractional ownership may make sense, but why own the car at all? Does it make sense for Google, Uber, or Apple to own it instead?

But what are the implications?

Currently your commute requires your complete attention, but once we can reclaim it for something else, that opens a world of possibilities. Are you willing to take a longer commute for the bigger house, bigger yard, or catch the end of your favorite show? People already stay in their cars to listen to that last bit of their podcast or radio show, so that last one isn’t far fetched.

Unfortunately, many cities consider speeding tickets as revenue via quotas. As a segment of the population uses vehicles which follow the law 100% of the time, those same quotas will still apply to shrinking population who still drive. Verbal warnings will disappear.

Finally, we have a huge mismatch:

  • software developers think in terms of weeks and months;
  • hardware developers think in terms of months and years; and
  • civil engineers think in terms of decades.

As these groups interact more and more, how do they handle the different planning horizons? How do city planners take advantage of these improvements even for people who don’t have them?

When I first started down this line of reasoning, I believed we were a few years away from auto summoning cars based on your calendar and as much as ten years away from the more complex concepts.

Now I realize the only thing between here and there.. is a great user experience.

Update: The one and only Grumpy Programmer (aka Chris Hartjes) has written a response to this one called “The War on Driving.” Check it out!