Thursday, May 16, 2019

One more note on the Uber fleet -- it makes surge pricing go away*

[* realized what a bad title this was. Uber can still jack up prices at rush hour; it just won't put any more cars on the road.]

I'm nervous about using economic language here -- I'll probably get some of the terms mixed up -- but one of the the most attractive parts of the original Uber business model was surge pricing and the resulting elasticity of supply.

In order for this to work you need to satisfy a couple of essential conditions. First you have to have to have a big surplus of supply most of the time. It's the classic problem of staffing to the spikes. Second, you have to find a way to avoid paying for people and equipment when you're not using them.

Uber and Lyft actually managed to solve those two problems. There are a huge number of underemployed people out there with underutilized vehicles, and when they aren't carrying passengers, they cost the companies nothing.

Conventional wisdom recently has been that both Uber and Lyft need to jump on the self-driving bandwagon and acquire a fleet of autonomous vehicles as soon as we hit level five technology (something that's probably at least a good decade  away, but we'll put that aside for the moment). In addition to the previously mentioned flaws in this plan, both companies lose this tremendous latent supply. If they want to have a million cars available in a metro area for Friday afternoon rush hour, they will have to buy a million cars, and it's fair to assume a large majority of those cars will be sitting idle a large majority of the time.

It still feels weird to say this, but Elon Musk gets this one right.

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