As gadgets go, it's hardly the sexiest. It's a meter. For taxis. For motorcycle taxis, to be precise. And yet it might just be a $3 billion dollar idea.
Paul Giles, President of World Moto , whose new Moto-Meter hits the streets of Bangkok in March, remembers when he first got the idea for his product. An American ex-pat in Bangkok, Giles was hanging out with some motorcycle taxi drivers. It's a common profession in Thailand, where traffic often clogs the path of cars, leading some 700,000 Thai men and women earn their living by weaving moto-taxis in and out of traffic. In recent years, moto-taxis have become wildly popular not only in Thailand but across the cities and towns of Asia, Africa, and South America. In mega-cities like Bangkok, Laos, and Sao Paolo, their growth has been exponential.
But moto-taxis have sprung up as a mostly unregulated industry. Lacking meters, moto-taxis' fares are subjective--the sort of situation that leads to knowing admonitions in Lonely Planet guides, and surly behavior on the part of tourists and taxi drivers alike, each mistrustful of the other.
As Giles talked with some of his taxi-driving acquaintances back in 2003, he got to wondering, why don't moto-taxis have meters? "It's interesting because it's such a simple idea," he tells Fast Company. "When it hit, it was like a lightning bolt. I thought, my God, they're everywhere, why don't they have a meter?"
Giles hopped on Google immediately, convinced someone else must have had the idea before him. He entered "motorcycle taxi meter" and pressed search. "It's amazing, you can close your eyes and type on the keyboard a random set of number and letters, and you'll get results on Google," he says. But his search query turned up nothing. He tried every hyphenated and compound-worded permutation he could think of: "moto-taxi meter," "motorcyle taximeter," and so on. Nothing, nothing, nothing. "No one had even thought of it, not even in any blogs, not even in blogs where people talk about the pricing of taxis." He started buying up domain names.
He began working on the idea, joining forces in 2008 with another America-to-Thailand ex-pat, Chris Ziomkowski, now World Moto's Chief Technical Officer. The more the two researched, the more opportunities they realized there were for innovations in motorcycle taximetry.
The first problem to tackle was durability. Were you to take a standard taxi meter and simply jerry-rig it onto your motorcycle, it would not be long for this world. Says Ziomkowski: "The standard meter isn't sealed against environmental hazards. Road dust, rain, splashing water--the standard meter out of a taxi would quickly fail."
That was an obvious one. The team soon realized, though, that apart from digitization, the taxi meter had barely been revised since it had been invented in 1891. They came up with idea after idea--"feature creep," they call it--taking their time implementing each one.
Take advertising, for instance. In recent years, interactive screens have appeared in taxis in New York and elsewhere, bringing in ad revenue. But there's no reason why advertising can't play a role on even a relatively low-tech taxi meter. Moto-Meter enables simple LED-display ads to run for the duration of a ride, earning revenue for the driver and for World Moto. "I've shown the drivers, and it's like Homer Simpson and beer," Giles says. "Ooh...advertising!"
Another innovation is the black box -- a device recording data in the event of an accident. These are familiar from airplanes, of course, and have also made their way into automobiles, initially as part of the airbag system. Since motorcycles don't have airbags, there was never a similar evolution in data recording for bikes. "Why not?" says Ziomkowski. "They [black boxes] reduce accidents. Just the knowledge that someone is monitoring driving behavior tends to change the way drivers drive." The black box will record speed, acceleration, braking information, crash force, and even when passengers are sitting and when they're ejected from seats, all data of interest to law enforcement and insurers. Thousands die each year in Thailand from motorcycle accidents (though moto-taxi drivers tend to drive much more safely than those who merely dabble in biking), and World Moto wants to help reduce that figure.
Finally, the team also developed an anti-tampering feature to further assure customers they're paying a fair rate. If motorcycle taxis tamper with the meter, it shuts down.
They poured about $1 million, all told, into the development of the device.
"There will be uses for [Moto-Meter] we can't even predict," says Giles. "I didn't come to Thailand to build a meter for motorcycle taxis," he adds, with a tone of marvel and bewilderment. (He had come, at first, to run a security business for hotels.) "But once we own that space above the handlebars, there are so many things we can do with that."
The device runs about $180, cheaper than a standard taxi meter, says Giles. With moto-taxi drivers making a nice middle-class wage in Thailand--in Bangkok, they make more than teachers, nurses, and construction workers, he claims -- they can afford it. And by reducing acrimony and averting lost potential fares, it should pay for itself soon, goes the logic. The market for the device is potentially enormous, with 20 million moto-taxis in the world and counting. Hence the potential $3-billion figure Giles estimates.
Different markets will demand different models: in one country, a government might require the meter; in another, consumer demand might drive the purchase; in another, a taxi union might adopt it. In Bangkok, among the drivers he knows and has shown the device to, Giles finds that they are excited at the prospect of the legitimacy afforded by a standardized gadget. "I've seen it in the eyes and tone of voice of guys I've spoken with," says Giles. "It's just a feeling of, 'I've been marginalized for such a long time. Here's a device I can feel proud of myself with.'"
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[Images: World Moto]