The idea that the ideal future involves fleets of shared-use autonomous cars does not acknowledge the true nature of how humans interact with their personal transportation, nor does it acknowledge the motives of carmakers. Shared RTMs (Robotic Transportation Machine) make a lot of sense in dense urban areas, places where a high proportion of the population may not already own a car. This is a significant market, and I’m pretty sure there will, one day, be self-driving fleet vehicles to serve the transportation needs of the people there.
The idea that RTMs will bring about the death of private car ownership is taken almost as a given by many, including many Very Serious Business media outlets like the Wall Street Journal, which has published articles like “The End of Car Ownership,” or the Economist’s “Why driverless cars will mostly be shared, not owned,” or Business Insider, which in 2017 cited a study that predicted that in fifteen years only 20 percent of Americans will own a car.
These predictions are pretty out there, I think. Do any of these people have kids? Have they seen how much equipment, junk, and random stuff hauling around a human child generates? Have they thought about the logistics of moving all that stuff from car to car? No, of course they haven’t. Half the reason for having a car is that it is a mobile base for you and all the stuff you don’t know where else to put. Sure, in some dense cities, not having a car means a lot less hassle and an easier life. But everywhere? No. No way. Even in some dense but vast urban areas, like sprawling Los Angeles, where a lot of the population could be served with fleet cars, for logistical and cultural reasons private car ownership will still be desirable. Ever had an awful job and eaten lunch or taken a nap in your car because it was your only refuge? Do you keep jackets and umbrellas and other useful real-world things in your car? Do you like to listen to your own music in your car? Do you sometimes do multiple things in the course of a day that involves multiple packages or parcels or items and you don’t want to have to haul them around everywhere on your back like some refugee?
Of course you do, for all these things, because a car isn’t just a transportation device. It’s also a space. A location. A car is one of the few things that can be a means to a location and an independent location itself. Very often when we’re, say, talking to someone on the phone while driving (using our hands-free options of course, with our hands firmly gripping the wheel at 9 and 3) and the person asks where we are, an entirely acceptable answer is “in the car.” No further elaboration is often needed. You’re in the car, and the space of the car is sufficient description about your surroundings and what you’re likely to be doing.
There’s no reason why driverless cars can’t continue this in this role, and, very likely, even expand on it significantly. This is something I’ll be covering in more detail later, but the idea that the rise in self-driving vehicles will mean the death of the privately owned car is the sort of idea that only someone who has never owned a car would have.
The truth is that the reality will likely be a mix of shared and private cars, and the roads will be filled with a mix of human- and machine-driven cars. And in this possible upcoming reality, it will still make sense to stop ourselves from thinking of robotic vehicles as cars, and to accept that they’re robots.
Once we free ourselves from the constraints of thinking about autonomous cars as “cars,” many possibilities open up. These machines could be errand-running robots that have the potential to significantly improve our quality of life, once we realize that, since they’re robots, we don’t necessarily have to be anywhere near them to use them.
Think about how many boring, stupid, but necessary errands you have to run in a given week. If you have a vehicle that can drive itself, why bother to do those errands yourself? Once robotic vehicles that have been proven safe start to make it onto public roads in any sort of numbers, and if there are laws that allow the vehicles to operate completely unmanned, then we will probably start to see fascinating new business models emerge.
The same process would work for any number of retail businesses. Why would you ever go to a pharmacy to pick up a prescription in person again? You could send your errand-bot to pick up packages from the post office, or you could even use the vehicle to courier packages to any address within the car’s user-set range. Small businesses could buy fleets of five to ten of these and be able to offer deliveries without hiring drivers (a mixed blessing, I know).
Once you start thinking about it, what’s to stop you from sticking your dog in the robot and sending it off to the vet? Or, since we’re already heading that way, putting your kid in there and sending him or her off to school? If you trust the car with your kid’s life when you’re riding in the robotic vehicle with him or her, why should it be any different if you’re not there?
The real potential for autonomous vehicles is not tied to how much we’ll be riding in them, it’s tied to how much we’ll be able to avoid getting in them. Sure, doing whatever you feel like while your car is stuck in traffic is a lot better than driving in stop- and-go traffic, inching along at 5 mph with your clutch leg aching and your mind screaming out of boredom, but what’s even better than that is not being in traffic at all. Let your robot car creep along at a walking pace to get you a drum of cheese balls and a pack of underpants from Costco. You have better things to do. Or, if not better, at least more fun.