A New Ride In Town

The Long Road towards a post-platform economy

I thought it would first happen in Germany, or at least in Europe, or maybe in an emerging economy where this kind of innovation goes usually way faster than in the Western world. But no, the very first ride hailing service made by and for the people was born in Uber’s home country, the US, and more precisely in Austin. The well-named Weird City might be the first one to start an initiative that could become the norm for Transportation Network Companies (TNC) within the next few years.

Screenshot from rideaustin.com — Ride Austin

RideAustin, a new competitor in Weird City

RideAustin is a Transportation Network Company created this spring in the city of Austin to fill the gap left by the main US ride-sharing competitors, Uber and Lyft. In fact, these two left the capital of Texas last May, after the city council decided they should verify their drivers’ criminal record by collecting fingerprint-based background checks. Despite the mass-lobbying to overturn the new law, which even led to a local referendum, the city of Austin maintained their decision and the two companies decided to leave the market.

The competitors quickly flourished : Fare, GetMe, Fasten and Wingz arrived on the Austin ride-hailing markets pretending to have a better service, fairer prices and fairer wages than the two exiled giants. Austin is very famous for its South by South West yearly festival, which gathers music, movies, pop culture and tech enthusiasts from all around the world. That’s a great opportunity to acquire visibility for all these new competitors. They can show their ability to be a reliable solution which could be exported to counter the monopolies of Lyft and particularly Uber. One of them distinguishes itself from the mass with a slight detail that might mean much : it is non-profit, community-focused.

RideAustin was founded by two Austin techies, Joe Liemandt, and Andy Tryba, CEO of Crossover. Thanks to donations and personal investments, it managed to release their app on iOS five weeks after the official launch and an Android version is under way. Even though it lacks the experience of other apps like GetMe, already active in a few US cities it insisted that from the beginning, Ride Austin would be different.

So how does it differ from the existing ride-hailing apps? Is that really a new kind of business or a marketing scam to acquire to so wanted Austinites’ hearts? Here is how it defines itself :

RideAustin is community-driven : it defines itself as such without actually proving it clearly. Of course anyone can join and is encouraged to become a driver, but there is no proof the community of riders have a say in the future developments of the app. Also, the app is apparently not open-source so the users can’t have access to the code to check, tweak or modify the functionnalities.

Another interesting step would be to make it community-driven by design, thanks to a technology that would decentralize the service completely. Maybe a technology like the blockchain could be the solution in that case, making all transactions accountable by the network, so that the service doesn’t need to have a central server to administrate it. That was the attempt of the Israeli startup LaZooz, a transportation network based on the blockchain which therefore really belongs to the community. I am not sure it is still active nowadays, but it didn’t seem to have met an audience (yet).

It is non-profit : all the money earned is split between the drivers and the company’s executive forces (development, etc). That remains to be seen but seems to be an early commitment of the company. A Kickstarter campaign might be underway.

It seems that RideAustin already has a competitor in the community drive vertical of ride hailing, the slightly older Arcade City. This app has launched in February of this year, known some difficulties and is about to re-launch very soon. It is based on the Blockchain, more precisely on Ethereum and it aspires to be the first “mainstream Ethereum company”. Samely, it plans to experiment its solution in Austin, where the demand for TNC is high because of the absence of the two main actors, Uber and Lyft…

In short, the fact that a major US city, with a customer base very close to the usual Western one, doesn’t have Uber makes it a very interesting playground for innovative experiments on ride-hailing services. Looking forward to see where these are going !

Indeed, there seems to be an urge in building alternatives to centralized platforms such as Uber, which now have a quasi monopoly with over one million drivers in the world in almost 500 cities. The last large competitor of Uber, Didi Chuxing, in China, has recently decided to purchase Uber China, although it’s not clear if we should talk of a purchase or of an alliance to dominate the difficult Chinese market.

Jeremy Rifkin, by Heinrich Böll Stiftung from Berlin, Deutschland, Foto by Stephan Röhl (Conference: Countdown to Copenhagen Jeremy Rifkin) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Rifkin’s dream

According to Jeremy Rifkin, a social theorist famous for its essays on the Third Industrial Revolution, and the more recent The Zero-Marginal Cost Society, the platform capitalism we have seen growing in the past few years will eventually be overcome by bottom-up, community-driven and decentralized initiatives, such as the ones we just described. In this perspective, markets will gradually be replaced by decentralized network of collaborations between citizens : the Collaborative Commons. It is still too soon to tell whether these initiatives will remain isolated experiments or actual game changers.

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