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Google, our transport overlord?

Brand association is a powerful thing, as is letting your imagination run wild.

So it was that the sight of the new Opal ticketing system card launching this week set our creative juices flowing.

NSW's Opal card.
NSW's Opal card. Photo: Kate Geraghty

As it happens, the born-again, long-time-coming, universal electronic ticketing system for trains, buses and ferries in NSW, to be piloted on ferries from December 7, has a logo that very closely resembles that used by Google in its web browser Chrome.

In fact, at first it read to me like a joint-venture between Chrome and PayPal, which in itself seemed like a good idea (Google Wallet is a mobile payment product and PayPal has been expanding its payment gateway to offline - stranger alliances have been formed), but it was the thought of Google running the transport ticketing system that got me.

Mirror image ... what if Google ran the NSW transport system?
Mirror image ... what if Google ran the NSW transport system? Photo: Kate Geraghty/Digital manipulation

Let's for a minute imagine that this is the case. Google would have won the NSW public tender on the basis of being a master of technology that works. Period.

Given the internet giant's speed-to-market record, the 15 years it has taken for several NSW governments to present a smartcard solution would have been reduced to, say, 15 weeks. Tops.

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If we consider Google's "20 per cent project" scheme, which sees the company support employees who want to take time off their working week to pursue great ideas of their own, chances are a couple of smart guys or girls with several computer science degrees to their name and black t-shirts in their wardrobes would have got the system all figured out and ready to roll in Beta in their lunch hours.

Beta, would  of course, be the way to go; forget "progressive rollouts". All would be done for very little money (save $1 billion and a protracted law suit).

ChromePal would never be accused of relying on old technology, since its maker is the one setting the global technology pace, along with that other trend-setting company, Apple.

Considering some of Google's most successful products came out of Sydney - Google Maps included (ok, Wave was a flop) - the chances of it coming up with algorithms that work for the transport pass are high.

Knowing Google's ability to profile its users and make helpful search and link suggestions, Chrome would link the transport card with your computer, tablet and smartphone in no time flat. Given it already knows about your browsing, viewing and posting habits, the card would know where you want to go, what connections are necessary to get there and who to advise of your estimated arrival time.

When you were rushing to finish work on a Google Drive document, it would sense your hurry, check timetables and advise you to take your time - your train is late anyway.

A Chromepal would also be able to suggest better transport alternatives when it knows trains have derailed or ferries have been cancelled. It would display Google Maps of transport routes as soon as your Google calendar popped up a scheduled event, and may have even overlaid your Google+ friends' locations near or on the ferry or bus you're on. Who needs FourSquare and Facebook check-in?

It would rename the MyZone fare scheme GZone, no doubt further simplifying the whole system with usual Google single-mindedness until fares met the lowest-common-denominator pricing criteria. Because of the volume and improved speed of transactions, most users and stakeholders would be happy. Google would take a small transaction fee as payment for all its troubles, or maybe we could set the price limit in an AdWord-style auction.

Soon after the Beta period started, Google may have introduced a smartphone app for ChromePal for devices running on Android. Those carrying the latest smartphones or tablets would then only need to cross the threshold of their preferred mode of transport for their fare to be deducted from their Google Wallet account. Near-field-communications would ensure the devices talked to the bus, train or ferry fare terminal, with all the security afforded to other Android apps (ok, that may be a stretch).

Your Wallet account would be kept up-to-date with the app or the card deducting transport fees from your salary, given your employer had already integrated Google Apps into its entire enterprise and payroll systems.

Better still, if you opted to receive tailored (Google knows what you like) ads on your card/app/screen, your fare could be free. This would also look good on your mortgage application, given your living expenses are now lower.

Never mind the NSW Government would now be able to track your movements through the city all the time, given Google has your privacy interests at heart: the information would be theirs alone and not the government's. (What was it that Eric Schidmt said about privacy again? You don't have any; get over it? Something like that.)

Anyway, back on the late train, Chromepal would advise your loved ones of your new ETA along with traffic reports (proof of your tardiness, since it's so helpful). It might also have triggered your smart house to turn on the oven to finish off that roast just in time for your arrival. Wait, it's Tuesday. It knows you normally get Indian take-away on Tuesdays. It would've ordered your usual already, ready for you to pick up when you step off the train. It's paid for with, you guessed it, your Google Wallet.

While they were at it, Google might have deployed a few other brains to rethink the entire transport grid, ensuring monorails and light-rail trains actually go where people need them to go; would have run a top-notch algorithm to ensure different modes of transport actually linked up to each other for a smooth, on-time journey; and, god forbid, may have simplified the Transport Infoline website to have a white screen with just one box for your destination. Everything else it would deduce from your location, previous browsing habits, time of query, previous travel records and "what's on" event listings.

I could keep going, but I realise mistakes happen and maybe the NSW Government didn't notice how similar the Opal logo was to Google Chrome. (Maybe the public service use Internet Explorer alone?) I just wonder if it will be cashed-up enough to face one of the world's largest companies in a never-ending lawsuit over copyright.

Come to think of it, you never know - the Swiss rail operator SBB did succeed in extracting a $20 million settlement from Apple for its legendary clock design.

What do you think of the idea? Would you welcome Google transport overlords?

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