Tell a car enthusiast that you can’t wait until cars can drive themselves – properly, without running people over or panicking over merging traffic – and they tend to look at you as though you’re mad. They start to wax lyrical about the pleasure in acceleration, the thrill of manipulating their metal boxes around corners, and on and on. Point out to them that most of their time is spent creeping along in jams, or trying to find parking space – and then paying handsomely for it – or coping with the monotony of motorway driving, and they tend to go quiet. Driverless just isn’t for them, they say.
Point out how much better all that time could be spent reading a book or dealing with emails or sleeping or just looking out of the window and they shrug. Tell them that wanting to hold on to driving is like wanting to hold on to hand washing following the advent of the washing machine, or scrubbing the dishes after the dishwasher, like some weird attachment, in fact, to horse-drawn carriages once the car had come along – and they start to shift uncomfortably.
YOU’VE BOUGHT YOUR LAST CAR
The fact is that any of the diehard car fans who have recently bought a new car might well have just bought their last. And that’s not their last conventional car – replaced by the driverless kind – but perhaps their last car of any variety. Analysts have recently predicted that within 20 years we will, largely, have stopped owning cars. That’s because a confluence of technologies – driverless electric cars, expected on the roads within five years, enhanced battery technologies, matched with sophisticated logistics software behind an Uber-style set-up – will make fast access to cheap transport so effective that car ownership will seem somewhat antiquated.
There’s the environmental pressure to take cars off the roads too, of course – but it makes sense even to the entirely selfish consumer. It would be more cost-effective, more convenient. Say goodbye to the hassles of maintenance, taxation, insurance, running costs. Some say that a ride in an Uber-style driverless car system will cost as little as 10% of current typical rates – with prices driven down the more such driverless cars there are built and put into the network. RethinkX, a think tank, calculates that within a decade of driverless cars getting regulatory approval, some 95 percent of all passenger miles will be in such vehicles; and that the number of vehicles on US roads will fall from 250m to around 45m over the following year period. And no wonder. Notoriously, most owned cars are presently parked for 95 percent of their lifetime.
RENTAL IS THE FUTURE
Of course, such predictions are often wildly optimistic. Others, though, do happen just as expected. And we’re already seeing a shift in consumer behaviour that – shaped by social media-savvy and planet-mindful Millennials and Generation Z-ers – is leading us towards greater acceptability of renting over ownership. They’re generations that rent their phones and homes and bicycles, that lease their cars, should they bother with one at all, that are happy to rent luxury goods – why buy a watch when you only quickly get bored of it and can rent one for a few months instead? They don’t want to own physical vinyl records or CDs – that’s just more stuff to clutter up their space – when they can just stream any song they want at any time, ‘owning’ it for as long as they’re playing it. The leap to ‘streaming’ a car as and when they need it is not such a big one.
It’s going to be a terribly hard thing for the car industry to embrace. It’s going to require a quantum leap in thinking from the current conception of the car – largely unchanged for a century now – to that which will dominate in the future. It’s going to be a terribly hard thing for petrol heads to embrace too – the idea that the only car they drive might be one they keep at the track, driven for sport rather than to get from A to B. But it’s coming. When Henry Ford introduced his Model T, it was little short of revolutionary. But one side benefit people often spoke off was how relieved they were not to have steaming piles of horse manure to avoid everywhere they went. In time people will say how relieved they are to be shot of the exhaust fumes and the noise. Transport will the quiet, clean, easy. Learning to drive will be like learning to fence – fun, a little bit left-field but entirely unnecessary. Just wait and see.