Four Massive Trends Set To Redefine How We Drive
When you think about it, the automobile has transformed our world. Before the car, the streets were narrow. And cities had to be very tightly packed. There were no suburbs as such because there was no easy way to get into the centre of the city. But once car ownership took off in the 1950s and 1960s, this all changed. Suddenly, suburbs not only became possible. They also became desirable. Cities themselves were remodeled around the car with hardly any debate. And new urban sprawls developed as housing was built on vast greenbelts surrounding cities.
It’s fair to say that the automobile was one of the biggest changes that our society saw in the twentieth century. It’s on the same level as electrification and indoor plumbing for its impact on our lives. But over the last few decades, we’ve gotten used to the status quo. Not much has fundamentally changed in the way we interact with automobiles for some time. We still all own our individual cars. We still park them on our driveways. They still sit on our drives doing nothing when we’re not using them. We still live in suburban districts. And we still have to drive them ourselves.
But that’s not how it’s going to work in the future. Technology is about to challenge the underlying assumptions that we have about cars in a big way. So big, in fact, that it’s hard to accept emotionally how much is going to change. But accept the changes we must. They’re well on their way.
Electric vehicles have been around for over a hundred years. In fact, the electric car preceded the internal combustion engine. But it’s only recently that the price of batteries has come down enough to make electric cars cost-effective. That’s why we didn’t see Tesla and Faraday Future emerge in the 1980s. Batteries were just too expensive.
Electric cars present some enormous benefits to consumers. First off, running costs are driven down by the fact that electric vehicles don’t use any fuel. And for those who have their own solar panels, the cost of filling up an electric car is essentially free. The other big benefit is the fact that electric vehicles don’t cost much to maintain. Because they have so few moving parts, there’s less to go wrong. And that means that electric cars can potentially last a lot longer than their gas equivalents. Yes, their tyres may need to be replaced just a regularly as petrol cars. But the rest of the components will last for many years longer.
One of the fundamental truths of new technology is that it is always layered on top of the old. And there’s no better example of this than in the proliferation of new ridesharing apps. Here we have platforms build on top of the mobile internet, which itself was built on top of global communication systems. And like other technologies that are layered on existing platform, ridesharing is revolutionary. Here’s why. Ridesharing allows anybody to start using their vehicle like it is an asset. That means that cars, like other assets, can have their potential fully realised like any other investment.
Because urban centres are getting so much more crowded, it’s becoming more and more important to manage traffic. Now there are hundreds of cities looking to implement technology that can improve traffic flow. Smart sensors on traffic lights and roundabouts present one solution. But there’s also now a move towards variable speed limits during peak times and expansion lanes.
Individually, none of the technologies we’ve discussed so far will have a game-changing impact. Yes, taxi services will be more ubiquitous. And yes, cars won’t cost as much to run. But these are all incremental changes in how we interact with our vehicles. We can cope with these changes. Heck, we might even expect them. But what we haven’t banked on is the effect of automation.
Autonomy is the big daddy when it comes to automotive technology. Google and Tesla might have spearheaded the charge, but now practically every major carmaker is now getting involved.
To understand why autonomy is such a game changer, we need to think about how it interacts with other technologies. Take ridesharing for example. Right now companies like Uber and Lyft have to get human drivers to drive their vehicles. But in the future, they can just have a fleet of autonomous vehicles with no driver at all. The implications of this are monumental. It means that car ownership, that staple of the middle class, might disappear over the next twenty years. There won’t be any point in owning a car when you can get the same service on-demand from a company like Uber. Yes, you’ll have to pay a fee to take a ride in an Uber car. But paying for transport when you need it will be a lot cheaper than paying for a car to sit on your drive 95 percent of the time doing nothing.
Autonomy also changes the game when it comes to smart systems. Though AI and Deep Learning, cars and cities can organise traffic as one. Journeys can be timed; cars packed together in superhuman chains, and traffic lights removed. An autonomous city with autonomous vehicles would be able to conduct traffic in the most efficient manner possible. Traffic jams could be reduced by three-quarters.
It all sounds great: but will it happen? We recently learned of the first death to occur in an autonomous vehicle. It was a freak accident where a truck passed in front of the Tesla from a weird angle. But what is more remarkable is how subdued the response has been. It was feared that the first accident in a Tesla would result in regulators blocking autonomy from being made real. But this hasn’t happened. In fact, car makers are doubling down on their efforts to make autonomy safe.
Thus autonomy has the potential to unite all the changes we’re seeing today and transform how we drive. It’s a future where car ownership is minimal; services are ubiquitous, and cities are emptier. We still get to live in the suburbs, but life won’t ever be the same again.