We’re approaching (at walking pace) a major turning point in history—as fraught with societal change as the switch from horses to horseless carriages. I’m talking about the end of private cars.
Since Henry Ford reduced the price of a Model T to $360 (1916) and we finally started paving the roads, the automobile has been ubiquitous in American life. And by the end of the Depression, the auto industry had taken pretty much its modern form—Big Three (or Four), competition from Germany and Japan (then Korea), dealerships all over the place, parking lots, garages, service stations, car washes, the whole ball of wax.
But our transportation paradigm has changed before, so why wouldn’t it change again? Here’s the sage of Detroit, ex-GM vice chairman Bob Lutz, on what’s about to happen:
Right now, we're enjoying the autonomous features increasingly prevalent in conventional cars. But when we really get to the point where we have individually programmable but standardized transportation modules moving on the freeway with a whole snake of vehicles at 150 mph, brands will no longer matter. What is the reason for being in a BMW module or a Mercedes module? Especially since you get a different one every time you dial it up on your device? For automakers, that's the scary part.
I disagree with Lutz on plenty of things, but I think he’s spot-on here. Most people don’t care whether they rent a Toyota Camry or a Honda Accord—it’s an appliance for getting you somewhere. You could argue with some merit that we still buy branded appliances, but if you asked me who made my refrigerator or stove, I honestly couldn’t tell you.
The reason why I say this will be at a walking pace is that fully autonomous pods are still pretty far off. Don’t be fooled by all the talk about 2021 (cited by Volvo, Ford and BMW)—the self-driving cars then will still have drivers at the wheel. At best, we’ll manage some carefully managed shared autonomous ride services along a few select routes.
How will the end of private cars change our way of life? Here are a few ways.
A Whole New Mobility. Seniors who handed their keys to their kids after that last fender bender, kids not old enough for a license, and people with physical challenges—they’ll all be a phone call away from a ride anywhere they want to go. “I miss driving, Steve Mahan, executive director of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, told the New York Times. ““My experience with Google [cars] has been terrific, and I want it to happen. Everyone in the blind community wants it to happen.”
People-Centric Communities. Even though I’m a car guy, I love what happens when the automobile is cleared out of center cities. I’ve seen it on Dublin’s Grafton Street, and on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. Say what you want about mimes, but they thrive on car-free city pavement. Jugglers, like Tony Duncan, the guy I saw last weekend balancing a pin on his nose while juggling three more and hula-hooping at the same time, will have the run of the streets. And where once cars parked, now we can park our own carcasses—on benches, surrounded by green grass and clear skies. There’s all kinds of academic studies on this phenomenon, but I’m sure you understand what I mean.
Repurposed Spaces. What should we do with all those useless parking garages? How about turning them into vertical farms? The godfather of vertical farming, Dickson Despommier of Columbia University, sees these two benefits, among many others: “Vertical farming practiced on a large scale in urban centers has great potential to: 1. supply enough food in a sustainable fashion to comfortably feed all of humankind for the foreseeable future; 2. allow large tracts of land to revert to the natural landscape restoring ecosystem functions and services.”
Clear Skies. Urban air pollution is an international scourge, particularly severe in “megacities” with more than 10 million people. On my last trip to Mumbai, it was so bad I had a sore throat for a week. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory predicts that by 2030, self-driving electric share cars will be producing a 20th as much greenhouse gas per mile as cars do today.
Are there negatives? You bet. Anyone who’s ever named the family car is feeling a twinge about now. But will we be able to adjust? I think so, eventually. After all, we named our horses too, and we're doing fine without them now.
Here's a look at what might become of the Apple self-driving car: