The Hopeful Environmentalist

The Hopeful Environmentalist

How driverless vehicles will redefine mobility and change car culture

Only the beginning: already there are cars that can take over steering on highways. How will things change once driverless cars arrive? Beck Diefenbach/Reuters

My grandmother, Christine Johanna Hoffman, was born in 1894 and died in 1990. In the course of her lifetime, she witnessed the advent of indoor plumbing and home electrification, the Wright Brothers' first flight, the debut of the Ford Model T and man landing on the moon, just to name a few.

What changes will my students see in their lifetimes? A freshman in my class today was born around 1998 and will (statistically) die around 2078. How will the world be different? The answer is, of course, impossible to define. The changes they will see are just as incomprehensible today as the past innovations were to my grandmother when she was young.

The author’s grandparents in 1921. Will young adults today see the same type of technological transformation they did? Courtesy of Andrew Hoffman, Author provided

But that doesn’t mean we can’t speculate and imagine what life will be like in 50 years. One area in which I believe they will see spectacular change is that of the personal automobile as it morphs into personal mobility. This change will not just be technological; it will also be economic, political and above all, cultural. How we think about mobility will be completely different than how we think about owning and driving a car today.

Autonomous, electric

As a first step in this imagination exercise, two assumptions are in order.

First, improvements in battery storage technology will make electric cars practical for widespread adoption. This is a view shared by many within the automobile sector and appears within reach as the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt and Tesla Model 3 both promise a range of 200 miles at a cost of roughly US$30,000 (after rebates).

Second, the driverless car will be perfected and in widespread use; this is not a hard future to imagine, given the amount of research and development and the rapid advancements already being seen in this area. With those two assumptions, let’s allow our imagination to run.

A future form of mobility may mean that, rather than relying on a human driver, you will use your phone (or other personal communication device) to summon a driverless car to pick you up and take you where you need to go, whereupon you will release the car to transport someone else to their destination. You will choose your driverless car provider by convenience, and that will depend on how well the provider’s network connectivity algorithms are designed for efficiency and speed.

Just like the airline business model, mobility providers will make more money when their cars spend as little time idle as possible. This means that they need to anticipate demand as best as they can. We may expect to become more impatient and therefore more demanding with mobility providers, expecting wait times to be shorter and shorter.

Let the robot drive. A concept car interior designed around autonomy. gmanviz/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Presumably, these driverless cars will be safer, having fewer accidents, fewer drunk drivers and fewer thefts (though it will still happen, fewer people will steal a car that is fully integrated and tracked in a network). This means that highway speed limits may rise as human error is taken out of the equation. This may also mean that anyone who chooses to drive in a driverless era will pay more for insurance, thus creating even more pressure for fewer people to own cars.

Those that continue to own cars will have to find ways to easily access electricity, leading to the need for new social norms and new technologies for buying electrons. For example, we may drive 300 miles to visit a friend, but will that friend still be excited to see us if he or she is asked to pay for the electricity to fill up our vehicle?

Awkward moments aside, there will always be people that prefer to enjoy the pleasure of driving. Certainly, we would not expect driverless motorcycles even as they become electric – see the Harley-Davidson Livewire.

The fact is that we may eventually see a day when most people will no longer desire to own cars. We can already see signs of this trend in today’s young people and urban dwellers, neither of whom wants the hassle of owning, parking, insuring or just worrying about a car. The emergence of companies like Uber, Lyft and Zipcar are all signs that the sharing economy is displacing car ownership as the rite of passage that it once was. But these services (along with taxi, limo and car rental services) could be the first casualty of the driverless era.

Computers on wheels

This leads to the question of how many cars will there be on the road in the future.

Right now, the average car is parked 95 percent of the time. If we move to a full model of “mobility on demand,” there will be fewer cars on the road, since these vehicles will be shared. So, imagine somewhere around 80-90 percent fewer cars on the road in a perfectly efficient mobility system.

Where does that take us? First, the average homeowner will no longer need that garage out back, or even the driveway that accesses it, leading to a growth in conversions to apartments or storage. Contractors will like this development.

We can also expect a growth in new urbanism, or walkable cities designed for pedestrians rather than car habitat, since many urban roads and parking garages will no longer be needed.

Where will these remaining cars be housed and fueled? Well, they can go idle wherever they are best positioned for the morning’s demand after finding the nearest connection to an electricity source for refueling. This could spell the end of the neighborhood gas station, a long fixture on the American landscape. For one thing, gasoline will no longer be necessary; for another, corporate mobility providers will build their own charging stations. This could spell trouble for oil-producing nations as the more than 50 percent of oil that is used for vehicle travel will no longer be needed.

Who will make these cars and what will the market look like? On this question, environmental scientist, visionary and chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute Amory Lovins offers an interesting provocation. In his view, the car of the future is not a car with a computer; it is a computer on wheels.

As such, it is not necessarily the incumbent car companies that can make it. It could also be made by electronics and computer companies. This is a trend we are already seeing as Apple and Google enter the car market. One key to their product offerings is the emphasis on new software to add to the hardware we all know. Indeed, we can expect the big nameplate automobile companies to transition to the mobility providers from whom we rent rather than buy. The recent moves by GM to invest in Lyft and Sidecar foretell this emerging trend.

This marriage of mobility providers and car manufacturers will lead to a different set of design parameters for the car of the future. While there will still be a demand for status symbol vehicles, people will choose mobility more for interior comfort and efficiency in getting from point A to B than for exterior styling.

So where does that leave those of us who still like that exterior styling? More specifically, where does that leave the classic and vintage car market? First, we can expect to see the number of auto aficionados dwindle as young people no longer share their love affair with cars. This could lead to a drop in demand, just as we’ve seen a drop in demand for record albums, and therefore a drop in prices for the classics we love today (though I have seen vintage record albums commanding some pretty high prices as sales increase by as much as 35 percent).

So, just as there are those who hang on to their old turntables, there will be those who will hang onto their classics. These people will have to make special arrangements to keep their garage and find ways to store a supply of gasoline (which they may buy from a specialty store). These owners will also have to rely increasingly on their own repair skills or a specialized service market as the decline of the neighborhood gas station takes with it the neighborhood car repair shop. This may lead to an increase in classic car storage clubs, complete with private service facilities.

Lost jobs

Might we see some strange or problematic scenarios in the electric, driverless world of the future? Certainly.

For example, imagine a scenario where someone goes to dinner in the city and knows that demand will be high for cars when it is time to leave; might that person choose to “instruct” his personal car, or a hired car, to continuously circle the block until he is ready to leave, thus leading to increased congestion as well as competition for rides?

Or, imagine being able to sleep while commuting to work; might this encourage increased sprawl as people choose to live farther and farther from work? Or, is there a problem waiting to happen with the preprogrammed algorithms that these cars will possess for making decisions in emergency situations? What will happen when a car faces a “choice” between a bad and worse outcome, say between hitting a pedestrian and a motorcycle or school bus (which is also driverless and likely communicating with the car)? The legal ramifications of such a “decision” are not hard to imagine.

Finally, as has been true since the beginning of time, technological innovation displaces some jobs while it creates new ones. Already, we might anticipate the demise of the taxi driver, gas station owner or mechanic. But driverless car proponents also look to end the careers of long haul truckers, as this is one of the first targets of the technology.

Of course, all of this is speculation. But, while it is fun to imagine what might be, the future will be what we make it. As the late Physics Nobel Laureate Dennis Gabor said, “The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.” That is the message I leave with my students after I introduce them to my late grandmother. While we can imagine the world they will see later in their life, the better exercise is to ask them what kind of world they want to see and what role they want to play in bringing it to reality.

And with that, I turn it over to you. I invite you to use the comments section to offer your prognostications of what the world of mobility will look like in 2078 when today’s freshmen reach the end of their lives 60 years from now. Have fun.