Four and a half years ago I discovered the calm atmosphere, less congested streets, and charming neighborhoods of Brooklyn.  When I made the transition out of Manhattan, I had to develop some very specific “Outer Borough” skills – like navigating busy streets on a bike, memorizing weekend subway schedules and, most importantly, becoming an expert at car service.

Don’t get me wrong – occasionally you can get lucky and intercept a cab heading back to Manhattan after dropping someone off in Brooklyn, but this method of far from reliable.  Most of the time, if you want timely weekend transportation (e.g. airport trips, visiting friends), you have to go with a car service.

Having lived in Brooklyn for quite some time, I’ve tried dozens of different car service providers.  After a good bit of trial and error, my girlfriend and I discovered Arecibo; the one provider that is significantly cheaper and faster than all of the others.

Coming back from Newark Airport last week, we were chatting with a friendly Arecibo driver and I asked him why Arecibo seemed to be more reliable, faster, and cheaper than any other car service.  I told him we couldn’t understand how he had picked us up in Newark only five minutes after I called for the car – Arecibo is located in Park Slope, Brooklyn, more than 30 minutes away (on a good day).  The secret, he explained to me, was a real time auction.

When I called Arecibo from Newark to ask for a car, I talked to a member of the dispatch team and told him my location and where we was going.  The second I gave him my current location – “Newark Airport” – he passed this information to the dispatcher working the radio.  The radio dispatcher immediately commenced the real time auction.  In full auctioneer voice he read into the radio: “Newark Airport, Newark Airport, Newark Airport,” and then (as a real auctioneer would recite prices), he started reciting distances in ascending minute denominations: “one minute… five minutes… ten minutes…” waiting for someone to buzz in.

There are over 200 Arecibo cars and each one is equipped with a pretty standard-looking two-way radio.  The radio box is mounted on the front dash and there is a detached (wired) handset with two buttons on the receiver.  One button transmits voice, and the other button is a buzzer (think – buzzing in for an answer on a game show).  When the radio dispatcher starts the real time “minute” auction, all vacant cars are listening with their hands on their buzzers.  When they hear the radio dispatcher say a number of minutes that is equal to or greater than the amount of time they need to get to the passenger, they hit the buzzer on their radio.

The first car to buzz in will show up on the radio dispatcher’s display and he will announce the winner of the auction.  The winning driver is then given the rest of the information about the passenger (e.g. where they are going, how many people, how to find them, etc..).  The whole auction takes about 10 seconds.

“Newark Airport, Newark Airport, Newark Airport”
“One minute… Five minutes..”
“Car 207, Car 207, Car 207”
“Two people, Terminal B, going to Cobble Hill”

Now you might be thinking, why don’t drivers lie about how far they are from the passenger?  A car could certainly win more auctions if they falsely buzzed earlier in the real time auction.  To prevent this behavior, Arecibo has devised a peer-to-peer verification system.  At any time, any car can “check the time” of any other car.  For instance, if Car 207 had taken more than five minutes to pick us up, a different car could have said into his radio “Check time Newark Airport.”  If the dispatcher sees that it’s been more than five minutes, he’ll announce “Time’s up” and the second car could have swooped in and stolen our fare from Car 207.  In addition to losing the fare for being dishonest (or simply not making it to us in time), Car 207 would also get a two hour suspension, during which he would not be eligible to win any auctions (and therefore wouldn’t be able to make any money).

The system is elegant, low tech, and incredibly efficient.  On top of that, our driver really loved the fact that the whole thing was a bit of a game.  He enjoyed the thrill of the real time auctions and also he liked stealing fares from other drivers.  The net effect appeared to give him somewhat of a gamblers’ high.

As I got out of the car in Brooklyn, I couldn’t stop thinking about my conversation with the driver.  It’s amazing that the core technology that powers cutting edge advertising technology companies (real time bidding) is the same principle that allowed me to get home from Newark Airport in a timely and efficient manor.

The Key to Brooklyn’s Most Efficient Car Service: Real Time Bidding
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