Bob Lutz said that in the not-so-distant future that cars would be obsolete and that we would be carried around in self-driving pods, powered by Google, Uber and Lyft, similar to the way the horse drawn carriage was eradicated from existence. Since then I’ve been inundated with messages about the impending doom of the automotive industry in the next three to eight years. My answer is, let’s not worry quite yet and here are some reasons why.
1.) It Already Doesn’t Work
The idea of mass transportation is nothing new. If you think Google was the first company to dream of a world where everyone got on some common mode of transportation to easily get from point A to point B, you’d be sadly mistaken.
Planes, trains, and buses were all thought up, some as much as 100 years, prior to Uber. That’s why we have the taxi in the first place. Although the horse drawn carriage has gone the way of the dodo, the personal mode of transportation has reigned far longer than even recorded time and its many applications are too varied for a single automated system to overcome, which is why taxis haven’t taken over. We’ve seen the train die, the air travel industry has had troubles, and it’s so bad now that it spawned Uber, which is literally any consumer with a car and some time is outsourced to do some driving for people in need. With all that we haven’t seen Uber monopolize the roads. No Uber driver could ever take you off-roading, or let you borrow his RV, and it’s the same reason that nobody ever showed up to take their date to a valet restaurant in a yellow cab.
The reason is because transportation only thinks about transportation. It only thinks about the people in the box as the commodity. When people want to be people they think differently. No soccer mom is considering the load capacity of that automated vehicle when she drops off 8 kids with all the groceries in the back. And when it doesn’t do what she wants it to do, when she wants it done, well I pity that unfeeling vehicle.
If there is one thing that defines us, it’s the vehicle we drive. From the environmentally conscious Prius driver to the Executive in his Mercedes or the muscle guy in his off-road truck, we could be considered stereotypical in our vehicle purchase. What vehicle will tow our boat to the dock for instance? Where would your RV or camping equipment fall into the pod concept? Simply put, it wouldn’t.
Now look outside at the cars in your parking lot right now and ask, how many of those people would love to own a ‘pod’. Now think, how many of those would love to be hauled to work in a taxi every day. If you find yourself shaking your head in disagreement then you’re on the right track as to why these scheme couldn’t work. We’re consumers and we are going to consume big fast food burgers, instead of protein pills (another prediction that didn’t work out).
Lastly, nobody wants to be seen as a commodity. Every time in history someone says, we’re taking away all your fun and now you’re a robot, the world revolts against the notion. If you’re just fuel for the industry around you, what are you? A nameless, faceless, robot in a crowd of pods? Who would accept that fate?
3.) The Cost of Accidents
Currently when an accident happens we blame the driver. What happens when the runaway self-driving truck decides your kids little league practice is part of its loading dock or people decide that suicide by automated vehicle might be a thing? It’s easy to say, “insurance pays”, but that’s not how this works. If that was true the McDonald’s Hot Coffee lady would’ve just collected the insurance and we would’ve never heard about it again.
On a small scale the automated company could deal with a couple of litigations, but if the entirety of the road (253 million vehicles in the US alone) was chocked full of automated vehicles driving on roads easily accessed by children playing ball accidents will inevitably mount and the mounting litigation could easily bankrupt the parent company. All it takes is one emotional mom to say, “these automated vehicles are terrorizing the streets” for a MAAV (Moms Against Automated Vehicles) to take hold.
That’s not taking into account vandalism of vehicles. I’m sure each vehicle will have an emergency button and if you make a big red button everyone naturally wants to push it to see what happens. Go to any car rental or taxi service and ask how much it is to upkeep, clean, and otherwise keep the fleet going and the cost is staggering.
Need I remind you of Murphy’s law number 27. Make something idiot proof and they will build a better idiot. I know it all sounds good on paper right now, but if something seems to good to be true… well, you know the rest.
When thinking about the automated vehicle we have to understand that it won’t all be rolled out it one day. When it’s quickly proven that vehicles aren’t nice about sharing the road, automated vehicles will probably receive their own lane at first and be told to be dedicated to it and it won’t be going 100 mph, as the speed limit is the speed limit, so when that lane is drudging alone at a meager 50 mph you can be assured that people will be thinking twice about their purchase. I know they say now that those vehicles are safe, but if you’ve driven rush hour traffic you know how belligerent things can get.
Currently 65% of US roads are in need of repair*. How does an automated vehicle deal with a washed out road or sink hole? How about a blown out tire? How about snowy or inclement weather? Does someone change the wheels on the automated car from summer, to all season, to snow? What if the owner doesn’t do that (like it doesn’t happen on cars today)? If anyone has driven their Mercedes with the proximity sensor covered in snow you’ll know what I’m talking about. I’m okay with cruise control, but my foot is there in case I need to hit the brake. What happens when the steering wheel is completely gone? The cost to upkeep millions of miles of roadway will be insane and if you say it’s the responsibility of the owner he’ll be sure to pass that cost on to the city or town of the road they’re on and to the manufacturer when their technology doesn’t cut the mustard. Trust me, nobody is paying if they aren’t responsible and that’s exactly what the automated vehicle does, is take the responsibility out of the hands of the driver. So when you tell the insurance company they can’t surcharge an automated driver that has been in seven accidents, trust me, they’ll pass it on to someone.
The wheels of bureaucracy grind at the speed of a millstone and you can be sure that automotive lobbies, gas lobbies, and whatever other kind of powerful lobby will have their mitts so deep into the ears of politicians that they could be considered a part of the earwig family! Not to mention they’ll be a unified front to keep people buying cars. Even the surmise that Uber will do it’s own thing misses the point that Uber is sourced by normal drivers and if they don’t have a car, what good will they do? No politician who loves his job would ever even elude to the idea of outlawing the personal vehicle or regular transportation.
What will happen? The self-driving car will require a roll-out and after a successive failure of being “injected” into traffic, legislation will be created to give them their own lane. So if you’re a self-driving car you’ll have your own travel lane based dedicated to your type of vehicle. Nobody uses that travel lane, so you might as well use that. There’s even a chance they’ll be subjugated to highway travel only and their speed will be reduced to deter accidents.
Will they totally take over the road? There may come a point when self-driving cars will populate the highway, but that will be when the technology is cheaper and anyone can afford it and there’s little or no chance that wheelless automation could survive in the city, which is where they would be best put to use. It will never take hold rural areas (72% of the US is considered rural) at all, where the demand for them will be small or non-existent.
What will happen is a demand for automation in our vehicles, such as adding it to our current vehicle for long trips, an RV for cross country non-stop runs, or truckers who don’t have to worry about driving sleepy when they have that super long delivery. In these areas automated vehicles would shine like the sun. We may not even use it, but we are going to want the option to replace cruise control. If we use it like that we won’t care if we’re subjected to some automated lane where we have to drive 50 mph. The reality is it will still be an option, not a rule.
In conclusion, I’m all for calling an Uber driver when I need to. Most of the times that will be in the city where I need quick and cheap transportation a couple of blocks. I’m also not against calling an automated cab, which I’m sure Google will quickly implement, that drives me to airport, but to say that automated vehicles are going to move your current cars to the way of the dinosaur in eight years is well, just short sighted. There are just way to many hurdles to overcome before it’s even a possibility.
So to all you collectors, don’t sweat it quite yet. You have some time before manual transmission and electric cars take-over and then you can worry about self-driving cars.
*according to the American Societyof Civil Engineers 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure