Autonomous Cars and the End of Ownership… Not “If”, but “When”


The year is 20×0.  It is Friday night at 7pm and that weekend get-away is really sounding fantastic right about now.  You check email and verify that everything is set.  Work is done for now, reservations all in place and confirmed.  Bags are packed and waiting at the door.  All systems are go!  The phone buzzes and the alert reads:

Hello!  This is your TeleCar!  I wanted to let you know that I have arrived at your home as requested and am standing by outside to bring you to the ski lodge!  Road conditions are good and expected travel time is 4 hours and 30 minutes.  At current fuel economy levels we will require 0 stops for fuel”

Sounds good! You lock up, head outside and climb into the comfortable, well equipped, 4 personal transport, tossing the weekend suitcase in the back.  Settling into the driver seat, just in case the urge to drive for a bit hits, you dock your smartphone into the dashboard and your social stream appears up on the windshield HUD.  As you dive back into your river of information, the car quietly and smoothly pulls itself back out on the road and plots the most efficient course for highway 1.  Merging into the highway, the local route planning intelligence switches into standby and the car guidance system transfers control to the central traffic management system.  With the trip underway, and everything quiet for now, you decide to take a nap for a while so you are well rested for your arrival at the lodge.

Sound far fetched?  Ridiculous marketing hyperbole or optimistic futurist sci-fi vision?  Well it definitely is not.  Google has logged hundreds of thousands of miles at this point in their autonomous cars, and their distance between incident rating is inching towards being enough to be considered acceptable for broad consumer usage.  Their car even passed its driving test! Each year more and more major manufacturers quietly slipstream more autonomy features into mainstream models under the guise of safety and convenience; normally paired with compelling marketing names.  Getting drowsy?  No worries! If you drift the car will put you back in the lane (real feature).  Want to really use cruise control in traffic without having to worry about follow distance?  No worries!  Adaptive cruise control will use radar to adjust speed accordingly (real feature).  The list goes on.  Even as the majority of consumers either ignore, scoff at, or laugh at the idea of a society of fully self driving cars, that very future is creeping up on us.

The climate is ripe for it as well.  The economy has taken a hit and car ownership is a big expense.  Gas prices have remained high and cars have become more disposable.  People want a car that doesn’t require excessive maintenance and gets the best possible fuel efficiency, and car manufacturers have pivoted to try to deliver that.  Heavily subsidized leases and hybrids continue to get more popular as a result.  Compounding this trend is the emergence of a generation of young people that are more enamored with their personal computing devices than they are with traditional personal expressions like a car.  They are more ecologically focused as well and, right or wrong, view cars as an excess rather than a necessity.

The convergence of changing socioeconomic conditions, generational mores, and emerging technology is good news for an increasingly surveillance and control focused government.  Autonomous vehicles provide centralized control of citizen mobility.  While this reduces traffic, increases efficiency, and dramatically reduces accidents (all things that nearly any citizen would enthusiastically cheer), it also increases the ability of the government to track and control its citizens.  If there is an APB on someone, and every car is a connected device with both internal and external cameras, a facial recognition scan across the transportation grid might just turn up a positive hit if that person is sitting in a vehicle.  On a positive hit capture might be as easy as directing the car, under emergency order, to lock safely pull over, activate a beacon, and lock itself down.

Obviously there would be quite a legislative battle to get to this end state, but I am sure that it is something government agencies are both fantasizing about, and planning for.  I also think that the benefits are big enough, that a population increasingly disillusioned with the automobile would allow it.

So assuming these trends are inevitable (for the sake of discussion), what might the future of the auto-industry look like?  In my opinion, in the above scenario, ownership loses meaning.  Why bother owning something that really has become disposable, commodity, transportation?  If the benefits of a car are just a text message, email, or web form scheduling event away, there isn’t really a lot of value to having one in the garage.  I think it was interesting that Zip Car was recently acquired by Avis precisely for this reason.  It seems that we could be heading for a transformative period for rental agencies where, instead of providing traditional vehicles on a rental basis for targeted scenarios, they move into the business of being vehicle timeshare dispatch and management brokers.  You pay a subscription and they provide and maintain vehicles on demand.  The logistics are built in since transportation has moved to programmatic control and the car is autonomous.  Fulfillment becomes an extension of the scheduling system rather than a complex logistical exercise.

So where does that leave our hypothetical weekend tripper?  In an interesting position really, with very few downsides outside of extreme government abuse scenarios or the nostalgic sense of loss that comes with giving up ownership.  The former is likely to be enough of an edge case that most will eventually ignore it (as they do police drones and wiretaps without warrant today), and the latter is likely to not matter if the hypothetical tripper is below 30.  And on the way back, if you want to do some driving, you can manual override purely for entertainment purposes.  And if you get the idea that you’ll just drive your autonomous car into the sunset, if your remaining time starts to run close to the time required to get you back home, it will nicely take the wheel back over and remind you that its time to call it a day unless you’d like to sign back on and pay some extra cash to extend your stay!

Either way we’re certainly in for some interesting times!

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Imagine more of this, less Google logo, and no bizarre roof mount and POOF! Hello 2020!
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