Drone Deliveries Are Cool, but Drone Returns Could Be Revolutionary

Online retailer Amazon is testing drones to deliver packages Photograph by Amazon/EPA

In all the hubbub surrounding Amazon’s drone-delivery program, this was something pretty smart I read today.

“It will be cool when drones can deliver something to you in 30 min. … it will be much much cooler when the drone can pick it back up when you are done with it. Drones (and self driving cars) are the key to the ‘sharing’ economy where people don’t have to ‘own’ anything anymore … they can just requests things when they need them, get them instantly, and return them when they are done … that is what will really change the world.”

That’s from a Facebook post by Sam Lessin, Facebook’s director of product management and a co-founder of the now-defunct file-sharing service

If you think about what Lessin is proposing, it starts to get really interesting really fast. Consider the self-driving car. Imagine one picks you up in the morning to take you to work. Well, now you’re at your desk, so you don’t need your car for a while. When you own and drive your own car, it sits parked somewhere for hours. If it’s self driving, it could be used to give rides to other people. At that point, you don’t need to own the car—you need access to a car service. This is what human-based car services have been doing for decades, but driverless cars drive the cost way, way down so that car services can become more affordable for more people. In this fantasy, we don’t own cars, we have “access” to them.

But, like commenters on Lessin’s post, you can expand that idea beyond cars. Saturday night, I had some friends over. Because I didn’t eat enough at Thanksgiving, I decided to cook a variation on bo ssäm, a Korean pork dish. The dish calls for sushi rice, and in a fit of extravagance a couple of years ago, I bought a rice cooker for an earlier bo ssäm endeavor.

Now the truth is, I don’t use my rice cooker all that often. I know that I should, but I never get around to it. But what if I didn’t need to own a rice cooker at all? What if I could go online and order one on Saturday afternoon? Come Sunday, I could leave it outside to be returned. Instead of paying $100 for a rice cooker, I could spend $10 for a rice cooker for one day. Great for me, lousy for Williams-Sonoma, I imagine.

Cars, kitchen appliances—many things could go from total ownership to as-needed rental. Heck, people have been renting tuxedos for decades. Maybe Parks and Recreation’s Tom Haverford was onto something with Rent-A-Swag after all.

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