The future role of carpooling

With recent technological advancements, many solutions have been put forward as to shape mobility in the future. Ubiquitous flying cars and driverless cars are only some of the far-reaching predictions made by an emerging mobility industry and amplified by the press and social media. New paradigms are likely to emerge.

These advancements have not only led to concepts of improved vehicles and new concepts, but also to a higher level of collaboration. Timetables have been the communication instrument for collaboration between supply and demand in public transportation services. For taxis, particularly, collaboration is supported by visual communication and phone calls. But ride hailing services such as Uber have disrupted this traditional form of collaboration in mobility, by overlapping supply and demand in real time through a mobile app and offering a seamless experience in payment. This disruption opens a wide range of further possibilities for collaboration in mobility and a particular type of supply/demand collaboration have the potential to boost in the future: Carpooling.

A huge amount of capacity in the private car usage system is lost. Private car occupancy ranges from 1,2 to 1,8 in cities where peak traffic is a burden to everyone. So, an average of more than 2 free seats in each car is available to improve the efficiency of the mobility system in dense cities. Imagine how inefficient it would be to generate twice the electricity consumption in any country or city. In a simple math, doubling car occupancy within those that already use the car system would mean halving the number of cars in roads: a mobility congestion free utopia.

How to put into use this lost capacity? The concept of carpooling is as old as car itself. It is now based on apps, but unlike ride-hailing, it has failed so far to take off as an alternative mobility option within cities, despite the effort of some start-ups.

Waze Carpool is the recent attempt from Google to develop this space. But while ride-hailing business model provides a clear economic incentive to the supply (drivers), this is not the case in carpooling. There is a difference between individual and collective incentives and the former always do a better job at changing behaviour.

Matching supply and demand in time and route is another obstacle to carpooling. But this can be overcome if the supply comprises more than just one carpool for one trip. In other words, if someone trying to rely on carpooling to get from A to B, unable to find a driver that would go from A to B at a particular time, would indeed find a carpooling driver that will go from A to C, and then another that would go from C to B shortly after arriving to C. Or find a carpooling scheme with 3 legs, A to C, C do D and D to B, and so forth.

Going from real time mobility information to predictive mobility information is key to advanced mobility solutions. Digitalization of mobility, big data and internet of things play a crucial role in the development of algorithms that predict mobility patterns. And predictive mobility information can the missing building block for an efficient multi-leg carpooling model, taking carpooling to the tipping point.

Although technology plays a crucial role, individual incentives must also be an ingredient for the success of carpooling in the mobility system. Marginal cost split (fuel, maintenance and toll), used in most apps, doesn’t seem to suffice to offset lack of privacy and convince many drivers to carpool. Carpooling lanes in congested commuting roads help. But it is possible to extend incentives, and for example, in a world where cars have to pay the true cost of road infrastructure construction and maintenance, it makes sense to offer exemptions or reductions to cars set to carpooling, that is, whose seat capacity is put to “public” use to improve mobility, just as public transportation does. In other words, cars which are not engaged to carpooling would have to pay a high infrastructure cost to use the roads.

Now imagine carpooling reaches the tipping point. A supply of carpooling drivers, available to stop at any point of their trip to carry passengers within their route, without any detour. There is enough supply at any time for the carpooling demand to consider a fast multi-leg carpooling trip from A to B, at a very low cost. Pick-up and drop-off for carpooling exchanges becomes so ubiquitous in the road landscape that cities have to consider changes in road design to transform curbing space into dedicated carpooling hubs, so as to mitigate interference in traffic flow and to assure safety. Carpooling is integrated in Mobility as a Service platforms and becomes part of multi-modal seamless trips.

Cannibalisation of public transportation services would be inevitable. But positive changes in the public transportation system would also be possible. With a successful carpooling system, fewer cars are necessary to carry the same number of passengers and road space to could be reallocated from cars to public transportation or cycling lanes. As to ride-hailing, will the disruptor get disrupted?