Motor Mouth

Why leave change to Uber and gang?

The notion of shared rides leading to fewer vehicles can be realised now with smartphones and apps

We have all heard about how driverless cars will magically change the way we commute and transform the entire urban landscape.

There will be far fewer vehicles on the road because these autonomous pods will pick up four or five passengers heading in the same direction.

There will be less demand for parking in the city because these pods can be stowed away in far-flung industrial areas when they are not in use.

But most of the time, they will be busy picking up people (or goods). And if they are battery-powered, they will be emitting zero tailpipe emissions and making as much noise as your electric shaver.

Their batteries will be continuously charged via induction cables beneath the tarmac.

Green lungs and playgrounds will spring up where parking lots used to be. Roads will be downsized and wide walking and cycling paths will proliferate.

Traffic congestion may be a thing of the past with increased vehicle-sharing. ST FILE PHOTO

Throughout the city, you will hear the sounds of children playing, birds chirping, people having polite conversations over cappuccinos at sidewalk cafes. No din of traffic, no choking fumes, no accidents to spoil the day.

That reality is 10 to 20 years away. But why wait? With smartphones and apps, all vehicles on the road today can be shared.

Okay, the accident-free and fumes-free scenario may not be possible yet. But the notion of shared rides leading to fewer vehicles can be realised right now.

Yes, enterprises such as Uber and Grab are here with their so-called disruptive "ride-sharing" businesses. But why limit the potential of a shared economy to these players?

Granted, they have a fanciful ride-matching app and lots of cash from an interesting list of investors, but anyone with a smartphone or computer will be able to set up a rudimentary vehicle-sharing platform.

Each owner may have five or six sharers, which is modest by any scale, but multiply that to the 885,000 vehicles here which are not taxis, private-hire or rental cars, and you get a sizeable ecosystem going.

Sure, not everybody will want to share. But even if we assume that only a quarter will want to do so, we will have an instant pool of more than 220,000 vehicles - four times the combined fleet of cabs and private-hire vehicles here.

And assuming that each of these vehicles is shared by one person other than the owner, we would be able to reduce our vehicle population by 220,000.

That's the theory, anyway. It is probably as sound as the theory which says autonomous cars can vastly reduce our vehicle population - the one which governments the world over are buying into.

So, why not allow anyone who wishes to share his vehicle to do so freely right now? Current regulations are too limiting and onerous (when compared with the ones governing Uber and gang).

Safety and security of the public, you ask? Well, there are apparently measures in place to ensure the well-being of private-hire and taxi users. Mandatory third-party insurance, for instance.

With a full liberalisation, Singapore will not only nurture a truly shared economy, it can also kick-start electric mobility.

For instance, electric vehicle owners should be allowed huge tax breaks if they agree to share.

If an entity such as HDT Singapore Taxi can ply a cab service with a tax-exempt fleet of electric cars and charge premium rates, why can't ordinary consumers be granted the same tax exemption if they choose to buy a battery-powered car to share?

Surely, the sauce that's good for the goose should be good for the gander as well.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2016, with the headline 'Why leave change to Uber and gang?'. Print Edition | Subscribe