Saturday, November 26, 2011

Q: How many people can you fit into an Athenian taxi?

A: As many as possible

I am forever amazed by the number of cars in the world that sit around doing absolutely nothing. Take my car, for instance. It sits in my carport all day Saturday and Sunday doing absolutely nothing. Monday to Friday it sits deep in the bowels of an office complex, three levels down, away from the elements, for 8 hours a day, doing absolutely nothing. It is just sitting there existing through another day in eternity, because eternity is how long the machine will last if left unfettered in its absolutely doing nothingness.

So let's do some math.

Let's say the typical consumer, non-commercial, car owner uses his or her vehicle for 2 hours a day. This translates in to a daily capacity usage of 8%. The unused capacity is a whopping 92%. Or to put it another way, 1 person is using a resource that has the capacity to service 11 other people. It's almost like owning a 2400 sq. ft. house, but only living in one of the bathrooms.

Sort of a waste, I'd say. Yeah, you could make the argument that by not using the excess capacity, you're not having to pay money to support the resource, heating the entire house or keeping the gas tank full for 24 hours of automotive operation. But, we'll let this go for now.

The fact is that, for the most part, having a lot of cars sitting around doing absolutely nothing might not be good in the Big Picture. But, we're Americans. We seem to have a historical sense of having unlimited resource. In Europe this is not the case. They used up all the forests a long time ago. Efficiency counts: don't heat water in big ass tanks that go cold; heat the water intensively as it comes through the pipe to the shower head, which is what I experienced in an old house at the foot of the Pyrenees. Or pack as many riders into a taxi as you can, as I experienced in Athens.

Taxi drivers in Athens can pick up passengers in transit. It's the way they do business, nothing shady about it.

I remember sitting in the back of a cab, on my way to the airport and at each stop light the driver negotiated with would-be fares for the available seating next to me. If the driver could make the deal, the street corner traveler jumped in. The driver was continually revising his route given the destinations in play, mindful of keeping his gasoline consumption down. It's sort of brilliant in a way.

So back to the 8%. Imagine what it would be like if any given non-commercial automobile was operating at say, 70% capacity. First off, parking in LA would be a lot easier because most of the cars would in use and not sitting on the side of the street doing absolutely nothing.

So, how would it work? Well, instead of owning your own car, you'd belong to a "Car Association". Membership would get you access to the car you need, when you need it. For example, when it's time to leave for work in the morning, I'd go to my smartphone, sign into my Car Association App, and get the photo and license number of the car that I'd use to get to work. The car would be sitting in the parking lot outside the local Ralphs down the street. When I get to the car, I'd use my smartphone again to photograph a bar code on the car's windshield to verify that I was indeed at the car and then punch in my password. The App would have the smarts to unlock the car via a service such as OnStar. The key would be under the driver's seat.

I'd drive the car to work, to a Ralph's nearby or to a parking lot underneath my office complex. I'd leave the key under seat. Once I exit the car, I'd contact the Car Association to have the car locked and make it available to anther driver as soon as possible.

I'd pay a monthly fee to belong the the Car Association. The fee would vary according to the class of car I want, figure Standard Plan (Corolla, no older than 5 years) to Triple Platinum (BMW 700 series, no older than 2 years). Maybe one month I'd want to go Standard. If my in-laws are coming to town around the Holidays and I want to impress them, I'd go Triple Platinum. I'd have status on demand!

Gas and upkeep? If I take an Association car to the car wash or gas it up, I'd receive a credit against my monthly fee. Or the Association would pay contractors to maintain the properties, just as my Home Owners Association pays a contractor the keep the building grounds well groomed.

Of course, for this to work, we'd need to have a lot of cars and a lot of people in the Car Association. So it will probably be an urban thing. But, what the hell? There's already a lot of cars out there. They just happen to be sitting around doing absolutely nothing. From my point of view it's just a matter of the ability to think and act differently, a small nudge on the collective automotive consciousness.

Here's some good news: It's happening as I write. There are a number of Rent-Your-Car-Out services on the rise. Think of the these service as first generation Car Associations. You have Spride and Getaround which allows you to rent the cars of others starting at $5 an hour. And the technology is already in place. OnStar has just cut a deal with Relay Rides, to unlock cars for renters.

If Car Associations take hold, maybe via Facebook or Google+, it's only a matter of time before Hertz, Enterprise and National will want a piece of the pie providing the vehicles. Having a car will be about... well... huh.... using a car.

To my understanding the dining policy in the US Army's Boot Camp is this: You can have all the food you want. Just make sure you eat what you take.

So, all we have to do is map the thinking onto automobiles: You can have all the car you want. Just make sure you use what you take.