As it turns out, driving people in the backseat of a vehicle is big business. Cleverly known in some circles as “the business of the back seat”, the occupation encompasses taxi, limo and chauffeur services, and employs more than 170,000 people in the United States. In New York alone, for instance, taxis serve 236 million passengers every year.
At the same time, ridesharing services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar are growing rapidly, and enable nearly everyone to turn a vehicle into a moneymaker. These companies have been garnering a significant share of attention, and have recently seen infusions of investment capital.
All in all, competition is fierce when it comes to the business of the back seat. And recently, Ford Motor Company shared a very informative infographic (available below) that illustrates the past and present of the backseat. Let’s take a look.
Taxicabs begin to appear on the streets of New York. Electrobat, a car built by Electric Vehicle Company, is the first vehicle designed as a taxi. Up to 12 passengers can ride on a wooden bench in the back of the horseless carriage.
Angered after being charged $5 for a three-quarter-mile taxi ride, Henry Allen starts New York Taxicab Company. But with rides costing 50 cents a mile, cabs are a mode of transportation only the relatively wealthy can afford.
Taxicabs rise sharply in popularity. As demand for cars booms, automobile manufacturers, including Ford Motor Company, begin operating fleets of cabs. By the Great Depression, New York has an estimated 16,000 cabs, more than the 13,437 medallion (yellow) cabs in operation in 2014.
In 1956, Ford becomes the first automaker to offer safety belts in the back seats as an option for the Fairlane Crown Victoria. The Checker taxi is produced and becomes an icon of midcentury transportation. The tank-like car is marketed as a no-frills “tough taxi.” The most popular Checker model, a sedan called Superba, has the option of adding a pair of jump seats in front of the large back bench for carrying up to eight passengers.
Cupholders become standard in vehicles in the 1980s.
In 1990, lap and shoulder belts are federally mandated for the back seats of cars. Ford Crown Victoria becomes a staple of taxi fleets, and Lincoln Town Car is the go-to “black car” for livery drivers. Unlike the Checker taxi’s utilitarian design, Crown Victoria and Town Car are designed for passenger comfort. The New York Times reports Crown Victoria’s “plush leather back seat can resemble a sofa on wheels.
After learning 80 percent of vehicle seats on American highways are empty, John Zimmer and Logan Green start Zimride on the campus of Cornell University. Zimride enables students to connect with others via social networks to arrange for carpooling in their own vehicles, sharing the cost of fuel.
Calling the taxi industry a “protectionist scheme,” Travis Kalanick starts low-price black-car company Uber in San Francisco. Uber allows drivers of luxury vehicles like Lincoln Town Car to earn money in their off-hours through a mobile application, providing black-car rides at an affordable price.
After more than 30 years, Ford ends production of Crown Victoria and Lincoln Town Car. The models are still ubiquitous, but taxi companies look to diversify their fleets, and customers look for new ways to get around.
Sunil Paul and Jahan Khanna start rideshare company Sidecar in San Francisco. And John Zimmer and Logan Green start Lyft as a low-cost alternative to Uber also in San Francisco. Lyft, much like its predecessor Zimride, allows car owners to operate their own vehicles as taxis. Uber responds by launching UberX, a low-cost service that relies on personally owned everyday cars.
In New York alone, taxis make 485,000 trips per day. With the comfort of back seat passengers in mind, automakers add luxury features like massaging seats, LED reading lamps and inflatable safety belts.
And all of that brings us to where we are today, as the still-nascent ridesharing start-ups are fiercely competing with each other, while putting pressure on the services taxis have traditionally delivered. As Ford puts it, “only time will tell how different models of for-hire transportation will coexist”, with “the right combination of superior customer service, value and creature comforts” likely being the determining factors for the future of the business.
The Motrolix Take
Once in a while, we wonder carsharing services, and the effect their potential rise will have on automakers such as Ford, General Motors, Volkswagen, and others. Specifically, will the growing popularity of such services cause consumers to purchase less new cars, or will it have the opposite effect and entice ride providers to purchase newer and better vehicles to deliver better customer service? That, to us, is the real question.