Dull, cold and lonely

If you’ve read anything about ride apps like Lyft and Uber over the past couple years then you know the end-game for these companies is self-driving cars.

Sure, they’re giving tens of thousands of people across the world simple part-time, independent gigs. But these companies wish to get rid of this expense at some point to enable riders to just order cars that drive themselves.

I hadn’t given this much thought until I came back from a whirlwind business trip throughout the East Coast this week in which I took seven Lyft rides and one taxi. After my week, I have to say I’m not looking forward to this future of human-less cars.

I came back home feeling like Lyft and its competitors may be missing something pretty major about their services. Yes, the main value is in the convenience of being able to order and pay for a ride using an app. But there’s also value in the humans who drive the cars.

Jacquetta, Sandy, Keisha, James, Joseph … I remember these people’s names. They were a few of my “drivers” who contributed to the vibe of my entire week. These people were awesome – friendly, accommodating, local, entertaining.

They became very much a part of my experience.

I found myself empathizing with them. Appreciating them.

It made me stop in my tracks. What would this week have been like had I been riding around in cars driven by computers?

Dull, cold and lonely.

In real estate, we’ve been talking about disintermediation for decades, kicked off by Bill Chee’s famous “Lion Over the Hill” speech in the ‘90s. Over the years, the lion has been many things: Microsoft, Homestore, eRealty, Zillow… the list is long.

Yet here we are in 2018 and no one’s been disintermediated from the real estate transaction. Agents are still very much in control and in demand. And while I personally feel a good agent is still absolutely necessary in a complicated real estate transaction, I fear it’s made us all complacent.

I’m worried that in this new race to AI and automation, iBuyers and bots, real estate may also get sucked into the abyss.

Look outside of real estate and you’ll notice an immense effort underway to replace humans with machines wherever possible. This used to feel like a plot in a science fiction novel, but not anymore.

Never in our history have we been so equipped and so focused on automation in so many sectors – transportation, retail, distribution (go and research Amazon’s plans for delivering packages in the future).

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not one to fear monger. I’m not one to stoke the fires of controversy for the sake of taking a strong point of view. But this feels very real to me. This week, for the first time since I entered the real estate industry in 2002, I actually feel like a less-human reality may be more possible than we ever thought.

And this makes me sad because I happen to like humans. I like having people drive me somewhere when I’m in an unfamiliar city. I liked having a Realtor I could turn to for advice and insight when I bought my home.

The moment we all sit down in a self-driving car for the first time, we may be giddy because it is so new and so futuristic. But we should be thinking pretty deeply about the other things we do in our lives that may also someday be so breathlessly “improved”.

The argument has always been that real estate is just too localized and too complicated to be able to remove a human expertise and touch. But wow. If we can build a car that drives itself, I think we can also build a machine that gives guidance and insight when buying or selling a home.

Somehow that doesn’t feel like as much of a pipe dream anymore.