There's a spirited debate going on right now about new smart phone-based services that operate in ways similar to taxis. As Isthmus has reported, the traditional taxi companies make the case that Lyft and Uber unfairly compete with their heavily regulated industry, although you could also argue that those regulations reduce competition. But wherever you come down on that debate, you ain't seen nothin' yet.
It's not hard to imagine a world where cabs are everywhere while cabbies (and their Lyft and Uber driver competitors) go the way of coopers and cobblers. Those ride services are one-third of a trifecta that could change driving, and well, just the world. It seems almost inevitable that these order-a-car-apps will be combined with car sharing and driverless cars to revolutionize how we get around.
Lyft and Uber just arrived, while the locally based Community Car and the national Zipcar sharing services have been in Madison for years. Driverless cars are coming, and fast. Google is has been testing the technology on the roads for several years, and has now designed its own self-driving vehicle (watch a video). Meanwhile, Nissan announced last August 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 smart phone to order one (pick the make, color and features you like) and it would arrive at your front door ready to take you safely wherever it is you want to go. En route you can text or email all you want. The car drops you at your destination and then moves on to the next customer.
Cab drivers wouldn't be the only profession to be impacted or all but eliminated. So long to the UPS man too, though those guys will probably be replaced by drones even sooner.
Your friendly State Farm agent could be gone as well. Insurance companies want to reduce risk, but not eliminate it. After all, if there is no risk, there is no need to buy insurance. If driverless cars reduce crashes by 90%, you can bet that insurance companies will see a similar decline in their business.
Alongside the insurance industry will be trial lawyers, both those who file personal injury suits and those who defend against them, will see their workloads plummet.
With far fewer collisions, body shops will all but disappear.
But it's not likely to stop there. When you think about it, the driverless car will make owning a car unnecessary and maybe even prohibitively expensive.
Look at it this way. If I drive my car an hour a day, on average, then I'm using it just 4% of the time. The other 96% of the time it just sits in my driveway or in a parking lot. It's an incredible waste of resources, both in terms of the vehicle itself and in terms of the space taken up for car parking. One estimate is that a third of American cities are taken up by parking spaces. Imagine the long-term increase in property values, the improvement in urban design and an increase in overall quality of 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.
This could be the mother of all disruptive technologies. But the advantages are overwhelming in the potential for dramatically reduced injuries and deaths from car crashes, better mobility for people who can't drive now (check out this video by Google on that subject), more efficient use of resources, and healthier, more vibrant cities.
Viewed in this light, all the controversy over a couple of smart phone apps really won't amount to much. They are merely an initial ripple presaging a much bigger wave.