Just as Napster transformed the music world, technology is now poised to revolutionize how we travel
By Jef Cozza
We’re often reminded that there is nothing new under the sun. While that may be true, technological advances have the potential to transform old practices so completely as to revolutionize the way we behave. Although people have likely been protesting since shortly after the first decision was made, Twitter is making it faster and easier for protest movements to organize, which reshaped the geopolitical landscape this year. Napster shifted content sharing from the world of mix tapes rattling around the bottom of our car seats to a threat to the established business models of major corporations. Developments in fertilizer and irrigation technology have transformed the 10,000 year old practice of agriculture into an industrialized economic sector.
Like these examples, carpooling is not a new idea. Indeed, the idea of splitting the cost of car travel seems to have appeared immediately following the introduction of Ford’s Model T. Rideshares or “Jitneys” spread rapidly from Los Angeles to Maine within nine months.
The benefits to carpooling (or ridesharing) are immediately obvious — the individual benefits from reduced travel costs, and society benefits from lower emissions and traffic congestion. The reason ridesharing hasn’t been more widely adopted (when not being actively discouraged by government policies) has usually come down to matters of convenience. How, exactly, does one go about finding a travelling companion who shares both your destination and your schedule? And if your plans should change unexpectedly, how does one find a new ride when you need to get somewhere in a hurry?
Technological Revolution — What Happened to Tapes?
The good news is that several new technologies are reducing the hassles associated with ridesharing at the same time that rising oil prices, tolls, and parking rates are making the cost-sharing benefits more attractive than ever.
To understand technology’s new effect on a hundred year old idea, it’s useful to think about how new tools have affected another long-standing practice. Like ridesharing, music swapping had been around for decades. Songs could be shared between networks of friends through the distribution of mix-tapes (later CDs). Songs could be recorded directly off the radio, an early form of “downloading.” Anyone with a VCR could record their favorite movies off HBO, Showtime, or Cinemax and copy them for friends.
But the limitations of analog media necessarily constrained these practices. Recording a video or song to tape from its original media might yield an acceptable, though inferior, copy. Trying to enjoy a copy of a copy of a copy, however, was impossible.
Then in the late nineties, the advent of digital media sharing services such as Napster quickly altered the landscape for media sharing. Suddenly, it was possible to make perfect copies of almost any form of media, which could then be shared not just with immediate friends and family, but people halfway around the world. We had gained access to the media libraries of practically anyone on the planet. Piracy, a minor annoyance to content producers in the seventies and eighties, became a significant concern.
New Tech & Ridesharing Apps to Give Ridesharing a Boost
Today, new social networking and communication technology stands poised to alter the transportation landscape in much the same way. Previously, when searching for carpool partners, we had access to only the itineraries of our immediate social network. With the advent of online social networks, the universe of potential carpool partners is fantastically expanded. Trying to find a ride to a concert halfway across the country might be difficult if your pool of partners is limited to your immediate family and friends. If that pool is expanded to 12,000 users in your metro area, prospects are considerably brighter.
Other technological advances are also reducing barriers to ridesharing. Amovens’ new iPhone app, for example, allows users to find ridesharing companions based on their current location.. anytime, anywhere. According to a recent study by MIT, “Rideshare services, specifically those with smart phone functionality that actively contact participants with potential matches, can significantly reduce the amount of time needed to establish a rideshare arrangement,” (“Real-Time Ridesharing: Exploring the Opportunities and Challenges of Designing a Technology-based Rideshare Trial for the MIT Community.” Amey A. et al, 2011.) User feedback and a rating system, similar to other tools employed by eBay and Amazon, provide an extra level of comfort and security.
And Games, Too…
In addition to lowering the barriers to ridesharing, technology also allows us to create new incentives to proactively encourage a shift in behavior by both drivers and passengers. ‘Gameification,’ the practice of using the mechanics of video games to make chores and other tasks more fun, is being adopted by a variety of services to encourage productive behavior and actions. At Amovens, we’ve adopted gameification strategies with a $25 gift card award to drivers who agree to use our site to help take passengers home during the holiday season. Although this sort of promotion likely would have been impossible to coordinate in the past, the near ubiquity of internet activity now makes it easy for us to verify rideshares and reward users for adopting more sustainable practices.
Ridesharing Set for Prime Time
All of this is contributing to the perfect storm we’re currently seeing in the ridesharing sector. The costs of single-occupancy transportation are increasing due to higher oil prices, tolls, and longer-distance commutes, while technology is making it easier than ever to lower the barriers to carpooling.
There are many who remain skeptical of the long-term sustainability of ridesharing as a common practice. But ridesharing is just one example within the larger trend of consumers switching to more cooperative, technology-enabled behavior. Once upon a time, we all insisted on owning our own copies of CDs, DVDs, and books. Nowadays, we tend to share these resources online with a broad community. Even hard assets that can’t be digitally copied, such as apartments and houses, are now proving easy to share through sites such as Airbnb.
As communication technology has progressed, our society has shifted from a sole-proprietorship model (everyone owns their own car, DVD collection, apartment) to a more communal, open-ownership model, in which asset-holders rent out or lend their assets to others. This shift represents a more efficient use of resources, whether they be media libraries, housing, or automobiles. We expect commuting and car travel will take its place in the broader context of shared-assets.
Jef Cozza is the director of Amovens USA. Amovens is the premier ridesharing and carpooling website for companies, universities, and local governments.