Go For a Drive

Imagine the conversation you’re having with your grandson several years from now, where you’re waxing nostalgic about a favorite car you used to own.  You’re smiling into the details, remembering how your stylish sedan hugged the open highway curves at a crisp 75 mph; how the in-dash digital receiver cranked favorite tunes via smartphone; how the feel of the steering wheel leather gave you the perfect combination of comfort and control.  Only then, your grandson interrupts you and says, “what’s a steering wheel“?

This week, the Wall Street Journal published a make-you-pause article titled “Your Next Car May Be a Living Room on Wheels”.  The subject matter is the technological luxuries in a vehicle where “driving” is no longer necessary.  Forward-facing seats rotate to face each other, perhaps around a central console.  Touchscreens – to control the vehicle; cameras – to enlarge the outside views; movie screens – simply for entertainment; each of these appear on the window glass with simple voice commands.  Microwaves, refrigerators and ice chests hide nearby for always-available snacking.  In other words, the very definition of “car” gets turned on its ear.  Your grandson won’t even know what a “dashboard” is.

Your grandson won’t remember “The Jetsons” either – the Hanna-Barbera animated sitcom from the early 1960’s.  In a mere twenty-four episodes, “The Jetsons” gave us a peek into a fascinatingly advanced world of the future.  George Jetson and his family enjoyed luxuries only present in a 1960’s imagination, like robot housekeepers or in-home treadmills.  The Jetsons lived in a high-rise apartment building floating in space.  My favorite concept: the “aerocar”.  There were no roads in George’s world, so he and his family bopped around in a airborne car.  Per the illustration above, the aerocar is effectively a flying saucer with a transparent bubble top.  I still hear the sound of its little engine.

At least George still drives, which is the premise of this post.  No matter how advanced the mode of transportation, I want the option to navigate whenever my heart desires.  If my family and I are heading out for a Sunday jaunt, I want to be able to steer us wherever the wind blows.  Maybe that’s the provider in me, or maybe that’s just driving for the sheer enjoyment of it.  We need our steering wheels.

Flying cars are closer to reality than you might think.  Airbus, Uber and a handful of other companies have created concept “cars” that take-off and land vertically – no wings.  No rotors either, like you’d see on a helicopter.  Yet some models – like Airbus’s “Vahana” – are designed to be pilot-less.  What fun is that?  Who’s at the controls?  Sounds like going for a ride in an oversized drone.  Regardless, even with perfect technology the real hurdles with flying cars lie in regulating airborne travel.  There must be rules.  You’d better believe the environmentalists will have a seat at the table too.

In my childhood days at Disneyland, I was led to believe monorails were the future mode of transportation.  I pictured vast elevated networks of elegantly formed concrete spreading out across the country, with graceful trains slithering along topside at impressive speeds.  Alas, Disney’s monorail in Florida – at 14.7 miles – remains one of the longest of its kind.  Only two others, in Japan and China, claim more riders.  Monorails just never took.

Maglev (magnetic levitation) replaced monorails as the potential mass-transit solution of modern times.  Magnets are super-efficient, providing both lift and propulsion towards a high-speed, low-friction, no-moving-parts solution.  Assuming an aesthetically-pleasing design, even the environmentalists would be on board with zero-emissions engines.  But there’s always a negative.  In this case, costs of maglev are projected at $50-$100 million per mile.  No wonder the few installations around the world travel very short distances.

Even if we mapped America with arteries of monorails or maglev, I’d still find dissatisfaction in the notion no one’s driving the bus.  More to the point, I am not driving the bus.  But at least we’re talking about mass-transit here; an option I chose willingly over my own car.  If I’m not “licensed to drive” I’m happy to leave the controls to someone else.

Living rooms on wheels will be tough for me to swallow.  The focus has shifted from enjoyment of the drive to enjoyment of the ride.  Maybe I should’ve seen this coming when automatic transmissions became an option to stick-shift.  Certainly it hit me over the head when Uber debuted its self-driving fleet.  Sir, please step away from the controls.

Here is my futile plea for now: don’t take away my steering wheel.  Let me have the option to play pilot.  At the very least, give me a set of handlebars and a little weight-shift control.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Refining Buy-Products

Let’s chat about your last visit to the gas station (assuming you don’t own a “plug-n-play” vehicle).  Chances are you hit the pumps in the last week or so.  If you’re like me you drove in and drove out, mindlessly fueling to be on your way again as fast as possible.  But lately I’ve learned there’s more than meets the eye as you fill-er-up.  We’re all unknowingly playing the great retail chess game known as dynamic pricing.

Here’s the drill.  My local Shell station asks me a lot of questions before I get my first drop of unleaded (which makes me crazy but what choice do I have?)  Cash or credit?  Rewards Program number?  Zip Code?  Car Wash?  Paper Receipt?  All that info is “pumped” out of me (ha) up front.  Even then I must choose the octane before I finally get what I came for.

Now here’s the rub.  Every one of those data points feeds a Watson-like computer somewhere far removed from the gas station.  Watson brews a big customer-transaction stew, mixing in time-of-day, day-of-week, gallons purchased, and even weather conditions.  The result?  The “optimal” price point, delicately balanced between a) what you the consumer are willing to pay and b) what the supplier wants to net.  It’s a price-per-gallon computation that changes as many as ten times a day.

Coca-Cola may get the credit for the advent of dynamic pricing – with soft-drink vending (almost 20 years ago now).  Coke added a heat sensor and a computer chip to their machines, and as the outside temperature increased so did the cost of a soda.  Bad taste, and bad decision.  Consumers figured out the game and raised a big stink.  The running joke at the time – maybe not so funny today – was Coke would next install a camera to determine how much change was in your pocket.  Pepsi seized the opportunity to lure the unhappy customers and Coke quickly dropped the techno-gimmick.  But dynamic pricing took hold and never looked back.

Dynamic pricing is easier to digest when it targets times or situations where customers don’t notice or don’t even care.  The better example is school supplies.  Towards the end of summer your local Wal*Mart or Target will deep-discount pencils and paper and the like, often as much as 50%.  Kids will flock to the sale and load up on everything they need.  Parents will give their receipts an approving smile.  But guess what?  The store still wins.  That’s because “impulse purchases” bagged up with the school supplies are priced slightly higher than usual, more than offsetting any loss from the sale.

Dynamic pricing is hardest at work in hotels (what rate makes sense to fill that empty room?), utilities (do you really need the air conditioning right now?), and outdoor sporting events (are you willing to watch your baseball team during that unexpected rainstorm?).  And of course, any time you shop Amazon or Uber, dynamic pricing is asking the question, “how much do you really want that product or ride?”

Let’s pull up to the pumps again.  If you use “GasBuddy” or some other app designed to locate the lowest price-per-gallon, you’re winning the battle – but not the war.  I wish I had GasBuddy the first time I filled up as a teenager.  I crunched the numbers: forty years of driving; a tank of gas per week; eighteen gallons or so per tank.  If I purchased at $0.03/gallon less each time I filled up, I’d have an extra $1,000 in my pocket by now.

Thanks to Watson and his endless algorithms however, GasBuddy isn’t much more than instant gratification.  The suppliers are always one step ahead.  Unless you keep an eye on prices (and a few gallons in your tank), you’ll inevitably purchase when your demand takes priority.  Did you know gas is less expensive in the early hours of the day?  That’s because commuters are more likely to fill up at the end of the day, when they unknowingly drive up demand.  The computer is only too happy to adjust the price.

Maybe now you’ll leave the house a little earlier in the morning.  Fill up on your way to work instead of on your way home later in the day.  You will save a couple of cents per gallon if you do that.  And good for you – you’re beating the dynamic-pricing game.

Just don’t buy a cup of coffee while you’re at it.