The transportation industry is squarely in the crosshairs of the tech start-up industry, and the fruits of their disruption were on full display at this year's South by Southwest (SXSW), the high-octane tech-music-film festival in Austin last month. Uber, the on-demand towncar service, was offering free rides in pedicabs all over the city. SideCar, the ride-sharing start-up that was one of the most buzzed-about apps at this year's festival (partially because of its run-ins with city regulators), was offering free rides around town. Car-sharing service Car2Go had premium parking spots reserved around the perimeter of the Austin Convention Center.
Panels with names like "Transportation Apps and the Sharing Economy" and "Damn the Man! Disrupting Regulated Industries" featured the founders of Lyft and Zimride (ride-sharing), Wheelz and Getaround (car-sharing), and Flywheel (taxi-hailing). A "Hacking Transportation Meet Up" was sponsored by Scoot Networks -- a "Zipcar for Scooters." Hail-A-Cab, the Austin equivalent of MyTaxi and TaxiMagic, touted its services with a full-page ad in SXSW's official program guide.
I'm a fan of these new transportation disrupters. I'm in the sweet-spot of their demographic: a carless, eco-friendly, early-adopting urban-dweller. I used Uber to get me to the DC airport on my way to SXSW. A week before the conference, I received a holographic sticker from Car2Go for my membership card that qualified me a "Pro User." Together with my stay at three different Airbnb rooms over my time in Austin, I am a bona-fide member of the Sharing Economy.
But even for an avid user like me, the scene in Austin was quite overwhelming. Currently, most of these transportation apps are being beta-tested in different urban centers. But SXSW, which basically assembled all of them in a few square blocks, provided a vision for what the future could look like in major metros around the country -- and it wasn't pretty. As Columbia professor Tim Wu recently argued in The New Republic, "The unfortunate fact is that extreme abundance--like extreme scarcity, but in different ways--can make humans miserable."
There were so many options for getting from Point A to Point B, I was often paralyzed before I stepped out the door. Do I use a car-share or a ride-share? Should I order a cab, a pedicab, or a sedan? Car2Go or Zipcar? How about a scooter or a bike-share? What about plain-old public transportation? By the time I've checked the dozen apps on my phone, compared prices, wait times, and travel times, I probably could have made it to my destination by walking. It took my wife and I over an hour to weigh all the different options of getting her to the airport. (We eventually decided on a Zipcar.)
Thankfully, there seems to be an app that aims to make sense of this dystopian future of transportation. I met the founders of RideScout at SXSW, of course, where they showed me their new tool that aggregates all these various transportation options in a single interface. While most transportation options have their own apps, RideScout collects them in one place. You plug in your departure and RideScout will present you with various options based on your current location, allowing you to compare them by duration and price, all in real-time.
Founder Joseph Kopser thought up the idea when he was trying to weigh the many choices for how to get from his house to the Pentagon. "I had like 20 options on a very small 5 mile route, from biking to jogging to Virginia public transportation to friends in DC," he said. And that was two years ago, even before the proliferation of transportation start-ups. As with most accidental start-up founders, he assumed that someone had invented such an intuitive app. When he couldn't find it, he decided to build it himself.
The West Point graduate was also drawn to the idea that, after working for so long working for the military "in the business of consuming energy, ... now I have a chance to turn around and give back to society." Kopser compares his task at RideScout with his previous job working for Army chief George Casey. "Trying to get people to change their habits, change their mindsets," he said. "That is a hard, strategic long-term event, which can't be measured in tiny quick wins."
The most difficult challenge for RideScout has been synthesizing the APIs and databases from various apps and platforms that weren't designed to work together. The fact that new apps are coming out almost daily exacerbates the challenge, forcing them to be strategic with each new partner they attempt to integrate into their app. In presenting different options to users, RideScout is also struggling with how to compare "apples and oranges," with some services charging by the mile while others charging by the minute or hour.