Autonomous vehicles are coming faster than you think. But even today, it doesn't make sense to own your ride.
Thanks to the miracle of CGI, our culture has become used to imagining some pretty wild things: vast superhero battles, space armadas, planet-killing lasers. But I'm willing to bet you still have difficulty picturing a much more likely future scene: your neighborhood with zero parked cars in it.
Just imagine for a minute, how much visual clutter that would remove. No obnoxious SUVs at odd angles, half-on, half-off the sidewalk, squeezing out pedestrians. No driveways stuffed with vehicles in various states of rusting; heck, no need for driveways at all. Every so often you'd see a sleek driverless car pulling up at a neighbor's house, or trundling along doing the speed limit. But as a constant visual reminder, cars would be gone.
In their absence, people might be more inclined to beautify their homes, expand their flowerbeds, revitalize their stoops. Maybe the concept of parklets will expand from city centers to suburbs. You'd actually get to see your neighbors when they're not doing the re-parking dance on street-cleaning days. On the whole, the world will start to feel like it has more room to breathe in the streets.
This relatively auto-free utopia is closer than you think. Driverless cars are barreling down on us from all directions. Their business models are already clear. You'll either subscribe to a car service or pay per use, because it makes no sense to sell you a vehicle that you don't use 95 percent of the time when companies can make tons more money loaning the same inventory to everyone.
Just ask Elon Musk:
Ever-growing fleets of smart vehicles will eventually make ownership obsolete. The wait for a car to be hailed will keep going down, until it becomes almost always faster and cheaper to get a ride anywhere than to bother with parking and walking to your destination. In many city centers, that tipping point has already been reached. Even now, buying a car makes little economic or environmental sense, and it will make less sense with each passing year.
So why would you ever do it again?
The road to carefree and car-free
The shift to autonomous vehicles does not just rely on those innovative headline-grabbing upstarts, Waymo (which already has a live robotaxi service in Chandler, Ariz.) and Tesla (Musk likes to boast that his cars are mostly autonomous, and just a few software updates away from being fully autonomous). Ford is testing driverless cars in cities like Pittsburgh, Miami, and D.C., and Volkswagen has self-driving Golfs zipping around Hamburg, Germany. General Motors is just waiting for the government's permission to unleash a driverless Bolt.
The driverless car will change society as profoundly in the 21st century as the horseless carriage did in the 20th, in ways we're only just starting to see. For one thing, around 1.35 million people around the world per year will not lose their lives, which in itself is a cause for celebration. (That number includes people killed in auto accidents; it doesn't count asthma deaths caused by car pollution, which will also come down as the use of electric cars rises.)
We can look forward to the autonomous driving era as we would look forward to a ceasefire in humanity's most destructive war. In some parts of the world, the public is already thinking that way, as shown in this new London survey:
There are studies that suggest using autonomous vehicles makes us nicer and more selfless. More honest, too: We can finally spend our drivetimes legitimately gawping at our phones instead of being hypocrites who pretend that we'd never do such a thing.
As urban planners catch up with the new reality, cities will become way more pleasant for pedestrians and cyclists. Lanes don't need to be 12 feet wide when human drivers aren't swaying all over them. We'll only need a few strategically-placed parking lots of appropriate density, probably owned in common by the car service companies. Their vehicles can drive themselves there to charge up.
You'll choose from a wide variety of rides dependent on your needs (Party bus for a boozy night out with friends? Sturdy sedan for a chauffeured and suddenly fashionable Sunday drive in the country?) as easily as you currently hail a Lyft or Uber. Freed from the constraints of drivers, cars will evolve into new and unrecognizable forms, rather like the vehicle just unveiled by GM subsidiary and brash San Francisco robotaxi company, Cruise:
With rivals like Cruise and San Francisco robo startup, Zoox, promising to eat their lunches on ever lower fares, the ride-sharing giants are planning to ditch their human drivers as soon as possible. Lyft already has autonomous vehicles in Las Vegas(although a safety driver is still in the car). Uber's self-driving program tentatively went back on the road nine months after a fatal crash in Arizona. With the future of the company riding on it, Uber couldn't afford not to.
Basic economic pressures will make the shift to robotaxis, sadly for drivers. But the upside is that basic economics will also make car ownership even more unattractive than it currently is.
Already, the rideshare-hailing generation sees less need to own. The average monthly car payment in the U.S. is $545, and that doesn't factor in paying for parking. It doesn't work for you, and it doesn't work for the automaker, which will make more money on subscriptions or per-use services.
Future generations will think us nuts for plowing so much of our paychecks into paying off five-year loans on dangerous hunks of metal that lose their value every minute. (Most vehicles already depreciate by as much as 40 percent after 5 years; as a nation's fleet grows increasingly autonomous, the resale value of non-autonomous cars seems like it might collapse completely.)
Future generations will be right. Especially when the fuel that powers most of those hefty hunks of metal does incredible harm to the planet, what on Earth were we thinking, encouraging manufacturers to make more of them? Not all autonomous vehicles currently being tested are electric, but none are ever going to fill themselves up with gas — so over time, it makes sense that they'll all go electric for self-charging purposes.
In the U.S., dealerships make money on servicing your vehicle as well as selling it to you in the first place, which may help explain why the percentage of electric vehicles they sell is currently declining: There's less incentive for salespeople to push cars with fewer parts that require less maintenance overall. Another factor is that there's a lull in government subsidies for EVs in the U.S. right now; China is not making the same mistake.
In short, something is rotten in the state of car ownership. It is a dinosaur business that will die out in the same way that owning media on CDs and DVDs died out in the 2000s: slowly, then all at once.
So in the meantime, even in a pre-autonomous world, why participate in the system at all? That $545 average monthly payment breaks down to about $27 per weekday (again, not factoring in parking costs, or vacation time, or work from home days).
Even if you have no public transit options whatsoever, you can probably already get to the office and back in a rideshare for less than that (especially if you're actually, y'know, sharing the ride).
And if it costs a little more...well, isn't it worth a few bucks to avoid the hassle of driving at the crankiest hour of the morning, expending your precious caffeinated mental energy on judging which lane of slow-moving traffic is the slowest? Or the hassle of having to limit your intake at after-work drinks to a beer or two?
When it comes to car rentals for weekend trips, your options are multiplying. We're not just talking companies like Hertz or Dollar, or their 2000s counterparts like Zipcar and Car2Go. All require you to go through the hassle of picking up your rental at a specific location.
The near-term future of car rental probably looks more like Kyte, a startup that will deliver a vehicle to your front door. For now, Kyte still needs a driver to make the delivery and make her own way home — but as with all else in the world of cars, humans will not be required for long.
No one is pretending this brave new world won't come at a cost in terms of employment. We can only hope for a transition smooth enough to allow for the retraining of professional drivers, which governments should make a priority. But the benefits are incalculable: millions of fewer deaths, less road infrastructure, more livable cities. The future will offer us all the chance to inhabit a cleaner, greener, nicer neighborhood — no CGI (or CO2) required.
Compiled by Olalekan Adeleye