I sit seething, waiting impatiently at the insanely busy Christiansburg intersection of N. Franklin and Cambria Streets. Is there anything most of us face on a daily basis more soul sapping than sitting in traffic?
And yet we collectively waste uncountable hours and gallons of fuel each year waiting for the light to turn green. For better or worse, I think the future of traffic, of driving, and even of how we develop our communities, is destined to change radically in the next few years.
We’re staring into the headlights of an era of self-driving vehicles. There will be several more years of testing and refinement, then gradual introduction into the market and then significant and perhaps eventual total penetration.
These will be phased in as technologies evolve, but I’m more convinced every day these innovations will become widespread realities at dizzying rates, providing unfathomable disruption and opportunities. I’m guessing the ramifications of a complete change-over to self-driving cars will radically transform virtually every aspect of our lives, from our cities, our schools, offices, stores, homes and even the roads themselves.
Automobile utilization in America is now only five to seven percent, meaning that most cars are only doing anything useful for just over an hour each day.
It is likely that millions of Americans will decide they don’t need a car at all, as one belonging to a fleet service can merely be summoned to take them where they want to go.
These folks won’t have the costs or maintenance responsibilities of ownership. Ride-sharing companies like Uber – what we currently call “taxis” – will multiply to capture that emerging market.
Consider that most of what you pay to ride a taxi goes to the driver, and that if the car doesn’t have one, the cost will plummet. People justify the vast expense of a personal vehicle because of the instant access and mobility.
But if rides in self-driven cars are cheap and readily available, why have your own?
All those industries that cater to private car ownership will diminish or be eliminated. Cars will be sold in fleets to the ride-sharing companies, so we won’t have the need for nearly as many car salespeople or dealerships.
There will be no rental car companies and fewer mechanics, car washes, valets, insurance companies, and loan companies.
Driverless cars will also reduce the need for massive parking lots and garages at shopping centers, schools, and workplaces, because the car will simply drop you off and go to the next customer.
As these fleets of cars owned by the car-sharing services return to “home bases” after busy daylight hours, massive parking lots will emerge at those places rather than at individual destinations. That will revolutionize how we use immeasurable amounts of land currently paved for temporary storage of cars.
Because cars are in more constant use, overall utilization will increase, further reducing fuel consumption and pollution. It is possible that fleets of self-driving cars will be on the road-servicing clients at 25 percent or even 50 percent utilization.
This would be utterly transformational for the entire auto industry. The dealerships will become superfluous because manufacturers will sell to the services rather than everyday consumers. Sales overall will drop because fewer cars, traveling more miles, will be needed. Today’s $20 trillion worldwide asset capitalization in conventional cars, with only a miniscule utilization rate, makes little sense to continue if this alternative exists. Young people may never bother to learn to drive, get a license, or own a car. Already some developed countries have reached their zenith in per-capita car ownership.
And cars that drive themselves will dramatically increase the mobility of children, elderly, and disabled.
Self-driving vehicles will self-select routes for maximum efficiency based upon regional traffic, as they’ll all be communicating with each other, monitoring possible congestion and other problems.
And they’ll communicate and cooperate with other transportation options such as trains, airplanes and even hyper-local solutions such as scooters and e-bikes to get travelers that last mile or two.
Once self-driving cars become commonplace, will ordinary human-driven cars be banned? Will I still be allowed to ride my motorcycle?
“I’ll never give up my car,” you might be screaming, before I ask you the last time you bought camera film or a typewriter ribbon.
The light turns green, I press the accelerator pedal, and my car rolls forward, continuing my journey.
We don’t know how this will all play out. Like other massive changes in the way we do things, we simply cannot predict whether we’ll see rosy or dark outcomes. Nobody can predict the future, but the people, companies, and communities that get this right will have a huge advantage.
I’m looking forward to it.
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.