The Fuse

Can Google’s New Ride-Sharing Service Support Old-Fashioned Carpooling?

by Matt Piotrowski | September 02, 2016

Another major announcement occurred this week in the automobile and tech spaces. Tech giant Google is launching a ride-sharing service this fall that will allow commuters in San Francisco to link up with each other to essentially carpool together. Participants would use the Waze app—which Google has acquired and provides real-time traffic information—to connect with the other drivers who are headed in the same direction at the same time.

Google’s experiment, if it takes off and spreads beyond San Francisco, is another approach that could go a long way in weeding out inefficiencies in our transportation system.

This service would be unlike Uber and Lyft since they operate more like taxi services. The difference between Google’s plans and what the others offer is crucial. Uber and Lyft rely on drivers who pick up customers and take them to their destinations. The Google plan is for everyday commuters to carry others in their vehicles, which would cost less for passengers and provide financial incentives for drivers to pick up others. Press reports have, for the most part, framed Google’s foray into the ride-sharing space as Uber versus Google. But perhaps more importantly, this experiment, if it takes off and spreads beyond San Francisco, is another approach that could go a long way in weeding out inefficiencies in our transportation system. The service could make old-fashioned carpooling more attractive and ultimately cut fuel use.

“Our transportation system is incredibly inefficient at utilizing private vehicles, which lie idle over 95% of the time,” said Amitai Bin-Nun, Director of Autonomous Vehicle Initiative at Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE). “Using connectivity to coordinate trips has a real potential to increase occupancy and reduce congestion.”

Google’s program to get people to carpool isn’t earth-shattering by any means, but the inefficiencies in the U.S. transportation sector are well documented, so any approach to address the situation is a positive. Besides vehicles idling most of the time, cars carry only 1.6 passengers per trip, more than three-fourths of Americans drive to work alone, and less than 10 percent carpool.

commuting

With oil prices remaining weak for the past couple of years, gasoline demand hit record levels in June and consumers are back to buying large, less fuel-efficient vehicles. The fact that Google’s move into ride-sharing relies on the Waze app is significant—Waze gathers traffic information from people’s cell phones to allow users to make trips more efficient. “For years, Waze has established a trusted community of drivers, with millions of Wazers helping each other beat traffic on the fastest routes,” the company said. “Since so many people are already using Waze to get to work, why not help a fellow commuter heading in the same direction.”

It will be key if Google and Waze end up bringing about healthy competition in the carpool space and help the idea gain more traction. Other carpooling services, such as Ride and Scoop, have popped up on a regular basis. Via, a start-up that began in 2013 in New York and is now targeting other cities, has secured high levels of financing and has lofty ambitions for carpooling through its services to compete with public transportation.

Ride-sharing services & autonomous cars

Google’s plan does not necessarily fit into the self-driving narrative, but it will help with getting people comfortable with sharing cars.

Google’s plan does not necessarily fit into the self-driving narrative, but it will help with getting people comfortable with sharing cars. Uber Pool—when riders split the cost of a trip with those heading in the same direction—already does that to some extent, but again it’s a taxi service and not passengers sharing their own cars. Down the road, however, driverless vehicles may eventually fit into the program Google is setting up. “Since, in the future, driverless cars might both be shared and privately owned, privately owned driverless cars might well fit into a carpooling-type system,” said SAFE’s Bin-Nun.

Both Google and Uber are pushing aggressively into the autonomous space. Last week, Uber launched a driverless fleet in Pittsburgh and has partnered with Volvo to develop autonomous cars. Google, meanwhile, has a self-driving project and has tested autonomous vehicles on public roads. It has also partnered with Fiat Chrysler for the testing and deployment of driverless minivans.

It will be interesting to see if Google’s program can scale to everyday usage better than Uber’s model, which is more expensive, as it relies on semi-professional drivers.

For Uber, it has more of an incentive to market self-driving cars for its fleet since the company is running at a loss and its biggest costs come from paying its drivers, who are largely working for the platform part-time, supplementing their main income with the ride-hailing service. For Google, the move to autonomy isn’t as necessary for its ride-sharing service since it doesn’t have a driver to pay.

It will be interesting to see if Google’s program can scale to everyday usage better than Uber’s model, which is more expensive, as it relies on semi-professional drivers.

 

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