The Near Future Of Mobility

autonomous car, new trends, suburbia, transportation

Covid Nod to Autonomous Vehicles

Bosch's shuttle concept at CES. Pod-type people movers are in these days. A company called Transdev, also displaying at CES, is running short-range autonomous shuttles in locations as varied as Normandy, France; Montreal, Canada; and Gainesville, Florida. (Jim Motavalli photo).
Bosch People & Goods Mover by Transdev (credit: CarTalk)

When transportation runs adequately, it is resistant to change. That may explain why we have been taking buses and subways for the past 125 years, but are now questioning if they will meet new challenges. A perfect storm has emerged during the Covid pandemic as public transportation feels less safe, autonomous vehicles emerge from pilot testing, and the quarantine propels new directions in home-work patterns.

Seeding Change:

Some transportation modes, namely electric bicycles and walking, have already experienced shocks. During the pandemic,  bicycle shops have had difficultly getting enough stock and electric bike trips have surged. The process for acquiring vehicles has changed too. Carvana, an online site, has gained ground at the expense of traditional dealerships. GoogleThink notes that ideas towards buying and leasing vehicles shifted as people shopped by video.

As we see transportation habits and mode choices do a remix, are attitudes towards autonomous vehicles updating too?

From a headline point of view, it was a dynamic year for the technology. A Korean company said it would operate driverless cars (with a safety person) in Nevada. General Motors said they would hire 3,000 tech workers as it expands its R&D and electric vehicle arms. Tesla, the company, was added to the S&P 500 index. But, the first mover market belonged to freight and logistics. Covid propelled momentous demand for ordering online and home delivery. So large trucking services began to update with drones, and Amazon, always on the leading edge, acquired a driverless car startup called Zoox.

Following Suit to Homes Near You?

So, once the boxes and food start arriving autonomously, will the cars and trucks driven for everyday work trips and errands be far behind?  Here are divergent paths:  one scenario is that future vehicles, the robo-taxis (shared on-demand vehicles) will replace the need for individual cars. Today’s garage will be repurposed as tomorrow’s home office or gym. The other scenario is that consumers will continue to go to Carvana or dealers to acquire personal vehicles, but then be able to pick up groceries, ‘send’ their aging parents to the doctor, and get school age kids to play dates, all autonomously.

It’s hard to tell which “road” the autonomous car will travel, but the Covid pandemic has been an accelerator. First is the movement of first time home buyers to take to the suburbs. As I have written some time back, the US suburbs are joined at the hip with the personal car, and one begets the other. Yet the people moving to the suburbs, cohorts X and Z, are not generations that have favored driving.They may welcome a technology that does not put them behind the wheel. About a quarter of 16-year-olds had a driver’s license in 2017, a sharp decline from nearly half in 1983.

Tech Travels the Distance!

Second, the Covid pandemic has infused confidence into new modes and made us more aware of how it connects us. People went on Zoom platforms because they had to, and found that the technology was not so scary. That said, older technology, like subways and buses, did appear scary because they did not seem to be clean and hygienic. Disclaimer: not necessarily true.

Third, the Covid pandemic has spread us out geographically. Some office workers, often urbanites, moved to the suburbs, and now live farther out because further away guaranteed homes that were bigger or had yards. But, here’s the kicker: when work resumes back in offices, even if it is more flexible, these newly minted homeowners will face long boring trips on congested roads. Until more electric vehicles replace gasoline cars, air pollution and carbon emissions will increase too.

The autonomous vehicle helps ameliorate these problems, particularly if robo-fleets are in service. Business commuters are likely to enjoy this type of travel, similar to conventional trips on commuter trains or planes. They can relax and work en-route. This is a logical extension for those accustomed to staying WiFi connected throughout the journey.

Ridehailing Today, Hailing Change Tomorrow

Ridehailing has become the ‘starter’ technology, in the sense that it has prepped drivers for change. In larger US cities, there is a trend to own fewer cars, as ride hailing substitutes for a second household vehicle. There is less insurance, fewer repair costs, no depreciation. But there are non-pecuniary reasons why ridehail is also the entry point for autonomous driving. Passengers get comfortable with giving up control at the wheel. There is less effort and time to find open parking spaces, and the service favors those who live on steep hills, are less able to walk, or simply prefer not to.

Today’s autonomous cars are die- cast in the form of what travels on public roads today. So asking people what they think about their future is disingenuous. A quote ‘associated’ with Henry Ford likens it this way: If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses.” Today, most of us reflect on autonomous vehicles and imagine a “ghostly” steering wheel that moves left and right. In fact, the future autonomous transporter will look and feel quite different. While it did not fully launch in 2020, the Covid pandemic pushed it from verge towards pavement.