The Case for Carpooling 2.0

How ride-sharing apps and other innovations are bringing carpooling into the 21st century


In February, Congressman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) introduced a bill that would award a $1 billion prize to the first U.S.-based auto manufacturer to sell ?"60,000 mid-sized sedan automobiles which operate on gasoline and can travel 100 miles per gallon." In part, Lungren presented the "E Prize Act of 2012" as a rhetorical vehicle. Why, he opined on his website, should the federal government subsidize specific technologies that may or may not deliver intended results rather than simply reward desirable outcomes? A gasoline-powered car may not seem like a forward-thinking solution to reduce carbon dioxide emissions or our dependence on oil—but if such a car could take our gas consumption levels from 8.9 million barrels a day to 1.8 million barrels a day, it'd be worth throwing into the mix, wouldn't it?

There was also a practical aspect to Lungren's proposal. A robust infrastructure for servicing gas-powered cars already exists. People have shown they like driving mid-sized sedans. If someone could engineer a solution that looks more like today's vehicles than, say, the paradigm-shifting Edison2 does, surely that would have a strong positive impact on adoption rates.

Taking such pragmatism a step further, what if the sort of solution Lungren envisions involved not just cars that looked like today's cars, but today's actual cars? As Bill Eggers, a former Director of Government Reform at Reason's Public ?Policy Institute and currently the Global Director for Deloitte Research's Public Sector practice, noted in a recent presentation at South by Southwest, the hundreds of millions of cars people already own constitute the greatest untapped resource in today's transportation landscape.

According to 2009 U.S. Census statistics, 85 percent of the U.S. workforce, or 119.3 million individuals, drive to work each day—and 105 million of those people drive alone. (In addition, 6.9 million people take public transportation, 3.9 million walk, 766,000 bike, and 5.9 million work at home.)

Get three people who would otherwise be driving solo into a mid-sized sedan like the 2012 Volkswagen Passat, which gets 35 mpg in city/highway usage, and its effective fuel efficiency actually tops Lungren's dream car. Take 70 million cars off the nation's roads each morning, and you'd create tens of trillions of dollars worth of increased lane-miles per automobile, without actually having to pay a cent for new road construction.

In theory, this should be a boom era for carpooling. Gas is expensive. Millions of people want to reduce their carbon footprints. The average U.S. commuter now spends a total of 50.2 minutes per day commuting to and from work, and according to numerous studies, commuting makes us miserable. Ride-sharing apps like Avego and iCarpool allow users to screen potential ride-sharers in advance, find drivers or passengers in real-time, and even manage payments between parties. And yet according to a paper transportation researchers Nelson Chan and Susan Shaheen presented at the Transportation Research Board's annual meeting in 2011, carpooling is only about half as popular now as it was when an upraised thumb was the only technology connecting drivers with passengers. In 1970, they write, U.S. Census data showed that 20.4 percent of American workers commuted to work by carpool. Today, only around 10.7 percent do.

One way to raise that number: gamify ride-sharing. Because ride-sharing apps aggregate lots of information about their users, it's easy to incorporate foursquare-like elements in them. You can, for example, award badges to drivers who pick up a specific number of passengers in a week, or passengers who log a specific number of morning-commute hours each month.

Some ride-sharing services have already begun to experiment with this approach. In Houston, for example, Avego has partnered with a company called Nuride that incentivizes alternative transportation by offering rewards to users from local business—carpool a specific number of miles and you can get a free burrito from Chipotle or a discount at Barnes & Noble.

Avego has also introduced a character it calls Captain Carpool. "If you're in a city where we're running a pilot and Captain Carpool picks you up, you get a hundred bucks," says Sean O'Sullivan, co-founder and Managing Director of Avego. "And it works the other way around too. If you're a driver and you pick up Captain Carpool—and you can't miss him because he's wearing a blue spandex suit and a cape—you get a hundred bucks."

Supplementing modest but guaranteed rewards with larger but more unlikely ones is a step in the right direction—what ride-sharing could use at the moment is ?a radical infusion of intrigue and irrationality. Indeed, if pre-Internet iterations of carpooling represented, at least in part, a mature, professionalized, dully virtuous manifestation of hitch-hiking, high-tech ride-sharing rationalizes carpooling even further. It achieves new levels of efficiency (you can coordinate rides in advance) and security (you have a pretty good idea of who you'll be interacting with) but at the same time, it has done little to capitalize on the romance of hitch-hiking, its sense of adventure and discovery.

On the one hand, ride-sharing facilitators obviously want to provide users with a safe, reliable service. In addition, Sony and Apple haven't made billions selling Walkmans and iPods over the last three decades because people love talking to strangers on the bus. On the other hand, consider all those surveys ?that show how much people hate commuting. It's unpleasant in large part because it's uneventful and repetitious, the same thing day after day. It's also lonely. "Every 10 minutes results in 10 percent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness," Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam told The New Yorker in 2007.

Ride-sharing, however, can transform commuting from an activity that's characterized by social isolation into one that's characterized by social connection. And gamifying ride-sharing could turn a dull, repetitive routine into one that's characterized by unpredictability and adventure as well as safety and reliability.

One easy way to instantly increase ride-sharing's appeal would be to dramatically increase the reward for picking up Captain Carpool. If Avego or one of its partners started offering a million dollar prize every month, you can bet that thousands of people around the country would suddenly find the prospect of exchanging rote pleasantries about the weather for half an hour with some guy who works down the street from them irresistible.

A more strategic approach would use the lure of that grand prize to influence user behavior in more granular ways. You could earn points for recruiting new ?users to the system. You could lose points if you went a week without sharing a ride. Because work commutes only make up less than 20 percent of all car ?trips taken, ride-shares to the grocery store or the bank might be rewarded with more points per mile than ride-shares to the office. In addition, when users registered for the system, they could be assigned specific powers or information that they would then deploy when interacting with other players in the game. Like Farmville or Mafia Wars, a massively multiplayer ride-sharing game would ultimately give strangers or near-strangers a set of parameters for engaging with each other. There'd be fewer awkward silences or even more awkward conversations among ride-sharers—the game would simultaneously serve as an ice-breaker and limit the ways in which it was permissible to engage someone while sharing a ride with them.

In Fiscal Year 2011, the federal government spent $41.8 billion on Federal Highway Administration projects and $10.2 billion on Federal Transit Administration (i.e. mass transit) projects. Meanwhile, the Texas Transportation Institute estimates that traffic congestion costs America more than $100 billion a year in lost time and increased fuel consumption. In light of such numbers, a $1 billion federal subsidy to underwrite ride-sharing doesn't seem all that outlandish—and yet think how much $1 billion in prizes could change consumer behavior.

But would a handout like that even be necessary? Currently the IRS estimates that it costs drivers 55.5 cents per mile to operate their cars. Because commuters cover and average of 33 miles on their daily commutes, ride-sharing could potentially free up anywhere from $1,500 to $4,500 per person in driving costs per year. (Passengers who pay drivers as part of their arrangement would have to subtract that cost from their savings, of course, and some costs, like insurance, wouldn't disappear if ride-sharers didn't give up their cars entirely.) With that kind of money potentially in play—10 million new ride-sharers saving $1,500 a year equals $15 billion in newly disposable income—surely at least a few corporate sponsors will see the wisdom in fueling such a powerful new economic engine with the prize money that could get it up to speed.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.