I recently had occasion to drive roundtrip between Salt Lake City and Washington, DC. It showed me how far technology has brought us — and how far it has yet to go.
My cargo van was full on the first leg of the 30-hour journey. Having a nearly empty vehicle on the return trip prompted me to ask: What is the Uber for shipping goods?
Uber, of course, is the popular ride-sharing service. It's the leading example of the successes that some — including Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida — are celebrating in our "sharing economy."
Uber's idea is powerful, and the execution is good, too. When we have excess capacity and the desire to "share" a good or service, transaction costs can impede such sharing. The revolution of computing power embodied in Moore’s Law has lowered them.
Although Uber still hasn't reached critical mass in Utah, I use it regularly on the East and West Coasts. Its drivers are almost always more courteous than those in taxis. Predictable pricing means that there are never any surprises on the wallet. Moreover, your wallet never needs to leave your pocket!
But Uber is just the beginning of an economy enhanced by more efficient resource-sharing.
It already has competitors, like Lyft. And many other marketplaces have or will have such a sharing service.
Think about Airbnb for home-sharing (instead of hotel rooms) or Handy, a platform for consumers to directly hire home cleaners, handymen, plumbers and others. Rubio highlighted some legal and regulatory challenges this service faces in his recent speech on the sharing economy — and he pledged that as president he would make it easier to operate such services.
In the case of my own "sharing economy," less than two minutes of Google searching brought me the answer to my question about transport-sharing. I found uShip, a service for shipping cars, furniture and freight.
I created an account and bid on shipping five pieces of furniture from one location to another along my 2,000-mile route. In less than a day I had filled up my vehicle for the return trip. And I pocketed enough money from the deliveries to more than cover the entire cost of the rental van!
The extra time I spent as a shipper was minimal, and my sharing opened up interactions with new people and new activities. This is an experience that many people report from using such services.
But I offer this little parable of the new economy not just to delight in filling up a van and shipping goods for others.
That is impressive. But think about how much more amazing it will be when the sharing economy meets the "Internet of Things."
IoT, as this early-stage concept is sometimes known in jargon, has already brought computing power into lightbulbs, baby bottles and household security cameras.
In a nutshell, the Internet of Things occurs when: (1) digital sensors can now be embedded onto almost any "thing," (2) every electronic device today has some measurable processing power, and (3) all digital devices can actually be connected to the Internet.
How will my experience with uShip be different in five years? Instead of having to place bids, online digital services will anticipate the opportunity presented by my van's excess capacity. Our Uber and Handy accounts will be activated when triggered by our digital sensors.
In the smart home, which is already maturing the landscape for "IoT" devices, devices know the rooms we inhabit and modify thermostat temperatures appropriately. Refrigerators and smart cabinets can sense food consumption. It won't be long before new food comes automatically to our door, just when we run out.
I can't wait for the sharing economy to spread to health care. Combined with the automation of health information collected from FitBit or Apple Watch, on-demand medical services could wring out inefficiencies from health care.
There will be challenges and tradeoff, of course. The long-term trend is for consumers to value time and cost-saving over personal information. This is one reason privacy concerns have not and will not inhibit the Internet of Things. Security concerns — like the fear that your toaster could be hacked — will offer its own hurdles.
But these are bumps in the road and not roadblocks. And Utah’s businesses may well play a role in helping to overcome them. This will be discussed at an event on Thursday — Robotics and the Internet of Things (RIoT) — to be held at Utah Valley University. The half-day event by the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR) will showcase the state of this economy, its challenges, and the opportunities it presents.
Perhaps the only lingering fear keeping the Internet of Things and the sharing economy from taking root is a fear that somehow, efficiency might in some way suppress serendipity.
Drew Clark is of counsel at the law firm of Best Best and Krieger, where he focuses on technology, media and telecommunications. Connect on Twitter @drewclark or via email at email@example.com.