Business Report

Join the Mobility Revolution with These Five Apps

Smart phones are creating radical new ideas for getting around. Technology Review picks five of the most promising.

So sue me: When a company gets a cease-and-desist letter from taxicab regulators, you know it has an interesting business model. That’s what happened to UberCab, a startup since renamed simply Uber, whose app acts like a pocket limousine dispatcher.

Uber is simple: ask it to send you a car, and soon you’ll see a black limousine inching toward you on the screen. Limo drivers who sign up use the app, too, and see the location of fares. The experience is intimate; soon you’ll be IM-ing John, Bill, and the rest of your fleet of drivers.

Uber means competition for taxi fleets and limo dispatchers. Cofounder Travis Kalanick says he had the idea for the app after getting annoyed waiting for taxis in San Francisco. Cities create artificial scarcity by limiting the number of cabs, meaning that riders face waits and medallions can cost over $1 million. “The system is dying for a change,” says Kalanick. “Everything today is click a button and no more waiting for anything.”

Once you’ve given your credit card number to Uber, payments to the driver are automatic. Uber’s cut of the driver’s fare: about 20 percent.

Phone GPS: Waze is a free app that gives you turn-by-turn directions on your phone. It’s not bad, although the app is not as accurate as a $299 in-car GPS device. It doesn’t work in tunnels and this writer got a $50 ticket after making a turn suggested by Waze. Make sure your phone is GPS-enabled, and be sure you have an unlimited data plan.

The idea behind Waze is to “crowdsource” road information from its users. When the app is on, it automatically sends Waze your speed, location, and direction. Combining data from many drivers, the app shows real-time information about road speeds and traffic jams. The company says over five million people are using the app. Users are able to update Waze’s maps, flag the location of police cars, and form groups with other Wazers, who appear on the map as cartoon vehicles.

So what’s the catch? Waze plans to make money through location-based advertising, offering drivers games and prizes along their routes. That makes some screens look a little like the children’s game Candy Land. Drivers in a hurry can stick to a simplified navigation screen.

Just in time: When’s the bus coming? NextBus takes away the guesswork: the app tells you exactly how many minutes away your bus is. It works using GPS signals from devices installed inside city buses. Boston has signed on, and so has San Francisco, where the app also keeps track of trolleys and cable cars.

NextBus is a 15-year-old company, and it was “tough going” for many years, says chief technology officer Michael Smith. Originally, riders got updates by calling a number or consulting bus-stop displays. Now the rise of smart phones has made the system much more powerful. About 30 percent of NextBus’s 800,000 daily users access the app via iPhones or other smart devices.

NextBus charges transit agencies a few hundred dollars per bus per year to use its service (more if NextBus has to supply the GPS units itself). The fee Los Angeles pays to use the software in its 2,500-vehicle fleet: $1.5 million over three years. But that’s quickly made back in increased ridership. Bus-stop haters can now arrive just in time.

Drive for dollars: Make $8,000 a year giving rides to strangers? It may be possible with Avego, a ride-share app for smart phones that turns your daily commute into a public bus route.

Owning a car is one of the largest expenses most people have—about $9,000 a year, according to the AAA. But the average car on the road has only 1.2 people in it. “They’re basically empty,” says Avego director Sean O’Sullivan, who thinks sharing rides would save gas, reduce traffic, and cut the emission of greenhouse gases. Like AirBnB, the website where people put up spare rooms for rent, Avego is an example of collaborative consumption. “It’s the idea of maximizing the value of your capital goods,” says O’Sullivan. “For others, it’s about not even owning them.”

To use the app, a driver enters his vehicle make, name, and commuting route, letting other users request a ride along the way. Payment ($1 for the first mile and 20 cents thereafter) is handled by the app. Total fees to ride givers are capped at 55 cents a mile, the same as company reimbursement rates.

In cities like Bergen, Norway, Avego can already be used to catch a ride nearly anywhere. Uptake has been slower in the United States, but large pilot trials are planned in San Francisco and four California counties this year. “The transport geeks everywhere are just thrilled,” says O’Sullivan.

Behavior modification: Place this gadget, called SnapShot, under your car dashboard for 30 days and it will generate a report of how much you drive, at what time of day, and how many sudden stops you make. Depending on your driving habits, its maker, Progressive Insurance, may be willing to give you a $150 discount on your rate.

Currently, auto insurance is based on your age, marital status, driving record, and type of vehicle. But customers who are willing to have their real-life behavior tracked may find they’ll be offered far more customized rates. Progressive says about 500,000 customers have tried its apps and its driver tracking device. In January, it received its fourth patent related to the idea: U.S. Patent No. 8,090,598, for a “monitoring system for determining and communicating a cost of insurance.”

Not everyone wants to be tracked. Progressive says only about one in four eligible drivers sign up for monitoring.

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Next in this Business Report

The Connected Vehicle

The cars we drive are about to change, and so are the ways we commute and do business. In this month’s Business Impact we look at the arrival of communication technologies that are linking motor vehicles to the information grid. From mobility apps to electric cars and vehicle automation, the connected automobile is rewriting the rules of the automobile industry and creating the chance to reorganize our transportation infrastructure.

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