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End of coin-using vending machines?

Did I ask the wrong poll question last week?

No sooner had the issue gone to press where 84 percent of readers said the vending machine industry should not have veto power over changes in the compositions of U.S. coins, than an article appeared in U.S.A. Today reporting that the vending machine industry itself might be on the verge of radical change.

What kind of radical change, you might ask?

Well, vending machines might not use coins at all in the not-too-distant future. If that happens, the vending machine industry won’t care what U.S. coins are made of. Coins will be as useful as hand cranks on a wall telephone.

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Dan Mathews, the chief operating officer of the National Automatic Merchandising Association is quoted as saying, “We now have machines that look and act like giant iPads.”

Imagine a touch screen on the machine that will sell you your next Coke. Imagine using what is called “mobile-wallet platforms” instead of coins.

Now as someone who grew up in the era when we were told we would have flying cars by now, I do have a certain in-built skepticism about forecasts of the future, but on the other hand, the transformation of daily life by computers, cell phones and the Internet is nothing short of staggering.

Who needs flying cars when you can work with your computer and cell phone from wherever you happen to be?

Who needs coins if you can pay for your vending machine thirst-quencher with a card, a smartphone, or a key fob?

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It would appear that the vending machine industry is facing a need to upgrade its machines no matter what the government decides to do with its coins.

Why would the vending industry bother with a coin mechanism when the step up to computer-age vending is just around the corner? Why mess with two rounds of upgrades when one might just do it? Sure, I can conjure up an image of a traveler with nothing but coins in his possession dying of thirst in some isolated spot in front of a vending machine that doesn’t take coins. But how realistic is that?

The Mint’s report on coin composition alternatives is due in 2013. Even if Congress dropped everything and acted quickly on the Mint’s recommendations, the first new coins wouldn’t arrive until 2014. Any legislative wrangling could easily push the changes to 2015.

Why fight over dropping the 1 cent coin from production when the vending machine industry might just be able to drop all coins? A leap like that isn’t out of the question.

I have written over the years that coins will likely continue in use for my lifetime. I still believe that, but the continuing stalemate over dropping the cent actually might help turn the nation into a coinless society faster. The government that ended paper checks for new Social Security recipients this year might just end all coins rather than fight the interests vested in the cent, dollar coin, or dollar note.

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