A recent simulation created by the Organization for Cooperation and Development, based on traffic and commuter patterns in Lisbon, Portugal, suggested that automated taxis could become so efficient that 90% of personal cars could be taken off the roads. Percentages may vary according to country and driving habits (and the U.S. is so much larger than most European countries that the data may be wildly different here), but the conclusion is clear: Automated vehicles could render a great majority of our personal cars obsolete.
But does that mean that personal cars will actually go away? In the U.S., I have my doubts, at least in the short-term.
I realize many people agree with my conclusion… but for very different reasons, primarily, the idea that technology will never be good enough to figure out where to go (or not go) when roads are badly-marked, construction redirects foul things up or the vehicle must venture into off-road situations. These people seriously underestimate the potential of technology and AI; it’s only a matter of time before car sensors and intelligence are more than up to the task of out-driving humans in the best and worst situations, and doing a better job than all but the most expert drivers in troublesome or extreme situations. My conclusions don’t come from the limitations of the vehicles… they come from the limitations of American drivers.
Much of this doubt comes from the well-known American love-affair with its vehicles. Americans don’t just depend on vehicles to get around… we do more to decorate, personalize, display, show off and compete with other vehicles than any culture on the planet. Cars become an extension of our personalities, like our clothing, hair style or tattoos. Asking Americans to give up their cars would be asking them to give up part of how they define themselves.
We also travel a lot from populated area to populated area, and are fully used to traveling when we are ready, not when a transportation schedule tells us we can go. That innate sense of time freedom is also hard to get rid of, and the reason our bus and train industries aren’t doing so much better on American streets and transportation corridors.
And there is another factor… one that isn’t often discussed by the layman, but an important psychological finding that U.S. automakers have depended on for decades. When, in the 1970s, America was in an oil crisis, and people were under pressure to buy smaller, more gas-efficient vehicles, the Detroit automakers hit upon a selling strategy that still impacts American buying today: They strapped upscale designs and materials on their cheapest-to-make vehicles, the small truck—which were also regulated differently than cars, and didn’t have to be as gas-efficient as government standards for cars demanded; they repackaged these cheap-to-make trucks as luxury “Sport Utility Vehicles” and, using commercials to appeal to our sense of entitlement and machismo, sold these vehicles like gangbusters (and, conveniently, made a mint themselves).
When you combine these factors, you see a clear trend towards ownership-by-entitlement, significant customization and freedom to drive whenever the urge strikes. This trend has encouraged many people to spend more on personal transportation than they spend on good food, housing, clothing and any other possessions.
And I suspect the automated car era will not curtail this trend significantly in the U.S. for quite some time. Consider the automated vehicle, the robo-taxi: Sure, it’s available to get you where you want to go; but will it get you there in the style in which you’re accustomed? Whereas, if you owned your own automated vehicle, you could customize it inside and out, include your personal style of lounge seating, a bar of your favorite drinks (hey, you’re not driving, so why not have some drinks?) and personal entertainment. In these vehicles, rolling parties of 2-6 people could become popular forms of entertainment… maybe you’ll get some reading or work done during your trips… or maybe vehicles will be optimized for a little shut-eye along the trip.
This is what I would expect as many Americans as can afford it will do: Buy a vehicle, personalize its interior and exterior to be an extension of their home lifestyle, and roll around in their own four-wheeled family room. And they wouldn’t want to loan out their vehicle, at least not except to very close friends or relatives, for fear of strangers mucking up their extended home… so there would still be a lot of cars out there, personalized private vehicles and boring public vehicles sharing the (probably still crowded) roads.
Maybe as time goes by, Americans may start to lose their love affair with the automobile; some think that the desire to own a vehicle you can’t actually drive will wane, while others may decide they’re okay with having one less personal property (and financial) burden on their hands. And if public vehicles start to be designed with more luxurious interiors, the need of entitlement-ownership may eventually fade as well. (BYOB will probably remain a thing.) But I expect automated vehicles will be sharing American roads with personal vehicles for some time to come.
Download the simulation report from the OCD.