The future of automobiles

The promise of the self-driving vehicle is only now being fulfilled: autonomous cars are completely turning the existing traffic system upsidedown. Nobody’s going to own a car anymore. New mobility offers will push conventional public transport to the edge until it works closer to the customer than before.

Almost thirty years ago I was standing on the Empire State Building and what I saw from up there ignited a thought that hasn’t left me since: hundreds of yellow dots were moving in the streets of New York, stopping, moving on, holding, driving, seemingly chaotic, but from up there everything made sense. Like red blood cells in our circulation, they took in passengers as oxygen molecules and gave them back in other places. Other cars almost disappeared under the dominance of the Yellow Cabs. Using a private car was simply impractical. The parking place in an underground car park of Manhattan cost as much as the rent of my whole student flat in Göttingen. Outside, the car door was left open so that the radio thieves would not smash the window and cause even more damage. Taxis and public transport was the better choice. A car of one’s own was used solely for representation.

Drivers should be paid decently, but suffer from poor working hours, unhealthy, sometimes dangerous conditions, achieve maximum precarious wages and this especially with very low esteem in society. The customer pays virtually the entire standby time, journey, destination journey and return journey of the coachman, which results in comparable horrendous prices.

As a consequence, one prefers all other means of transport and accepts their inconvenience:

  • Own car with high expenditure for refuelling, parking and accident risks
  • Car-Sharing with finding the vehicle (free floating) or the way to the parking space and return (station)
  • Parking search (in Hamburg 40 % of city centre traffic) and fees
  • Getting wet on the bike, pedelec or scooter
  • Detours over fixed routes and connections, crowds, smell and cryptic tariffs for public transport

Particularly in suburban areas, the alternatives are shrinking to their own cars. Without labour costs (drivers), the journey could be offered cheaper than with one’s own car, because the fixed costs decrease proportionately due to higher capacity utilisation.

What if I could call a car-sharing vehicle to me and send it away again? There two originally different business models merge.

Contrary to many opinions, it won’t be long before cars can move completely autonomously on our roads (more about this at Lex Fridmann, MIT). Development has long since entered the exponential phase. Autonomous cars find their way to the customer alone, return to the base or drive to the next job and all this 24/7 without a  break, illness or vacation. Automation par excellence, such as the packing or welding robot in industry.

People will only drive the car themselves if they enjoy it and only as long as they are permitted to (always worth reading Mario Herger). Previously disadvantaged people who could not or were not allowed to drive for physical, financial or legal reasons have new access to individual mobility (including the elderly, children, visually impaired).

Accordingly, declining prices are the first realistic chance for the rural population to challenge their own cars. A market for transport service providers that has hardly been accessible so far is opening up.

The profession of “driver” will disappear, it will be replaced by the companion who helps people who cannot use autonomous vehicles on demand without help. The driving service becomes a mobility service, more complex and interlocked with services independent of transport. Calling, picking up, boarding, loading luggage, shopping, making appointments and much more, be creative.

Business models based on pure order placement will sooner or later have to form new intersections with annex services in order to achieve sufficient margins.

Is there now less traffic due to autonomous cars? – Yes, if one thinks up to the economic hair ends.

Compared to alternative drives, such as electric mobility, there is a justified accusation that changing the drive train does not solve the problem of massive overload of our road network. That was never the promise either. The same applies to autonomous vehicles. A one-to-one exchange brings only marginal advantages through optimized driving and parking. There is less traffic density only due to fewer moving vehicles at the sam e time. With an increasing need for mobility, this can only be achieved through higher capacity utilization. So far the opinion dominates that on average more people should sit in the cars, for example through Ride Sharing. I’ll call it the intensive solution here. That’s right, of course.

But here I would like to broaden the perspective a little and add the extensive solution. Let me give you an example: I drive from home to the gym and back after about three hours. Now what if someone else in the same time needs a car near area “sports”? He’s currently bringing a new vehicle onto the road and bringing it back instead of just letting “mine” come around the corner.

On-demand cars can relax this situation, but only if they replace private property. Commercial offers come now to the course. Be it as a superordinate platform for the mediation of your own car or fleet provider:

Scaled to the overwhelming majority of cars, the effect that the “connections” are constantly improving as the pool of orders increases is intensified. An ever larger proportion of them are travelling occupied to where they are needed anyway, if not then perhaps close by.

By using the vehicles more efficiently, fleet operators can even lower their prices below the cost of a private car and thus in turn  increase demand. A self-reinforcing process is set in motion until there is no longer any financial reason for owning a car. Digression: it is no coincidence that large platform operators and manufacturers are pushing into the market, and Waymo, Uber, Lyft and Tesla  are far ahead in the development of autonomous systems.

The extensive solution can therefore improve the utilisation of rolling stock and reduce traffic. But other means of transport are also being marginalised. If the price argument is no longer sufficient to offset the above  inconveniences, fewer and fewer people will use public transport. They must be faster or offer previously unimagined added value in order to continue to exist, like the subway for example.

Otherwise, the positive effects of the extensive solution are eliminated by the loss of the intensive solution, and there are more, instead of fewer vehicles on the road at the same time.

Sometimes you have to look at things from a distance, preferably from above. In other words: a seemingly chaotic but organic system, like our blood circulation, can serve as a model for a better transport system. The private car becomes a hobby. The market for transport services is growing. Driving services and Car-Sharing will merge and  drastically increase their market share. Public transport will have to specialise in its strengths and generate new added value.

“No, the truth is not “somewhere in between”. Don’t be so lazy.” Michael Liebreich

Thanks for reading to the end of this story!

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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