HENRY FORD WAS A smart guy but he never did the math when he decided to put every American household on wheels.
A century after the Model T, the world has a problem with cars. The U.S. and China will consume about 40 million light vehicles in 2015, according to IHS. Globally, we’re on track to hit 100 million vehicles in 2020.
That’s not a lot of cars. That’s an ocean of cars, an inundation, wave after wave breaking on the shores of the industrialized world. And yet policy makers and common folk alike have been powerless against the siren song of the automobile. Even in the most car-blighted burg in the world, the toxic parking lot they call Beijing, the appetite for the automobile—as status item, as luxury, as totem of personal mastery in a fragile postcolonial mind-set—is driving millions more into its smoggy embrace, despite limits on ownership and the government’s rising alarm.
The absurdity of our century-old, ad hoc approach to mobility is captured in one statistic: The utilization rate of automobiles in the U.S. is about 5%. For the remaining 95% of the time (23 hours), our cars just sit there, a slow, awful cash burn, like condos at the beach.
But what if, like condos, automobiles could be shared? It’s one of life’s first lessons—how to share toys, parents, rooms, feelings. But as little consumers grow into adults, they forget the joys of selflessness. That’s about to change. And I don’t mean the collaborative consumerism we see around us—peer-to-peer transportation like Uber—which is symbolic and transitional, lasting only until automation happens, at which point we can get rid of the wetware. And by wetware, I mean us.
Within a generation, automobiles will be endowed with what’s known as Level 4 autonomy—full self-driving artificial intelligence for cars—which will not so much change the game as burn down the casino. Autonomy will make it possible for unmanned automobiles to be summoned, via app, to your location. And not just any passing tramp steamer, but exactly the vehicle you need for the occasion, cleaned and fueled, for as little or as long as you need (offers may vary in your state). When you’re done—poof!—it will go away.
You don’t pay for the car. You pay for the miles. And only the miles. It’s a whole new way to fly. Let’s start small. Need a pickup for three weekends a year but don’t want to pay for the other 49? Autonomy can make that happen easily without a visit to the dreaded U-Haul depot. Need a car to take mom to the doctor’s, or fetch a spouse from the airport? A decade hence, major auto makers and smaller players will be at each others’ throats for the privilege of sending consumers vehicles a la carte, for a one-way trip, an afternoon, a weekend, a month. These transactions will move through the glowing bowels of your monthly credit accounts, and you won’t even feel them.
Americans will look back on pre-autonomy like the age of Casio calculators and DOS prompts. Remember cab drivers? Remember traffic jams? Remember when parents lived in dread that their children would die in a car accident? Death and major injury from traffic accidents will drop drastically. The automobile’s other costs—decreased productivity, fuel burned in uncoordinated traffic—will be swept away. “Beyond the practical benefits, autonomous cars could contribute $1.3 trillion in annual savings to the U.S. economy alone,” wrote Ravi Shanker, a Morgan Stanley analyst covering the U.S. auto business. Global savings? Somewhere in the neighborhood of $5.6 trillion.