The Car Re-Imagined as a Personal Transportation Assistant

When Uber announced that it was going to introduce driverless cars in Pittsburg last month my first reaction was WTF? Investing in driverless cars is the complete antithesis of what made Uber successful in the first place. Their original model gave them great flexibility to rapidly expand into new markets and quickly provide peak demand service and then dial it back during low demand with no major capital outlay on Uber’s part. If they decide to field any vehicles, even in a hybrid situation with drivers filling in during peak demand they are still going to change their fundamental model from a low capital dynamic with high margins to a capital heavy company with low margins. Did they really want to go that direction? Why would their investors want them to go that direction? Would Airbnb decide they could make more money by building their own hotels? The disruptive nature of the Uber and Airbnb models is the fact that they can connect Other People’s Capital (OPC) with customers with minimal cost on their part. To do anything else seemed like going backwards.

Then it hit me. They could still use OPC to accomplish their goals. In fact their goals go way beyond just providing personal transportation. They were on their way to becoming a company that would enable individuals to own and manage their own Personal Transportation Assistants. Basically, having their own Chauffeur.

What does that mean? If you watched Downtown Abbey you would know that Tom, the Irish boy who starts out being a driver but ends up being a key member of the family, didn’t just drive the Earl and his family around, he also ran errands, watched over lady Sybil, and eventually helped manage the estate. If the cook needed something for the night’s dinner he would dash into town. The cook or the Earl need not go with him. He was perfectly capable of running into town and fetching produce for the cook or packages and mail. And while at it running by the train station and picking up the Dowager Duchess on her way back from London. He could run all these errands while the Earl sat in his library and read his paper or went on a walkabout on the estate grounds. He could trust Tom to take care of things.

Smart phones as personal assistants are already old news. One might think that the next logical step is robot butlers, but that one is still incubating. The driverless car however is here. And it represents a service that would probably be more useful to a greater number of people. Granted a robot butler would be great but unlike the Earl of Grantham I don’t really need someone to help me dress, and ironing the morning paper has gone the way of the rotary dial phone. But someone to pick up my dry cleaning, that would be handy.

Here is a short story about how a couple in the future might use their Apple Car (written by — Michael Schmidt —

A Day in the Life of an Apple Car User


. . .

I wake up. My girlfriend is already up.

We meet in the bathroom.

While brushing my teeth, I check my phone.

I check my calendar. First entry at nine. A conference call.

We check hers. Meeting at nine.

The Car app pops up with a suggestion of the departure time. 8:20.

Her office is 30 minutes away, mine only four. We decide to go together. I will have my conference call in the car on the way back.

We quickly prepare breakfast and go to get ready.

We’re a little late, so our car is already waiting at the front door.

The door slides open and we jump in.

We eat together at the table and discuss the day, making plans for dinner.

We are not sure when we will get out of the office in the evening.

We decide to talk in the afternoon, and ask Siri to set a reminder for both of us.

It’s 8:55 when we arrive at her office. Just in time. She leaves, I stay.

At 9, I dial in to my conference call and take notes on my iPad.

I arrive at the office at 9:25 and my conference call is still on. I stay in the car, but there’s no parking space available. The car takes a few more spins around the block.

I hang up and wait to exit. Send another text.

I jump out and enter the office.

. . .

Before lunch I get a notification from the Car app. My girlfriend has sent it to pick up a parcel at the DHL packing station that just arrived. It’s an array of shoes she want to try for the wedding we plan in the summer.

. . .

In the afternoon I get my reminder to call her.

We talk and decide that she will be picked up first and then come take me home.

I set the pick-up in the Car app to 6:30 pm.

I see that our car is currently recharging in the sun and already at 72%. The parcel is on board.

. . .

She send me a text that she’s on her way. It’s 6:30 and I’m finishing my last phone call of the day.

I pack my bag for the flight the next day and go down to the street a little early.

I cross the street and take a short walk across the park.

On the other side I wait for her.

A few minutes later, the car arrives and I jump in. She has already tried on one pair of white wedding shoes.

We decide to pick up take-out Sushi and go there. It’s a matter of seconds and we take the first bite while still in the car.

As we get home it starts to rain.

The car lets us out at the front door and then pulls around the side to park itself.

(by — Michael Schmidt)

. . .

This is what a typical suburban couple might experience. Other variations might include a townhouse complex where included in the home owners fees is access to a small stable of driverless cars that can be scheduled by homeowners to run errands and pick up groceries or dry cleaning. Or maybe a retirement home that provides access to elderly clients to go out shopping and visit their children.

Not all of the scenarios involve Uber or Google or Lyft actually owning the cars. However the Homeowners Association or the retirement home could have contracts in place with Uber to provide excess capacity services when too many requests come in and there are schedule conflicts. And vice versa, a person who is gone for a big chunk of the day or out of town could lease their spare capacity out. Uber would simply provide the overall management and possibly even maintenance services. You could still own your own vehicle or you could belong to a co-op that provides an array of different vehicles for different purposes. Need an all wheel drive for the weekend run to the mountains. One will be parked and waiting for you bright and early Saturday morning. No need to go down to the Avis counter and fill out paper work and drive it back home to load it up. Instead of being lucky to leave by noon you are on your way at the crack of dawn. With a full tank to boot. This is actually a concept that car rental companies are seriously looking at right now.

Uber and Lyft would remain car sharing services, although they may also own a core selection of vehicles, they would primarily be a means of sharing ownership of high value assets within a group or groups. This would mean that people who could not afford to own and maintain a car could have access to a much nicer car than they would otherwise be able to afford. Or they may choose to simply not own a car at all but subscribe to the service.

Even within one family, two or three cars could be replaced with one that is simply managed via a smartphone app that handles scheduling and a sharing service, Google Chauffeur© (part of the Google Concierge© suite of applications), that keeps up to date maps and manages the route control and allows the car owner to rent out unused time.

Now I just need that robot butler to go down to the wine cellar and fetch a bottle of the 1959 Margaux that I bought with the proceeds from renting out the Bentley while I was away on the Continent. Walking is such a bother any more.

1959 Margaux