Will the rapid arrival of robotic cars lead to the blissful end of traffic? Or will autonomous cars merely put drivers out of work and clog our streets more than ever before?
No one knows for sure if the utopian vision or the dystopian vision will arrive at your front door. What is clear is that the convergence of automobiles and information technology promises one of the biggest industrial and cultural disruptions we have ever seen.
Amory Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, starts off a discussion of the future of personal mobility with a look at the past – an image of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue at the turn of the twentieth century.
“In 1900, you have to look really hard to find the first car,” Lovins points out. Just thirteen years later, “you have to look even harder to find what might be the last horse…thirteen years to go from first car to last horse.”
The implication is clear – the automobile and oil industries stand to go the way of the horse and buggy if they don’t get up to speed with advances in transportation technology. A nation of consumers eager for innovation won’t wait. “The capital markets keenly sniff out disruption,” Lovins says. “And if they think you’re in or headed for the toaster, they don’t wait for the toast to get done -- they just decapitalize you and invest in your successors.”
One of those successors is electric cars – an idea that’s been around for more than a century. Lovins imagines Henry Ford and Thomas Edison cooking up the idea on a road trip together, and marveling at how it has come to pass. Now, says Lovins, “both these industries are undergoing fantastically rapid change, and so is the oil industry that made the car industry possible.
“Basically, Ford’s and Edison’s industry are getting together to eat Rockefeller's industry.”
Other technological changes promise to upend the old model of car ownership: ridesharing, autonomous vehicles and car-on-demand services that will deliver an SUV, sports car or sedan depending on your driving needs for that day.
But will an army of autonomous cars actually relieve our congestion and fuel consumption problems, or make them worse?
“That seems to be the question everyone’s asking right now,” says Emily Castor, director of transportation policy for Lyft. The consensus among experts, she continues, is that “whether these vehicles will create congestion and emissions or whether they will reduce them will, to a large extent, be determined by whether they are personally owned or whether they are shared.”
In other words, having a vehicle serving multiple riders throughout the day is vastly preferable to a single owner allowing an empty vehicle to circle the block when it’s not in use.
Changes in the idea of personal mobility will also dictate a rethinking of urban design, says architect Gerry Tierney.
“Number one, we've gotten rid of parking - because you basically turn up at the front door and it drops you off and it goes off and it picks up other passengers and whatever. So you can start thinking of curbside parking becomes a thing of the past.”
All of these innovations are leading up to what Amory Lovins refers to as “peak car ownership.”
“Already if you’re living in the city you can save about $10,000 or $11,000 a year by not owning a car and using the integrated, on your device public and private transport services, along with biking and walking to get around.
“And you just put all the pieces together, and suddenly it seems pretty nutty to own a car.”
This program is made possible by support from ClimateWorks Foundation.