The future of transportation

Since I was 16 I had a car. My first car I built with my dad. He picked up a VW beetle chassis at a junk yard and I worked many a month doing the inside up, painting it, building a motor and just figuring out how to get it on the road. I will never, ever forget that experience and I wish every kid could also share it. I learned how my car worked, how to maintain it and it felt like a part of me. I only used it a few years since I lived in the mountains and liked to ski so I needed a four wheel drive. 

Where I lived I needed a car for work, school and play.

I also used to ride mototorcycles a lot and still wish I did but I have not convinced myself to buy one in Singapore given the cost. I miss it though. However I don’t need it. I honestly don’t need a car either.

When I first moved to Singapore I would use taxis and the trains but was always baffled how I couldn’t get a taxi when it rains. Folks probably think this is something to do with demand for taxis when it rains but it is not. It is about the economics of the taxi system and how the taxi company will withhold money from the diver when there is an accident. This money is not released till the accident is settled which could take weeks or months. So the taxi drivers simply sit out the rain since they don’t want to risk having 1000 put on hold for a 7 dollar fare. It’s a silly system that essentially totally exasperates the issue of getting a ride in the rain.

You can read more here or search for the countless other articles about it :: https://indronomics.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/why-you-dont-get-taxis-in-singapore-when-it-rains/

Then uber showed up and of course it helped but it was stupid expensive in my opinion. I tired it a few times, used the various credits that were out there and simply marvled at the simplicaity of it all. Push a button on my phone and get a ride. Then uberX showed up and I used it in place of taxis almost every time apart from when it would surge. Side note – all you whiners and moaners around surge need to get a life. Pay it or don’t ride. Simple demand based economics. Explain to me how at that time you could get any other ride? The taxis are not moving so it is pay more or don’t ride. Big effing deal. 

Also any country trying to manage demand based pricing is dumb. More of the world should shift to demand based economics to smooth things out – people could pay less when not busy.

Then grab showed up and offered booking of taxis with an app. Nothing special there but helps a little. They made it look cheaper becuase they spiffed the system with VC money but it was not cheaper. Then they added grabcar which competes with uberX. Now we have lots of competition and with grab’s latest cash infusion they immediately lowered the prices for grabcar and it appears to be 1-2 dollars cheaper than uberX. Uber will have to deal with it or risk losing share. Or they are choosing to not throw money at it anymore – we know grab is not making money since the rides are cheaper and the drivers are Genting spiffed a lot. Grab is leaking cash like a coffee sock drips black goodness at Yan Kun Toast.

I argue with people a lot about who will win SEA. We don’t know. My friends who appear to know think that grab will win due to local presence and all that. Others think gojek will take Indonesia and maybe that will happen. To be fair I don’t directly compare them since I think gojek just wants to own the consumer in Indonesia across many sectors. That is not what grab and uber are doing. They want to own people movement and some of the services that go along with that – mostly food but I am guessing uber wants to move other goods around. I also think pool cold integrate delivery services to help cheapen the rider’s fare but the logistics and the time sink probably prevent it.

However I tend to look at the technology edge that uber clearly has over grab. Grab has okay apps but not amazing. Recently it crashed on me and when I opened it the showed it was waiting for me to book. However I had booked but could no longer track the ride and I gave up but of course a car I coulnd’t track showed up 10 mins later. Apart from this I think uber has superior customer service. 

Still pushing further into the tech I believe the future of people movement in cities like Singapore will be managed by robots in small people movers that hold 6-8 people and move around town picking and dropping people off continuously for much cheaper than taxi fares but probably more than bus fares. Fares many will be willing to pay due to convenience and speed. Hell – maybe even the Singapore government offers the service. Or maybe NuTonomy does. Simply assuming that uber and grab will easily move into autonomous vehicles built for urban transportation needs is a stretch. That being said I am sure they are working on it but you honestly think grab will solve that problem well enough before uber does? I don’t.

Let me use the closest example I can of what they both have that is closest to the future, uber Pool and grabhitch. The idea of a car wandering around the city picking and dropping people based on routes. Does uber do it perfectly? No but it works. The rides are cheaper and I generally always have other people in the car, if not a full car. Grabhitch? Let’s see. Oh wait. I have never gotten it to work – not once. I am always waiting for a ride and it is always searching for one and I never get one. I quit using it since I can’t rely on it. Maybe they will get it right but we can tell by the NuTonomy deal that they need tech help. I am sure grab wishes they could buy them but they are not selling. NuTonomy needs to raise a war chest so the best way to do that is getting some PR and get it working at some scale.

If you have any experience with AI or machine learning you will know that the main problem any startup has is getting the data set to learn from. NuTonomy needs to get this stuff going in limited trails to get the data set needed to scale. The grab deal offers that but it is for 1 year only which means both companies will have to decide what to do next. If NuTonomy can raise the cash I bet they just try and build their own service. If so grab will need to do something else if it wants to play this game but I think they don’t have the tech chops and capital to be in that game without a partner. It is clear that uber is buying and building their way to the future but they also have uber pool running at scale to learn from the data and optimize for pooling which looks the closest to the way autonomous people movers will work.

Either way – I am just happy I can book a ride in Singapore during the rain.

2 thoughts on “The future of transportation

  1. Ulf

    Nice one Mike… Whats your take on the SMRT’s and the like moving big into the robots.. As they have a lot of data of it’s card paying customers, putting together a case for driverless minibuses would not be to difficult? I think all the taxi guys comes from the wrong angle as it would put their main product “drivers with cars ” out of business?

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    1. Mr. KPI Post author

      Yup which is why I don’t think uber and grab naturally win in my vision of the future. Astar which is essentially the government has a prototype van running around one north – same as nutonomy and I think smrt has already said they envision smaller on call buses in some areas. I would love robotic buses that got me places faster than normal routes and would pay the height fare for sure.

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