Johnny Cab

by Dave Michels

What seemed far fetched just a few years ago is on the fast track toward reality. I’m speaking about Johnny Cab.

Johnny Cab - Total Recall (1990)
Johnny Cab – Total Recall (1990)

In the movie Total Recall, Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) jumps into a driver-less taxi known as “Johnny Cab.” To make it feel like it has a driver, the taxi has an ornamental robot figure named Johnny that interacts with the passengers. Of course, Johnny ends-up being reduced to a pile of wires, but that’s not the point.

Driver-less cars are coming, and boy the impact is going to be big. On the plus side, driverless cars make things more efficient. Think of how many resources are consumed with garages, parking lots, deliveries. For example, when I travel, I drive to the airport and park my car then ride a bus to the terminal. My car sits unused for the duration of the trip. A driverless car could take me directly to the terminal and return home becoming available for other family members.

Driverless cars will also  be safer. That’s the goal. Today, we rely heavily on our eyes to drive safely. But realistically, a car can have hundreds of “eyes” and other sensors. Today, we “signal” visually. A turn signal can mean an intent to turn or that it was accidentally left on, but computer-cars could communicate exact intent. The empty spaces between cars could effectively be eliminated.

The downside is the impact to the economy. In my little example above, my efficiency means less need for parking lots (pavers, painters, pay attendants, buses, and bus drivers), as well as probably less need for a secondary car. It actually goes much deeper than the car, the following jobs would be severely impacted:

  • Taxi and limo drivers, gone.
  • Bus drivers, gone.
  • Truck drivers, gone.
  • Parking lots, traffic cops, traffic courts, gone.
  • Fewer doctors and nurses will be needed to treat injuries.
  • Pizza (and other food) delivery drivers, gone.
  • Mail delivery drivers, gone.
  • FedEx and UPS delivery jobs, gone.
  • As people shift from owning their own vehicles to a transportation-on-demand system, the total number of vehicles manufactured will also begin to decline.

What prompted this post was some recent news from Google and Uber. Uber is already disrupting the taxi industry with mobile-hailing. Taxis, like local telecom, are regulated by the Public Utilities Commission. The PUC sets rates and often supply (the number of taxis permitted in the city). The logic is to prevent the taxis from charging exorbitant rates in situations of scarcity. Chartered cars (often known as limousines) are not considered taxi’s though they provide a near identical service. The distinction lies in the hail – chartered cars have to be booked in advance. It’s a flimsy distinction, that’s become pointless with mobile phones.

At Enterprise Connect, the Gaylord Palms does not allow taxi’s. They have a queue of town cars they treat like taxi’s. I have no idea how they get away with this. Most places are pretty strict about taxi’s being on demand. You can’t hail a town-car – at least you couldn’t. Uber is out to change all this. Uber allows passengers to prebook on-demand. The app not only shows the GPS/availability of cars in the area, but also shows feedback scores and handles payment (eliminating cash). I tried Uber in San Francisco – it was easy, cheap, and a far nicer experience than a taxi.

Uber is getting chased out of town by the taxi lobby in various cities. It is a direct attack on their livelihood, and could make the coveted medallion a paper-weight. Uber is fighting the PUC in city after city – sometimes winning and sometimes not. Though the passengers are on its side – their nice sleek luxury cars, feedback system, electronic payment, and formally dressed drivers are providing a very different experience. Uber recently went out for funding, and guess who showed up?

Google made a $258 billion investment into Uber. yes, that’s a lot of money for anyone, but it also represents 86% of the Google Ventures annual investment fund of $300 million. It’s also a ton of money for Uber – why would they need so much? That became evident very quickly. The other shoe dropped just three days later . Uber announced it intends to purchase 2500 driverless cars from Google. Additionally, the data that Uber collects managing a fleet of driverless cars will be shared with Google for ongoing software improvements. Uber thinks it can have driverless cars running later this year, and in up to 10 markets by the end of 2014.

Two and half years ago, Google put its first cars on the street. The GX3200 is the newest model, a four-seater, all-electric car with room for luggage. It includes all the features a passenger might expect including Wi-Fi network. It can travel 750 miles on a single charge, and of course knows where to find charging stations.

The taxi lobby isn’t going to like this one bit. As taxi services are dropping, at least some drivers are switching to Uber. Current Uber drivers aren’t supporters of the move either.

We crossed a line sometime around 2000 where new forms of automation began eliminating jobs faster than creating new ones. It seems to be a permanent shift with huge ramifications that few, if any, understand.

Perhaps it is time to shorten the work week? Perhaps it is time to insist on low tech? Unsure what the correct response it, but driverless car will represent a huge shift. Ironically, one of the benefits of them is increased productivity  – work in the car instead of driving it. Just what we don’t need.