Laura Bliss of CityLab visited the Consumer Electronics Show and was reassured that driverless cars won’t be individually owned for a long time. Which is a very good thing.
Up until fairly recently, there wasn’t clear consensus about whether self-driving cars would be for personal or shared use. Now there is. The prohibitive cost of self-driving cars is a huge part of the reason why AVs are likely to be shared, at least initially, but there are others, according to Jim McBride, a technical leader of autonomous vehicle development at Ford. He and I sat between a Chariot minibus (Ford’s recent micro-transit acquisition) and a semi-autonomous hybrid Fusion, both parked on display at the automaker’s massive convention exhibit.
McBride said his company figures it’ll have more direct control over early AVs if they’re designed as commercial fleets: “Normally, when you sell a car to a customer, you might never see them again,” he said. But with a commercial fleet, “you could make sure that you really understand where they’re being driven, that they’re operating in appropriate weather for their state-of-art sensors, that the vehicles coming back every day, and that they’re being properly maintained and serviced.”
What industry insiders do disagree on, however, is when (if ever) widespread autonomous vehicle adoption is likely to happen, and what effect it’ll have on personal car ownership. McBride suggested that down the road, as the price of the technology comes down and acceptance becomes more widespread, Ford could start to market AVs to individuals.
Jay Ellis, the co-founder of the University of Michigan’s TechLab at MCity, a transportation technology proving ground, said at a Wednesday morning panel that the transition to AVs—i.e., people giving up personal car ownership—would happen “more slowly than we think.” Paul DeLong, the president and CEO of Car2Go North America, said that even as Americans start to adopt shared mobility services, they will still own and operate personal “primary” cars for some time. “People still enjoy driving,” he said.
Others thought differently. “The next generation will have no problem getting in these vehicles,” said Karen Francis, the board director and strategic advisor for a slew of automotive tech companies, including AutoNation, Nauto, and Telenav. David Baga, the chief business officer of Lyft, thinks people would be chucking out their car keys in serious short order. No doubt, the futures that these leaders predict are the ones that best serve their respective business models. But it’s still a fact: The timeline, and eventual implications, of shared AV adoption are not clear.
The government’s participation will help answer those uncertainties. Francis made an interesting semantic observation I’d never heard before: “Autonomous vehicle” is a misnomer, she said, because for self-driving cars to fully realize their safety and efficiency potential, a whole ecosystem of “smart” infrastructure must accompany them. Think street lights, roads, curbs, and parking spots equipped with sensors and special markings that “talk” to the cars. “These vehicles don’t operate ‘autonomously.’ They have to operate within a larger connected world,” she said.
Who’s going to build that world? The public sector, of course—just as the government built out the autopia of the future that GM so thrillingly depicted back in 1939. The contours of urban roadways will eventually make room for self-driving vehicles. How quickly cities do this, and how well new roads facilitate ride-sharing—think infrastructure like passenger loading docks and off-street car storage—will determine that future.