Tech Opinion

Wednesday, 6 May 2015 | MYT 10:16 AM

Why the taxi industry shouldn’t be Uber-confident

EVOLUTIONARY UBER: Uber is the beginning of a change that is impossible to resist. — AFP

EVOLUTIONARY UBER: Uber is the beginning of a change that is impossible to resist. — AFP

By Christian Raetzsch

Recently five colleagues and I participated in the IBM Brussels Smarter Cities Challenge. The objective of the challenge was to help local government solve mobility issues.  

During our stay there, we saw how “disruptive” the social taxi service Uber can be. Angry taxi drivers blocked the streets around the European parliament, effectively bringing the whole city of Brussels to a complete gridlock for a couple of hours.

Uber is a phenomenon. Everywhere in Europe or around the world, cabbies are resisting – sometimes violently - the arrival of this new player on the market.  Uber’s hip, social, transparent and tech savvy image is hype of the city. Uber openly flaunts its ‘rebellious’ character.  But everyone agrees on one thing:  Uber is disrupting the taxi industry.

There you have it; “disruptive”!  “Buzz” for an organization whose innovative character and use of technology disrupts a market.  How wrong they are! Uber is everything except disruptive.  At the very same moment taxi drivers are protesting against Uber, elsewhere in the world big players from the car and tech industry are experimenting with vehicles that don’t need a driver anymore.  It’s a technology that is maturing very fast.  If I were an owner of a cab-firm, I would be worried.

Imagine it’s 2030.  You just had a business meeting downtown and now you want to head back to the office.  Via an app, you call a taxi.   Based on real-time information, the app tells you how long you have to wait before the first, free vehicle that applies to your specifications (Two colleagues and luggage, town car, etc.) arrives.  It sends the nearest cab to you.  

Because the sun is shining, you decide to take a walk. Thanks to the geo-location in your phone or wearable, the ordered taxi finds you, wherever you are, and stops just in front of you. You get in and call the address you want to go to.  

Now here’s the catch: the taxi has no driver. You’re talking to a computer. The machine will understand the address, no matter the language or dialect you spoke, calculate and plot immediately the most efficient routes and then tells you with a human voice and in a very friendly way how much the ride will cost.  Once you’ve paid, with and old-fashioned credit card or Apple Pay or any other payment app / wearable, the car drives off.

On route it gathers real-time traffic information that it uses to continuously (re)calculate  the most optimal route to follow to bring you safe and without a problem to your destination.  Before you step off, the voice asks if you would be so kind to like us and rate our services when exiting the vehicle, please?   And of course, mind the gap on the kerb.

This is no longer science fiction.  By combining driverless vehicles, like the ones Mercedes-Benz, Google or Tesla are experimenting with, with cognitive computing technology, like IBM Watson, the taxi industry will effectively be re-invented.  

Analysing the data coming from sensors on and around the vehicle, GPS-information and real-time traffic and environmental data, the car gets a real time picture of what’s happening around it.  

It will be capable to predict and anticipate on all possible scenarios that could happen to it at any given point in time in any place.  “Driverless vehicles” will be perfectly capable to drive safely in traffic.  Thanks to cognitive computing, driverless cars are able to interact in a human way with their customers.

It is the eve of a (r)evolution in the taxi industry.  In that sense, Uber is not disruptive; it is “transitional”.  

It is the company that is needed to make the transition from an old to a completely new taxi industry.  The new taxi world holds both challenges and opportunities.  I hope the current cab companies learn from their current feud with Uber how to deal with disruptive technology.   Both the industry as the authorities have to find each other and start shaping the framework in which automated taxi services can thrive.  If not, it’s a one-way ticket to the taxidermist.

Christian Raetzsch is the vice president of technical sales at IBM Systems Asia Pacific. He can be reached at raetzsch@sg.ibm.com. 

 

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