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Technology

"Sexy Math" Helps App Amp Up Car Services

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: Cool new apps come out every day, but not every app comes with its own car service. Starting in San Francisco, one company lets pedestrians hail a car using their iPhone or Android phone (or any old text-messaging clunker), providing a more expensive, yet faster alternative to cabs. To make this possible, computer scientists had to find a way to make driving routes as efficient as possible, which is actually quite complicated when you're dealing with a city-ful of car-hailing people. As Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told Wired, “It’s really fun, sexy math.” What's the Context:

godview.jpg

What's the News

  • The process is simple from the consumer's point of view: You request a car by texting your address or by using Uber's iPhone or Android app. Because Uber sends the nearest driver to your location to pick you up, your ride arrives within 5 to 10 minutes. Then you just hop into your car and get out at your destination, with no need of fumbling with money because Uber automatically charges your credit card. (You punch in your credit card information into the app before requesting a car.)

  • From the computer scientist's point of view, the process is a noble attempt at solving the complicated traveling-salesman problem, in which you're trying to determine the shortest path visiting each location only once. “Each car has its own traveling-salesman problem," Kalanick told Wired.

  • Uber has created algorithms that try to connect car-hailers with the nearest car. And it tweaks this algorithm every day, when they analyze car demand and routes. Ensuring that everything works smoothly are a bunch of operation managers looking at a "God View" (pictured above) that shows where each Uber car is.

  • The way the company ensures there are enough cabs for demand is also complicated: They analyze weather forecasts, knowing that there will be more demand for rides when it rains, and also take sporting and other events into consideration, and increase fares depending on how high that demand is. So more cabs will be on the road when demand is high because the drivers will be getting paid more. (And from the other perspective, only people who are willing to pay the higher price will be riding, which also moderates demand.)

  • Uber, which is technically not a cab service because it partners with luxury sedan services, debuted in San Francisco in June 2010.

  • In other car service news, some researchers want to map the secret knowledge of taxi drivers.

  • When it comes to taxi services, the space taxi has been one of the most talked about subjects.

Not So Fast:

  • The service is currently only permanently available in San Francisco and Palo Alto, California.

  • While the app is free, the cost of the ride is about 40% more than what you'd pay for a regular cab ride. (Uber believes that customers will be willing to pay for the company's speedy service.)

The Future Holds:

  • The company is currently developing a "heat-map" system that'll let drivers know which areas of a city are "hot" in terms of high demand, making the service more efficient.

  • They expanded to Austin in March for the SXSW film and music festival, and have plans on permanently expanding to other cities, including New York City in the coming months.

Image: Uber

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