Let’s Talk About the Real ‘Taxi of Tomorrow’

I was exited this morning to get an email about the results from NYC’s “Taxi of Tomorrow” contest. Wow, I thought, that is so cool – NYC is holding contests about what taxis are going to be like in the future!

So I was a bit disappointed to click through to the results of the contest and realize that it was actually a survey about what features people in NYC like and don’t like in their cabs (that link is a PDF, btw).

E.g. should the ubiquitous backseat television stay or go? (spoiler: it should go).

Not quite what I was expecting.

Now I have to say kudos to the City for putting this survey on. They did an excellent job of discovering what residents like and want in their cabs, and will definitely be able to make a nextgen cab with a better user experience as a result. Great use of the web for crowdsourcing and surveying, and very useful results.

But any time you say “taxi of tomorrow”, that invites me to ask a lot of questions that go beyond physical characteristics of cars.

For starters:

– How can we encourage ridesharing between cab users, to reduce congestion and make the system more efficient? Can we do this with simple “taxi stands” like they have in some other cities? Can we do this with apps? Would those apps be city-run or privately operated? (And which works better: the high-tech or the low-tech approach?)

– How can we use live data to dynamically scale the fleet of taxis in a city according to demand and current usage? So that there are not so many times when tons of taxis are sitting around uselessly, and times when you can’t get a cab to save your life?

– How can we better distribute cabs to the places people actually need them, when they need them?

– How could we use open space in private cars already en route to some destination to act as a “just-in-time mesh cab fleet”, allowing people to catch rides from practically anyone, stretching the number of “cabs” to essentially infinity, decreasing the need for a dedicated cab fleet and reducing the overall number of cars on the road? (And the hard question: how could we do this in a safe, semi-regulated way?)

A lot of these questions are being grappled with in the open market as we speak by several young startups. Weeels, CabSense, CabCorner, Uber, and others are all working to optimize the taxi system in cities with tech innovations. And they’re betting that their innovations will pay off for them and for cities.

I think they will, and I think that what we think of as “taxis” will be a lot different from what it is now in the space of just a few years.

And as usual, I have ideas of my own on what is going to make this whole thing click into place and get traction, which would work as a nice little startup for a team of three or four. (If you want to talk to me about it, get in touch.)

So to me, the discussion about “taxis of tomorrow” is a very very big discussion. NYC made a good start with their survey, but they’re really just barely scratching the surface with the results.

And rather than considering it be the end of the discussion, we should consider it the beginning and let the conversation continue indefinitely. As it will naturally, of course.

[p.s. anyone working on innovating in this space should definitely read the results of the survey – while it doesn’t deal with the broader questions above, it does an excellent job of outlining what the residents of NYC like and don’t like about cab experiences. Great marketplace research for anyone with a product to launch or an idea to hone.]

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4 Responses to Let’s Talk About the Real ‘Taxi of Tomorrow’

  1. When I pass a bus stop full of people on a cold, wet, winter night and my car is empty, I wish my mobile would beep with a message: “a friend of cousin Jane is at the bus stop 110 yards ahead.”

    “How could we use open space in private cars already en route … (And the hard question: how could we do this in a safe, semi-regulated way?)”

    • JZ says:

      I think something could be set-up using Twitter by organizing a local subscriber list and have people use that to send transport status alerts.

      Dodgeball was a related mobile location-based software which came before Foursquare – http://www.nyu.edu/about/university-initiatives/entrepreneurship/nyu-ventures/case-studies/dodgeball.html

      Perhaps even a Foursquare transit that uses something along the lines of a FrontlineSMS.com and GroupMe.com-like mobile application might be a feasible model/concept to play with.

      I like the Twitter idea as far as convenience. I would like it if Twitter would organize an interest + location-themed format in the future that could help people connect & organize based on interest + location.

  2. JZ says:

    This recent MTA bus + GPS pilot http://openplans.org/civichacker/2011/02/01/openplans-puts-mta-bus-locations-online/ is interesting to think having applied to taxis…having a map of all taxis equipped with GPS and receiving location alerts via SMS (as an option) when you send a msg or signal to be alerted as “on” when in need.

    Two other links in relation to NYC taxis that are interesting:

  3. johngeraci says:

    JZ – I love that MTA project, which is done by Open Plans. It evolved out of an idea we floated on DIYcity, here: http://diycity.org/group/phone-tracker-development

    I think it would make great sense. May be a ways off still, but it’s great that the MTA and Open Plans are digging around on ways to make it happen.