Tim Rose brings his expertise to next year’s highly anticipated event.
As this column pushed a final Oct. 9 deadline, the media world was erupting into another cluster-frenzy, this time over the horrific Oct. 6 limousine crash in upstate New York. It’s dominated all attention — at LCT, on social media, among companies, and throughout the industry. (Now as this digital version is live, no official cause yet from the National Transportation Safety Board).
Investigators are still determining the exact cause of the crash that killed 20 people, as speculation still outpaces the facts. The shrill calls for more regulations, the expected demise of the stretch, a confused columnist opining about negligence and greedy capitalism. . . we’ve seen this before.
So let’s all keep calm and carry on while we hurry up and wait. We’ll have learned and digested more information, and the whirling sentiments will yield to clarity. Meanwhile, I’d like to review a few trendy dramas that have roiled the industry, and what’s developing in their wake:
The last five years have brought a stream of mournful dirges about the end of luxury ground transportation as we know it, thanks to transportation network companies (TNCs). Uber was supposed to have consumed the industry by now, just as global warming forecasts in 2000 warned of an eroded Miami Beach by 2020. (I walked on the beach in May and it looked much like it did in the early 1990s).
In hindsight, much of the decline in chauffeured transportation business this decade resulted from the recession and slow recovery, and only partly from TNCs. I’ve talked to enough operators to conclude the strong economy is generating more activity. Operators who haven’t driven in years are donning chauffeur outfits. Conventions, meetings, and trade shows are picking up. Even companies that don’t run buses are profiting with fleets of traditional black vehicles.
As one operator told me, there is “a flight back to quality.” His 40+ vehicle operation can barely keep up with demand as he pulls in local affiliates to help out.
No one doubts much of this industry could use some technology upgrades, especially in providing real-time client service, booking, and texts. Just about everyone agrees the more luxury transportation operations can choose to connect or affiliate with one another in real time, the more likely this industry can win over and keep mobile-centric clients. But would the industry fade out if literally every operation did not belong to the same software network or connected grid?
Uber exists on one technology system because it is one company. The luxury ground transportation industry consists of 6,000+ operations of all fleet types. No way would all agree to be part of one company, despite the pattern of mergers and buyouts driven in part by retirements.
While linking every indusry company would be ideal, the long-term solution more likely will evolve from a flexible, competitive market. Software systems can provide varying levels of products and services while being able to choose whether or with what other system to connect. Despite consolidation, the travel spectrum still includes four major airlines and a tier of smaller ones; a handful of combined hotel chain brands, but many independent hotels; and competing chains and groups of restaurants, auto dealerships, and retail brands. Why would luxury transportation be any different? An industry with meaningful choices in technology vendors offers operators a many-sizes-fit-me menu of opportunities.
Since driverless vehicle coverage splashed across the media in 2015, the golly-gee-whiz angles ferment. The dates of a driverless world just kept creeping up to the near future, to 2022, wait no, 2021; stop, autonomous buses by 2020! Experts told this industry and the media that operators in their prime earning years would be lucky enough to make it to retirement before impersonal driverless conglomerates engulf their livelihoods
Except we won’t get there for a long time, according to a Sept. 13 Wall Street Journal article, “Driveless Hype Collides With Merciless Reality.” Driverless reality will take decades, not years, to come about. Even then, there may be certain intricate human judgements and responses in complex driving scenarios no artificially intelligent system could ever replicate.
“Cars can’t learn to drive simply by being trained on data about how real humans do it, no matter how much data you have,” one expert says in the article. For now, test vehicles only work under constrained, mapped, calibrated circumstances. If self-driving vehicles finally pass muster, they likely would need their own travel lanes, or stay on fixed routes.
Maybe that synaptic, neuronic wonder of nature called the human brain may never be surpassed. “Over a lifetime of driving, humans become experts at countless subtasks, from noticing distracted pedestrians to questioning the judgment of construction workers waving them through a work site,” the article reports.
Bottom line: Uber won’t eat this industry; the industry won’t perish for lack of a universal tech connector, although one could have its advantages; and driverless cars coupled with A.I. won’t steal your fleet business or job for a few decades at least, if ever. Sleep well.
Tim Rose brings his expertise to next year’s highly anticipated event.
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