Autonomy is a word we hear often with reference to self-driving cars. Freedom, on the other hand, is something we're used to seeing in auto advertising. But does more of the first mean less of the latter? It's quite possible that we're already on the road to a future without car ownership.
The Internet may have been a revolution in communications, but is also inexorably changing our relationship with property, as goods and services become things that are accessed via apps or even a short command to our voice assistant, summoned from the cloud as if by a genie in a fantasy story. But this convenience, which may well be cheap in terms of money, comes at a cost of freedom.
Less and less do we find ourselves actually owning what we've bought. Many of us consume our music through Spotify, movies through Netflix, video games through Steam. We may have 'licenses' to access something through the graces of a company, but we're still worryingly dependent on a third party to manage access to 'our' stuff.
This doesn't just apply to multimedia. Other, more traditionally tangible and essential things are affected by this tendency. We've seen, for example, how AirBnB has effectively incentivized landlords to keep coveted urban areas available to rent to higher-paying tourists rather than make them available to be bought by locals. In the world of work, zero-hour-contractors juggle gigs coming in via app in the hollow where more secure employment models used to be.
And so it goes with transportation. The question is, how long will it take? And how far could it spread?
Convenience versus car culture
The advancement of self-driving cars goes hand-in-hand with ride-sharing companies. Uber, Lyft, Waymo and co. are all developing self-driving taxis, but it won't stop there. Fleets of autonomous vehicles will handle freight and also serve as mobile hotels and even brothels. According to a 2017 study by tech think-tank, Rethinkx, private car ownership in the US will drop 80% by 2030.
This line of thinking reasons that as fleets of autonomous vehicles roll out and become all the more affordable and easily accessible, many people will ditch car ownership altogether. After all, why put yourself down to finance a car, rent a parking space, and so on when a cheap subscription service can make a car available to you with just a tap?
There are some obvious benefits to this. For a start, it would be much less wasteful. On average, cars sold in the US sit parked more than 95% of the time, just taking up space, but a self-driving car would just move on to the next user instead of sitting pretty. This efficiency and need for fewer cars overall would be good for the environment, and potentially change urban planning for the better - space that would be set aside for street lanes and parking garages could be put to different use. San Francisco and Pittsburgh are already adjusting city planning to account for self-driving vehicles.
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If future without car owners is something you look forward to, then one of the main hurdles is extending the kind of service that may be a great boon to congested urban spaces into rural and remote areas. As someone who's hitched around across long distances, the idea of ride-sharing cross-country isn't necessarily absurd. Even shopping trips to mega-markets for the family could be delivered by autonomous vehicles once the infrastructure is in place.
But the commodification of cars goes against the way we've been taught to think about vehicles for years. Cars have been marketed for decades as status symbols and fetish objects infused with powerful symbolism. The cliche joke of an expensive car as compensation for a deficiency in masculinity hardly needs to be repeated, but the fact remains that cars are still sold with a promise that they bestow power, freedom and popularity to the buyer.
Financing cars for personal ownership is a large, entrenched business, and one that won't go down without launching a marketing counterattack to the sharing economy. And besides, when Uber and co. switch from a fleet of vehicles owned by their drivers to a fleet controlled by the company, you've got a much less appealing sounding rent economy, not a sharing one.
Will millennials be the generation to kill car ownership?
No, of course not. As is usual in these cases, millennials aren't killing anything so much as they are reacting to circumstances placed upon them by the economy. A study by the Wharton University of Pennsylvania notes that, while millennials have a lower rate of car ownership than previous generations at their age, this could have more to do with the 2008 financial crash. Millennials may want to buy their own cars, just like how they want to buy houses, but ultimately, just can't afford to. There are indications in the study that once they have saved enough money, older millennials will still buy cars, but just at a later age than previous, more prosperous generations.
Even as an urbanite who personally disdains cars, I can't say I completely welcome the utopian vision of self-driving vehicles on demand replacing wasteful car ownership. Increasingly, we're starting to recognize that the convenience and savings promised by big tech such as Facebook and AirBnB can have hidden downsides that tend to only reveal themselves further down the line.
In the case of self-driving vehicles, the nightmare scenario is ceding too much control over our movements to unaccountable private corporations, becoming dependent on an entity that could whisk away a service when it pleases, and develops and 'disrupts' faster than government regulation can keep up. Maybe there's something to the promise of freedom in those cheesy car commercials after all.
Do you think that we will see the end of personal car ownership in our lifetime? Will that be a good or a bad thing?