Our Last Car

It is slowly dawning on me that Jan and I have probably purchased our last automobile.  Part of this is due to our affinity for bicycling, but a bigger part is due to the massive transformation of human mobility that is taking place just below the surface.   I’d like to talk briefly about what this likely means for each and every one of us.

Carhenge, Alliance Nebraska. Photo by Jacob Kamholz.

Carhenge, Alliance Nebraska. Photo by Jacob Kamholz.

I’ve noticed some things over the last year that look very similar to  the past in terms of portending significant change.  This feels a lot like 1995 to me.  At that time, I didn’t know how the Internet and Web would affect society, but I was absolutely certain that things were about to turn radically different.  This is like that.

Take autonomous cars.  It’s not so much that they’re being developed as it is who is developing them.  New players like Google and Tesla and Uber and Lyft are developing technologies that will converge and shape the future.  These companies and the individuals who comprise them are not bound by “we’ve always done it this way” thinking.  They are way outside the box and they’ve graciously shared a lot of their vision online.  This is not your father’s Oldsmobile we’re talking about.  This is something else entirely.

In a sense, ride sharing and autonomous cars are two different things, but these technologies are converging.  What does it mean?  Well, I’m not sure that anyone knows yet, but one likely outcome is that the cost of moving around will fall dramatically as the cost of just about everything does when new technologies are introduced.  If that’s the case, personal automobiles are as obsolete as buggy whips.

Here’s what seems obvious to me.  Instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars we don’t have to buy a product we no longer need, we’ll simply pay a per use fee.  We might buy a membership, just as we do with a lot of other products these days, that lowers the per use cost.

Autonomous cars change everything. Stop lights? Unnecessary.

Autonomous cars change everything. Stop lights? Unnecessary.

The road of the future will have to redeployed as people drive fewer miles and bicycle more.

The road of the future will have to redeployed as people drive fewer miles and bicycle more.

What we won’t have is interest on an auto loan.  We won’t need insurance since the liability for crashes won’t be on us.  As more of us opt out of driving, the cost of insurance will rise dramatically.  That, in turn, will force others out.  We won’t have AAA or air fresheners or steering wheel covers or Turtle Wax or any one of a number of other products we currently spend our hard earned money on.

Per use fees are radical.  They will cause us to view every single trip in terms of cost…something we don’t do under the current model.  When it comes to short trips, we can choose bicycles and pocket the savings.  It will be crystal clear and so many more people will be on bikes.  This will translate to health benefits for millions of us who are currently living on the edge of pain and despair.  The savings in health care costs will be staggering.

There will be other changes as well.  Parking lots will no longer be needed.   Your autonomous car will drop you off at your destination and then depart with another passenger.  When you’re ready to move on, you’ll dial up another car.   Trips to the grocery store?  You won’t do that any more.  Already, companies like Kroger are rolling out models where you shop online and your order is ready when you arrive.  It’s one simple step from that to delivery via autonomous van or even drone.  We’ll have more time AND more money. Cool.

Autonomous cars and ride sharing make parking lots redundant. This is a huge real estate redevelopment opportunity.

Autonomous cars and ride sharing make parking lots redundant. This is a huge real estate redevelopment opportunity.

Change often makes people uncomfortable, but the future is something to be embraced.  This is especially true for those of us who already cycle.  The streets will be safer because motorists who think it’s fun to terrorize us will be a thing of the past.  Autonomous cars will have their share of bugs that will need to be worked out, but they will not road rage or operate under the influence.  They will not hit and run.  Eventually, the number of road deaths will fall close to zero as the technology improves.

Most importantly, there will be tens of thousands more bicycles in every city from coast to coast.  Even with more people, the number of trip miles traveled in a motor vehicle will continue to decline.  More road space will be turned over to us because it will not be needed by them.

That’s the future I see.  Others see it, too…people a lot smarter and more visionary than I am.   They could all be wrong, but I don’t think they are.  This has all happened before and now it’s happening again.  Those who choose to embrace it will live better as a result.

 

 

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