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Madison's controversy over ride^sharing apps is only the start
There's a spirited debate going on in Madison and cities all over America about new smartphone apps that act like cab services. The traditional cab companies make a case that the apps unfairly compete with the heavily regulated cab industry, although you could also argue that the same regulations reduce competition.
Wherever you come down on that debate, we ain't seen nothin' yet. It's not hard to imagine a world where cabs are everywhere while cabbies (and their Uber and Lyft driver competitors) go the way of coopers and cobblers.
Those apps are one-third of a trifecta that could change the driving world and, well, just the world. It seems almost inevitable that these order-a-car-online apps will be combined with car sharing and driverless cars to revolutionize how we get around.
The apps and car sharing, like Madison's Community Car or the national Zipcar service, are already here. Driverless cars are coming. Google is testing the technology on the roads of California and Nevada, and Nissan recently announced that it will have a production model ready for anyone to buy by 2020.
It's not hard to imagine a future where nobody has to own a car. You would just use your smartphone to order one, and it would arrive at your front door ready to take you safely wherever you want to go. The car drops you at your destination and moves on to the next customer.
This could be the mother of all disruptive technologies. Let's consider some of the implications.
It would make driving (and biking and walking) much safer. The technology can respond to an impending crash a whole lot faster than a human driver can. And the technology never drives drunk, never drives while fumbling with its cell phone and never gets overcome with road rage.
It would be great for cities. One estimate is that a third of American cities are taken up by parking spaces. Imagine the increase in value and the improvement in urban life without all that wasted, ugly space. In this light, Madison should rethink its plan to build an incredibly expensive 1,200-car parking ramp as part of the Judge Doyle Square project. The city could find its very expensive investment without customers to pay back the bonds that finance it over the next two decades.
It would be positive for mobility. We are a rapidly aging society, with all the infirmities that come with it. Google has put out a YouTube video in which an older man enjoys a drive through his neighborhood to get a drive-in taco. Spoiler alert: At the end of the video you find out that the man is legally blind.
It would be good for the environment. If I drive my car, on average, an hour a day, then I'm using it just 4% of the time. The other 96% it just sits in my driveway or in a parking lot. It's an incredible waste of resources, both in terms of all the resources that went into building the vehicle itself and in terms of the space taken up for car parking. Because driverless cars would be in use virtually all day long, they would be a much more efficient use of resources. And because the cars would be owned by companies that had entire fleets, they would have maximum incentive to make those cars as energy-efficient as possible.
It would be good for productivity. In Wisconsin the average worker spends about 40 minutes a day commuting to and from work. That time is pretty much wasted. With the driverless car you could read a book, catch up on email, maybe even get a little exercise on your way to work.
So what's the downside? It would be terrible for some jobs. Not just cabbies, but bus drivers, parking lot attendants, trial lawyers, insurance company executives and workers, body shop specialists, and probably a lot more would see their jobs disappear. It's wrong to be glib about this, but the truth is that every disruptive technology eliminates some jobs while it creates others. It wasn't so long ago when "key punch operator" had the longest listing in the want ads. I asked a young coworker about that. He had never heard of key punch operators...or want ads.
And then there's the cultural question. For some Americans, they'll stop driving when you pry the wheel from their cold, dead hands. But much of that is generational. Today, about one in four 19-year olds doesn't have a driver's license, up from just 8% in 1978. If the driverless car takes hold, actually driving your own car would be a dangerous waste of time and resources. It would probably eventually become just way too expensive. But it doesn't matter too much. If there will always be some selfdriven cars in the mix, we'll still be much safer and better off if driverless cars are the norm.
We can wring our hands over Uber and Lyft all we want. But they are just a hint of what's coming at us, and fast.
It's not hard to imagine a future where nobody has to own a car.
DAVE CIESLEWICZ IS THE FORMER MAYOR OF MADISON. HE BLOGS AS CITIZEN DAVE AT THEDAILYPAGE.COM.