Sunday, December 2, 2018

Free Parking Forever! What, gridlock is a problem with self-driving cars?

Technology has always fascinated me - not just the tech itself but how it's adopted its' the social impact, which are not always foreseen or foreseeable.

I ran across a story of a clever Tesla driver who found a way to move his car between two hour parking spots to avoid a ticket by using the "Summon" feature, all without leaving his office. Neat but defeating the point of why a two hour parking restriction exists.

Today human drivers can drive around the block when they don't have a place to park and wait. For example, if they are waiting for a spouse who will be out shortly. Generally the price for doing so is free (a small price is paid for gas/depreciation) and what prevents people from doing so for hours on end instead of paying for very expensive downtown parking is that driving in circles in downtown traffic is not something that any human driver would want to do for any extended period of time. 

Self-driving cars, though, don't have the same constraints. In some ways this will be a great thing - in future, cars will be able to drive someone to work then drive out to a free parking lot outside downtown (free parking forever!). Moving cars out of downtown will free up space downtown for better more human uses.

It should not be too hard to see the problems with this though - whether it's the story of the Tesla driver above or whether it's a car driving around the block for hours because the owner doesn't know exactly when he or she will be done with an appointment (and wants the car to 'stay nearby'). The increase in traffic if every commute required a trip downtown to drop someone off and another trip out of downtown to find a parking spot could double the time on the road.  Traffic volumes downtown could increase rapidly to the point of total gridlock with self-driving cars that don't particularly hate being stuck in traffic like a human very much does.

Fortunately, the solution seems (to me at least) to be apparent: some form of tolls (which could even be targeted only at self-driving cars) would drastically reduce the number cars that would simply drive around, and would make car sharing services (that could more efficiently match people going in and out of downtown) would likely be the result. Of course, coming up with these incentives and getting the details right might be far more difficult that I'd expect it should. 

One item in the law that will need to change though: with a self-driving electric car what will it mean to be "stopped" versus "parked" in traffic and how would a poor traffic cop be able to tell the difference? 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

China and the Case of the Disappearing Checkout Lines

A couple months ago I went on a trip to Beijing to visit my in laws. While getting out of the house, I had a some interesting (from a payment geek point of view) trips to the store.

The first trip was to Watson’s - a large chain pharmacy with the ubiquity of CVS in the US or Shopper’s Drug Mart in Canada. I got in line to pay but the cashiers weren’t behind the counter, instead they were in front of the counter helping people with their phones. On and beside the counter were signs with QR codes for customers to scan. When I scanned, I got to a Watson’s page where I could scan my items and pay. The cashiers were there if I wanted to pay cash but it was clear that lining up was now optional and not surprisingly most people preferred not to line up.

The next time I went to Watsons I simply walked up to the QR code, scanned it, scanned my own items on my phone, paid, and left. No lining up, no annoying self-scan machine that constantly tells you to place items here or there. Quick and simple (though I wondered how they managed to control fraud).

The second trip was to KFC for breakfast. Again, when I got there, a greeter made it clear I could skip the line by scanning a QR code and ordering with my phone. So while I was in line, I scanned the code from the sign (conveniently with an extremely large QR code) and proceeded to order and pay for my breakfast before I got to the front of the line. I then waited for my order number (which showed up on my phone) to be called and took my food.

The next time I went to KFC I didn’t wait - I looked in my phone’s history, ordered and paid on the app while still a few minutes away from the store. When I got to the store my order number was up and I got my food with zero wait - this wasn’t fast food this was instant food! I did this a few times and it worked brilliantly except for the day when I arrived too early (a few minutes before the store opened) and mistakenly ordered for pickup at the nearest store with an earlier opening time that had opened. Oops! The team was nice enough to phone over and cancel the order - they even refunded me though clearly it was my mistake.

Stepping back, one of the things that makes this possible is that any application or web developer in China can easily make an API call that presents the user with a seamless payment experience - when a user needs to pay they are redirected to the user’s choice of apps (WeChat or Alipay) and can pay from their phone. No need to have a user enter their credit card details either during the transaction or via a registration process. Simply call the API and (if the user agrees and authenticates) the payment completes. Typically this is a Touch ID/Face ID/PIN type input on the phone that’s very smooth and seamless.

It’s nice to see major brands using this capability to innovate to help them save on costs and to help their customers save time. I look forward to the same becoming more widespread here in North America.

Screenshot of Watson’s self-checkout payment: