There’s been a lot of talk about the potential upcoming disruption of self-driving-cars, including their effect on private vehicle ownership and travel. One of the most optimistic is the 2017 article “Rethinking Transportation 2020-2030.” Authors James Arbib and Tony Seba make some bodacious claims regarding Transportation as a Service (TaaS) — the idea that soon we’ll all be going places in driver-less, electric-powered cars rather than owning manually driven, gasoline-powered, internal combustion engine (ICE) cars.
Among the claims:
- By 2030, 95 percent of passenger miles will be by such vehicles.
- Manually driven ICE cars will be so worthless in a couple of years you’ll be paying people to haul them away regardless of how much they cost new.
- Oil prices will collapse by 2021 because demand will bottom out.
- The cost of private TaaS vehicles will be 10 cents a mile, or 3 cents a mile for shared vehicles (Taas Pool), compared with 34 cents a mile of an ICE car (if you own it outright) or 64 cents (if you’re still making car payments).
Although I find most of the recent “Green New Deal” proposal to be ridiculous, it does suggest a similar time frame for eliminating ICE vehicles. Don’t get me wrong, I am cheering on self-driving car technology. How nice it will be to step into my car after work Friday evening, go to sleep and then wake up the next morning in Chicago with my own car filled with my stuff ready to take me anywhere in the city or region, and without having to worry about parking.
I likely won’t be able to drive an ICE car my entire life, however, and don’t want to lose the comfort, convenience and freedom a car provides me. Plus, I’m skeptical both of the time frame and purported ubiquity of TaaS and TaaS Pool.
Change Happens Slowly
No matter how compelling, change rarely happens in the 13-year time frame that the article proposes. History offers numerous precedents of slow technology change. Automatic transmissions have been around since the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that “manual” cars became a choice only for people who liked them, rather than the default, cheaper option. (Remember when they used be be called “standard” transmissions?)
Only when new technology has no downside, financial or otherwise (such as pagers to cell phones), does change happen in the time frame that pundits predict.
Well-publicized crashes could slow acceptance of self-driving cars. I wrote about the one in Florida where a motorist was watching a Harry Potter movie when his car mistook a crossing semi for a harmless overhead highway sign.
Or that car vs. pedestrian crash in Arizona in which other factors played a role:
- The pedestrian was crossing against a “no pedestrians” sign, but the street median had what looked like a sidewalk on it.
- The street lighting was inconsistent, creating a black hole effect.
- The human driver was streaming “The Voice” on her phone in violation of Uber rules.
- And Uber expected a driver to pay attention for 10-hour shifts in a car that does 99 percent of the work.
As it turns out, the car actually did see the pedestrian six seconds before the crash but did not stop because the emergency braking feature was disabled in software.
I seriously doubt fully automated cars will be ready, technologically, by 2030. And even if they are ready and promise more safety than driving yourself, the psychological comfort of being “in control” is strong. Witness the fear of flying relative to driving. Post-9/11, people were afraid of flying and terrorism despite the reality that an additional 1,595 Americans lost their lives in highway crashes because they were too afraid to fly.
Cost Estimates May Be Optimistic
The 3- and 10-cents figures from the previously referenced Rethinking Transportation article seem to be based on 40 percent utilization of TaaS vehicles and 500,000-mile life expectancy. Based on the chart below, I came up with my own estimate of 35 percent utilization (I figured 100 percent of the cars in use at rush hour, but with a couple of empty back hauls in the reverse direction during rush hour), so I’ll accept their figure.
I differ with life expectancy. Even if you have a Toyota or Honda that commonly hits 250,000 miles without needing major repairs, by that time the body is trashed from corrosion. Building TaaS cars out of non-ferrous materials would significantly drive up costs, as it would for ICE vehicles. And everyone keeps saying how simple electric cars are mechanically. On the other hand, cars are becoming more complex electronically, and a self-driving car doubles that complexity.
A lot of bureaucratic questions remain unanswered:
- How much will it be taxed?
- Will the tax money be diverted to something other than paying for roads?
- How much profit will the companies demand?
- Will they be regulated like utilities?
- Would the government consider running it as a public service?
In short, with unknown life expectancy and unknown taxation and profit. I consider cents-per-mile cost estimates to be pure fiction at this point.
TaaS and Taas Pool obviously introduce more choices in transportation between mass transit and owning your own car, with financial, convenience and other trade-offs. Sure, many drivers may use them. But people don’t always pick the cheapest model. People shop at Whole Foods instead of Aldi. People drive a Lexus instead of a Yaris. People live in large new houses instead of studio apartments.
Today there already are cheaper ways to travel than privately owned cars. But the drawbacks are too great relative to the cost savings. As we will see, there still are negatives to TaaS and Taas Pool. I don’t see “close to 100 percent” mode share. Fifty or 75 percent? Possible. But not 100.
Undesirable Behavior of Fellow Passengers
Maybe you’re an extrovert who loves small talk. Maybe you feel compelled to share your political or religious views with the person next to you. I’m not, and would prefer people leave me alone when I’m sitting next to them on a train or airplane. Maybe the person next to you can’t stop yakking about how he hates Mike Zimmer’s draft choices. Maybe s/he hasn’t showered in two weeks. Or maybe s/he is engaging in the harassing behavior reported in the comments to this article. These would be bigger problems in a small TaaS Pool vehicle where you can’t move to a far-away seat.
And what if boorish behavior becomes criminal behavior? I doubt shared TaaS vehicles will be viewed as suitable for unescorted kids. Even some adults always wonder whether the person next to them on the bus could be a criminal with a knife intent on randomly stabbing someone. So even rare, isolated incidents on TaaS Pool could scare people away.
On a lighter note, a TaaS Pool vehicle likely won’t allow you to tune the radio to your favorite station, turn the TV (since you’re not driving) to the station you want, turn the A/C to your desired coolness or talk on your phone without disturbing others.
Maybe you’ll opt to use a private TaaS vehicle instead of TaaS Pool so you can control the radio and other features. OK, but then the savings aren’t as compelling. And ultimately you’re still sharing the vehicle, just not at the same time and place. How do you know the person sitting there before you didn’t have the flu and cough all over the car?
The Attachment to Stuff
One nice thing about owning a car is its function as a private locker — or my version of a purse. Wherever I go my car is usually nearby, so it’s a convenient place for medication, toiletries and first aid supplies. In the winter I keep my parka, ice skates and snowshoes in the trunk; in the summer my car holds my bicycle and swimming suit.
You can’t do that with TaaS.
Many people take pride and comfort in ownership. Millennials tend to want experiences rather than stuff, and have less tendency to own houses and cars (maybe because they’re young and cash-strapped). But plenty of Generation Xers and Baby Boomers are still around and will be in 2030.
I like to own my house. I like to look at my house and say “that’s mine.” I can paint it whatever color I want, make my own improvements, plant whatever flowers I want, sun myself on the private deck. And I like to own my car. I see it sitting in the driveway and think, “That’s mine.” I picked out the make, model and color. If the mood strikes me, I can drive down the block or to California.
I think that virtually 100 percent non-ownership of cars by 2030 is as much a fantasy as a Jules Verne story.