Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Q and A Mike Pinckard Last year at the 99th Annual Convention & Trade Show of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA), Mike Pinckard was elected the association’s president. Pinckard, the CEO of Total Transit in Glendale, Ariz., took the reins at an exciting and pivotal time in the association’s—and the industry’s—evolution. Once an executive in the armored car industry, in 2002 he shifted into moving a much more valuable commodity: people. Pinckard has a unique perspective on the for-hire industry as Total Transit is a holding company for two segments of the TLPA: Total Transit Enterprises (legacy, traditional fixed fleet service), and Veyo (TNC in paratransit). Together with Craig Hughes, founder and chairman of Total Transit, the company had grown into a $200M business. We spoke with Pinckard about his term so far, the direction of the association, and what he thinks about the future of for-hire transportation. The association will also host its 100th Annual Convention & Trade Show this October 27-29 in Las Vegas.

Chauffeur Driven: How did you decide to get involved in TLPA leadership?
Mike Pinckard: It’s probably in my DNA; I’ve always believed that if you want something to change then don’t complain about it: Do something to make it happen. But more importantly, Arizona has been the Wild West from a regulatory perspective. Our company wanted to gain a better perspective of the evolution of the industry and to help shape some of the regulatory framework moving forward. We wanted a voice. It’s been an incredible experience. I’ve met some fantastic people and have been exposed to a new understanding of what is truly affecting our industry’s future.

CD: Your company introduced a ridesharing app in 2014. What impact did it have as TNCs were just breaking in to Arizona?
MP: We had just elected a new governor who we learned was largely supported with TNCs’ dark money. We launched our own app to demonstrate that you could run a TNC legally within the existing regulatory framework—unlike what the popular TNCs were doing. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a lot of traction from the governor and about 10 minutes after being sworn in, he legalized TNCs in Arizona and changed the regulatory landscape forever. We have long believed in the TNC/ridesharing model; it’s just that some companies built a better mousetrap. But if the pendulum was once in favor of the traditional transportation models, TNCs have certainly help that pendulum swing 180 degrees in their favor. My hope is that it will settle somewhere in the middle—and it’s moving in that direction as we speak.

CD: Last year, TLPA leadership said that TNCs would eventually become a part of the association. Where does this stand?
MP: We are completely rewriting the TLPA’s strategic plan, and as part of that process we will also undertake a reorganization of the structural function of the association. We believe that process has to be a lot more collaborative and inclusive, but, as you can imagine, TNCs are a very sensitive issue to address, and one that needs to be done thoughtfully. We’re looking at it from the perspective of consumer protections and public safety. There are many other stakeholders all needing a seat at the table, and we’re trying to find the best way to incorporate their involvement, whether it’s through leadership or just as a voice representing that faction in a way that is productive for all of our members.

CD: Have you experienced any pushback from membership?
MP: Surprisingly, no. Our members are looking for and are interested in the same thing: sources of new demand for their business. And as this space evolves and TNCs take on a greater role in it, it’s going to be critically important for all transportation providers to have access to those sources of demand. I think our members recognize and understand that, so their primary concern is that we do it well. They want a system that provides those consumer protections and addresses public safety without becoming protectionist or hurting the consumer. Striking that balance is our greatest challenge.

CD: TLPA has always been a forward-thinking association. But because there are so many unknowns surrounding our industry’s next disruptor—autonomous vehicles—have you found it difficult to craft the association’s position on this issue?
MP: Our company has actually had an interest in autonomous vehicles for a number of years, and our chief strategy officer has been engaged in organizations related to this technology. We think that it’s a whole part of the next evolution of for-hire transportation. As far as the TLPA is concerned, the association has developed a white paper position and we strongly believe that not only the association but all for-hire stakeholders need to have a seat at the table when fleshing out how this technology gets incorporated into the fabric of our mobility system. Our industry needs to take a much deeper look and gain a better understanding of what is coming.

Personally, I think it’s going to come down to a social or moral issue. When the OEMs or companies like Waymo can finally demonstrate that autonomous technology can operate at a level of safety that is tenfold or hundredfold that of a human being, then it will become a social issue of “how dare you drive a car!” We need to be a big part of that discussion. There’s no harm done in being early, but it’s a game we cannot be late to—it can be very damaging to us all if we’re late.

CD: What steps is the TLPA taking to ensure that the transportation industry is a part of that conversation?
MP: We have actually authorized the creation of an autonomous vehicle committee, which will be launched as part of the reorganization of the association. How that committee will engage with those technologies is yet to be determined; a lot of that will depend on where government, OEMs, and technology companies go on that front. It’s so new that the network itself is still underdeveloped. It’s something that we’ll continue to talk and hear about.

CD: Do you have any thoughts on what TLPA sectors will get there first?
MP: I actually think that TNCs will be first. It takes a technology platform like a TNC to engage and level the autonomous technology as it is currently evolving. I ultimately believe that over time those networks are going to displace a lot of what we have come to see as traditional transportation because once you take the driver out of the equation, the cost effectiveness changes so dramatically that the impact is going to be significant. Obviously, Uber has made an enormous investment in this technology.

CD: Where do you see autonomous vehicle fitting in the luxury industry?
MP: The way I see the passenger experience evolving is it will have nothing to do with operating a vehicle. You have to have a way for the passenger to engage the vehicle, and the way that you would do that is through the peer-to-peer technology currently available through a TNC. If a passenger needs a sedan or an SUV in the future, they will simply go through the platform of their choosing. Your imagination can go crazy when you no longer need windows to look outside—they can be replaced with movie screens or who knows what. I think it will initially start very slowly but once the technology is validated then the sky is the limit. That’s why I think it’s imperative that the people in our industry get a foot in the door in managing those future fleets. I can see situations where that specialization can be even more nuanced where there’s an operator who focuses on one type of passenger experience, which is going to create opportunities for our members. Consider the size and scale of growth that we’re going to experience: It’s truly almost difficult to imagine. If we assume that the for-hire industry today handles maybe 3-4 percent of all of the personal rides that occur, consider the potential when no one is driving their own vehicle anymore—that’s huge. It is an interesting time to be in this space.

This space is going to look entirely different five years from now, and preparing our members for that transition is something we are focusing on.

CD: Consolidation is a hot topic. Have you seen it impact your members?
MP: It sometimes becomes the 800-pound gorilla in the room. There’s obviously been a downward valuation not only for medallions but also across the board in all permit-based segments. From my perspective, I think we need to ask ourselves how we can transition from that model into one of a competitive valuation with a true growth path. Our industry has historically thrived in a decentralized, fragmented regulatory structure that didn’t always make sense. But with the advent of TNCs and the changing framework, the whole nature of the regulatory scheme has been flipped on its head. Except for those who are just looking to get out, most people are either hoping to grow larger or become a part of something bigger, and having access to those opportunities is going to be critical. We do spend time talking about it; we’ve had to talk about it within our own company to prepare for the changing marketplace. We’re hoping that our national platform will be one of those alternatives for our smaller members to be a part of something larger and more consolidated. It’s a huge topic that I think everyone has an interest in, and hopefully you’ll begin to see more transparency about that moving forward. This space is going to look entirely different five years from now, and preparing our members for that transition is something we are focusing on.

CD: Besides the strategic plan, what else can we expect will be changing for the association in the near future?
MP: We are facilitating the creation of a competitive national platform through Curb Mobility, which will be a TNC-like platform for traditional providers. That’s going to be a very big part of our strategy and will provide the universal technology that many of our operators have been looking for and wanting to gain access to. This will be a true direct-to-driver platform that will lay on top of an operator’s existing business, so it won’t threaten their current clients or be limited by their current technology. It will augment their business and allow them to offer new modes of connecting with a customer. We’ll have a lot more to say about it at our upcoming convention in Las Vegas later this year.

CD: Can you give us a sneak peek of what we can expect at the October convention in Las Vegas?
MP: Our conference is where members will be able to see the changes that we’re making. It’s always our number-one destination and frankly, everything happening and coming together so far is pointing to this being a huge conference for us this year. The convention will be three days instead of four, which was a request from our membership. We’re going to be introducing a lot of new concepts, most relevant to innovation and technology, but also how to diversify their businesses. So there will be a lot of exciting content, but also a new structure and design to how we deliver it. We’re going to roll out our strategic plan during the conference, which will detail the association’s vision and mission moving forward. We’ll also have much more to share about the national platform and where we expect it will take us as the evolution of the industry continues. We have numerous members engaged in shaping this new conference, so I encourage everyone to attend to get a better flavor for how the TLPA is changing and where we anticipate we’ll be in the future.

CD: Your term will also end at that convention. What have been some of your most rewarding moments as president?
MP: I’ve been involved in the TLPA for many years, which has afforded me the ability to interact with members from all over the country and in all different segments, but rarely do you get to change to engage with such a professional, hard-working, loyal, and dedicated team as the TLPA staff and, of course, our association’s CEO Al LaGasse. It couldn’t have been a more challenging year for me to fulfill my role as president—there was a lot going on with my business—but it’s just amazingly gratifying to see people like Al and the rest of the TLPA staff who are so committed to this industry and what we’re doing that they make us all look good. He doesn’t get anywhere near the credit he deserves, but frankly, he wouldn’t want it—which makes him who he is. I have been blessed to work with some great people in my career, but if I had to draw the perfect person for his role, I couldn’t think of a better picture.

It’s also gratifying to see the membership and the industry embrace change. For so long, the industry has been accused of being protectionist or inflexible. But here we are, willing to listen, to be deeply engaged, and highly connected to the new vision and direction of transportation. It certainly bodes well for the association and certainly the industry moving into the future.