August 26, 2013
Some of you have probably heard this true story from me several times, but it is still a reminder of how much work lies ahead...
The year was 1996.
I had just bought my first car - a brand spanking new Toyota Corolla. I was living in Philadelphia, but had bought my car in Maryland because I knew someone there who could help me negotiate down the last $100 on the price, which was actually a big deal then...and never mind how much more I might have spent on gas. (Rest assured, no laws were broken or taxes evaded in the process.) I was almost back home, on the Ben Franklin bridge at the toll booth...
...without ANY cash on me. OK, so you might realize where i am going with this! Remember, this was before EZ-Pass was invented. But, hey, I already had another grad student perk - a Sunoco Mastercard that i had applied for outside the Student Activities Center for a free T-shirt - I was proud to have entered a cashless world! Who needs to carry bills and coins when you had a piece of plastic with your name on it?
'Do you take MasterCard, M'am?' 'No? You mean I have to write you a check?'
'SIR, YOU ARE HOLDING UP THE TRAFFIC!'
'Seriously, you only take cash?' I could not believe my ears! In fact, I got an earful from the police officer who had now pulled me over to the side. I was given an pre-addressed envelope, in which I was supposed to mail in the toll - $2.45 (+ postage).
Fast forward 16years.
2012 was well into the age of EZ-Pass (even though past the age of SpeedPass!)
I was driving a rental car on my usual commute because my own car was being repaired. I went through the EZ-Pass lane without realizing I did not have my EZ-Pass tag in the car. The result was a letter, a fine, an appeal, a rental car surcharge, etc., etc. only because I did not have the tag in the car. There's more to the story but not relevant to payments...I can share that with you over a drink.
I had exchanged cars with a neighbor to help out with move, and again, I had forgotten to take my EZ-Pass tag. This time, I knew I did not have a tag in the car, but I knew they still had those coin-toss baskets at most toll plazas on the parkway. I had a few quarters, so I figured I was covered, at least for this one pass...or so I thought! The problem was that the toll had quadrupled since I had last used coins or tokens. I had no choice but to go through the cash-only lane with insufficient cash.
'M'am, i am sorry but i am one quarter short and have no other cash. What do you think I can do?'
'Don't you have EZ-Pass?' Obviously, I looked like the kind of guy who obviously has an EZ-Pass account.
'Well, I do, but it's not in the car and...'
'That's OK. When they send you the letter, you can just write your tag number on the appeal, and...just back up and go into the EZ-Pass lane.' I knew what happens after that, and was a smarter man.
'I don't think I should be holding up traffic for a quarter. Can I mail it in?'
This time, the woman could not believe her years! 'JUST GO', and she opened the toll gate for me, without taking any toll.
Sometimes, I feel a little embarrassed to tell people (outside the industry) that I work in mobile payments...'You know you always have your phone with you, so why should you need to also carry a wallet, cash, etc.? We are working on...' We are nowhere close to a cashless society, forget a card-less, tag-less, or any other digital-only version.
I think I am at the half-way point of my 10-year personal journey in mobile money.
I hope I don't have another deja vu in my toll payments experiences. I hope we can make some good progress as an industry in this round of innovation! It can't be THAT difficult.