By Paolo von Schirach –
WASHINGTON – Imagine this: affordable, driverless electric cars, EVs. This would be the true game changer for urban transportation and urban living. I say “would be” because this revolution, prophesized and announced many times, has not quite arrived. We know that there has been significant technological progress in these areas in the last few years; but not enough to make this vision into a reality. Still, I am hopeful that some day we shall see it.
When the revolution comes
If and when these affordable, autonomous EVs will hit the road, the impact of this radical technological revolution will be immense. I am not just talking about the environmental gains deriving from zero emissions electric engines, and therefore the overall reduction of greenhouse gases and significant air quality improvements in all large urban areas.
The real game changer will be that most people will no longer want to own a car, because hiring one will be very easy, and very cheap. Hence a true revolution in the way most of us will deal with all personal mobility needs, especially in large urban areas.
Changes in the way we think of mobility and cars
Even today, relying only on established, gasoline powered cars driven by humans who need to be paid for their driving, the availability of app-connected transportation services like Uber and Lyft convinced many city dwellers that calling a vehicle via smart phone whenever needed is easier and probably cheaper than owning and driving your own car.
How so? Uber of course is not free. However, for many users who rely on Uber or equivalent services any app-connected car service is more cost-effective than going through the trouble of buying and keeping a car.
It is true that you have to pay for each Uber ride, while you pay only a little (the cost of gasoline) each time you drive your own car. Still, you have to consider all the costs connected with owning a vehicle. You have to factor the substantial cost of the initial purchase, plus the cost of registration, insurance, parking, fuel, ordinary (oil changes) and extraordinary maintenance, (new tires, new brakes, new transmissions). Then add odds and ends like the cost of parking tickets, (some people collect many of those), the cost and aggravation caused by possible car accidents, and then the aggravation of the daily stress of driving on congested roads, and all of a sudden the Uber option, while it has a price, seems more cost-effective, at least for some.
Driverless, electric Uber
Well, if relying on smart phone connected car services as opposed to owning a car is the emerging trend today, imagine the appeal of this car hire option in a not so distant future in which your Uber or equivalent vehicle will have an electric engine and no driver. These radical innovations obviously will mean very low operating costs for the service provider, hence much lower fees charged to users, and guaranteed, fast 24 hour service.
The rides will be cheaper because there will be no payments to a human doing the driving. Besides, the driverless car will stay on the road day and night. It does not get sick and it does not need to take a break. And the cost of the electric charges will be much lower than gasoline.
The future of personal mobility
So, here is tomorrow’s scenario. Think of driverless EVs that will be on the road almost 24/7, (taking a break only for the time necessary to recharge the car’s battery). Since these vehicles will cost much less to operate, the companies providing the service will be able to pass on to the consumers significant savings.
And this will mean that almost anybody will be able to afford rides, probably several rides a day. At the same the service providers will be able to guarantee that there will be plenty of vehicles constantly on the road available to quickly meet demand for rides. And this means almost no wait time for your ride.
No more need for private cars
In this new scenario, for the vast majority of urban dwellers, owning a private vehicle will become unnecessary, because all mobility needs will be easily and inexpensively met by driverless EVs. If this is so, let’s think about the significant ripple effects of this radical reorientation of consumers’ preferences.
As a result of all this, there will be a complete restructuring of the automobile industry. Only EVs will be manufactured, of course; but fewer of them, because it will no longer be one vehicle per individual driver. One vehicle on the road 24/7 will serve many customers during the day. This will mean far fewer cars on the road. And probably improved road safety, because driverless vehicles will not get distracted, they will not cause accidents. They will not be under the influence of alcohol. They will not be tired and sleepy.
Empty parking garages
Furthermore, far fewer cars constantly in circulation will mean plenty of redundant parking spaces. In most large cities enormous parking garages have been built for commuters. They are filled every day by tens of thousands of cars parked there by commuters. In the future commuters will be able to rely on services provided by driverless cars, therefore all these parking lots and garages will sit empty. This will create an opportunity for re-purposing a great deal of valuable urban real estate.
A better future
So, here the picture. No more private automobiles on the roads, or at least far, far fewer of them. And this means that the substantial capital devoted by millions of individuals to purchasing a vehicles will be used for other goals. Besides, given far fewer cars on the road, there will be no more road congestion, and no more street noise caused by the internal combustion engines and related air pollution. And, finally, no more stressed out drivers/workers who have to fight the traffic twice a day, every day, commuting to and from their work places. All in all, with the driverless EV doing the driving, this will translate into a much more enjoyable, more relaxing urban life experience for millions of people across the globe.
Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC