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Having stayed in my fair share of Airbnb’s over the years, I can vouch for the value of the human element. At one apartment in Palo Alto, my host handed me a personalized guidebook of local restaurants, annotated with suggestions from recent visitors. At another in London, my hostess proudly showed off her most prized possession — a map of the world covered in pins representing the home-towns of prior guests. In each case, these gestures made me feel like part of a community, and reduced any awkwardness I might have felt from staying in a stranger’s home. They also influenced my decision to leave highly positive reviews.
More than just a clever marketing tactic, building a feeling of community is a vital step towards enabling the sharing economy. Although it’s easy to get swept up in the economic narrative of unlocking value from our existing resources (homes, cars, savings, etc.), it’s equally important to focus on the human element that allows it to scale — trust.
The transportation market is a great example of this. Cars remain one of the most underutilized assets we own — operating at about 5% of existing capacity. Just think of the benefits we could unlock by pooling them into a shared network: transforming parking lots into public parks, reducing emissions, cutting the cost of mobility, and the list goes on! But before any of these gains can be realized, consumers have to trust autonomous vehicles enough to use them.
For those of us immersed in technology trends, trusting in automation comes more naturally than it does to the general public. According to a recent survey from AAA and the University of Michigan, three out of four drivers said they would be afraid to ride in a self-driving car. Over 80% of people surveyed said they trusted their own driving skills more than autonomous technology. And these concerns have likely grown in the wake of Tesla’s first fatal autopilot crash.
While the Federal government has made some strides towards establishing clearer safety guidelines, this still only addresses part of the problem. Having a high average rating on on Airbnb doesn’t just signal an apartment’s safety, but also its quality and reliability — two critical components in scaling trust across a large base of users.
This is an issue that Uber has been wrestling with over the last several years. While much has been written about the company’s investment in AV’s from the perspective of cost savings, the technology would also address much more immediate issues in its customer experience. For example, the most common user complaint by far stems from drivers taking bad routes in reaching a given destination.

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With the exception of car quality, autonomous vehicles can eliminate four out of the top five experience issues faced by customers. However, the technology alone isn’t a magic bullet. Eliminating the driver doesn’t eliminate the need for a rating system that communicates these improvements via a community of peers. If Uber can get both of these right, it would go a long way towards building trust with an even larger base of new and repeat users.
While transportation may be one of the most talked-about markets poised for disruption via the sharing economy, it certainly won’t be the last. The next decade will undoubtedly see an acceleration of collaborative consumption models into new verticals and across more participants. Along the way it’s important for founders to remember that success depends as much on figuring out empathy as it does efficiency.