Are we in the final days of vehicle ownership?

Are we in the final days of vehicle ownership?

Autonomy is a word we hear often with reference to self-driving cars. Freedom, on the other hand, is something we're used to seeing in auto advertising. But does more of the first mean less of the latter? It's quite possible that we're already on the road to a future without car ownership.

The Internet may have been a revolution in communications, but is also inexorably changing our relationship with property, as goods and services become things that are accessed via apps or even a short command to our voice assistant, summoned from the cloud as if by a genie in a fantasy story. But this convenience, which may well be cheap in terms of money, comes at a cost of freedom. 

Less and less do we find ourselves actually owning what we've bought. Many of us consume our music through Spotify, movies through Netflix, video games through Steam. We may have 'licenses' to access something through the graces of a company, but we're still worryingly dependent on a third party to manage access to 'our' stuff. 

This doesn't just apply to multimedia. Other, more traditionally tangible and essential things are affected by this tendency. We've seen, for example, how AirBnB has effectively incentivized landlords to keep coveted urban areas available to rent to higher-paying tourists rather than make them available to be bought by locals. In the world of work, zero-hour-contractors juggle gigs coming in via app in the hollow where more secure employment models used to be.

And so it goes with transportation. The question is, how long will it take? And how far could it spread?

Convenience versus car culture

The advancement of self-driving cars goes hand-in-hand with ride-sharing companies. Uber, Lyft, Waymo and co. are all developing self-driving taxis, but it won't stop there. Fleets of autonomous vehicles will handle freight and also serve as mobile hotels and even brothels. According to a 2017 study by tech think-tank, Rethinkx, private car ownership in the US will drop 80% by 2030.

This line of thinking reasons that as fleets of autonomous vehicles roll out and become all the more affordable and easily accessible, many people will ditch car ownership altogether. After all, why put yourself down to finance a car, rent a parking space, and so on when a cheap subscription service can make a car available to you with just a tap?

self driving hotel room
The concept for a self-driving hotel room. / © Aprilli Design Studio

There are some obvious benefits to this. For a start, it would be much less wasteful. On average, cars sold in the US sit parked more than 95% of the time, just taking up space, but a self-driving car would just move on to the next user instead of sitting pretty. This efficiency and need for fewer cars overall would be good for the environment, and potentially change urban planning for the better - space that would be set aside for street lanes and parking garages could be put to different use. San Francisco and Pittsburgh are already adjusting city planning to account for self-driving vehicles. 

If future without car owners is something you look forward to, then one of the main hurdles is extending the kind of service that may be a great boon to congested urban spaces into rural and remote areas. As someone who's hitched around across long distances, the idea of ride-sharing cross-country isn't necessarily absurd. Even shopping trips to mega-markets for the family could be delivered by autonomous vehicles once the infrastructure is in place.

But the commodification of cars goes against the way we've been taught to think about vehicles for years. Cars have been marketed for decades as status symbols and fetish objects infused with powerful symbolism. The cliche joke of an expensive car as compensation for a deficiency in masculinity hardly needs to be repeated, but the fact remains that cars are still sold with a promise that they bestow power, freedom and popularity to the buyer.

Porsche taycan
Porsche is adapting to electric power, but when it comes to self-driving, will a luxury brand matter? / © TechCrunch

Financing cars for personal ownership is a large, entrenched business, and one that won't go down without launching a marketing counterattack to the sharing economy. And besides, when Uber and co. switch from a fleet of vehicles owned by their drivers to a fleet controlled by the company, you've got a much less appealing sounding rent economy, not a sharing one.

Will millennials be the generation to kill car ownership?

No, of course not. As is usual in these cases, millennials aren't killing anything so much as they are reacting to circumstances placed upon them by the economy. A study by the Wharton University of Pennsylvania notes that, while millennials have a lower rate of car ownership than previous generations at their age, this could have more to do with the 2008 financial crash. Millennials may want to buy their own cars, just like how they want to buy houses, but ultimately, just can't afford to. There are indications in the study that once they have saved enough money, older millennials will still buy cars, but just at a later age than previous, more prosperous generations.

Even as an urbanite who personally disdains cars, I can't say I completely welcome the utopian vision of self-driving vehicles on demand replacing wasteful car ownership. Increasingly, we're starting to recognize that the convenience and savings promised by big tech such as Facebook and AirBnB can have hidden downsides that tend to only reveal themselves further down the line.

In the case of self-driving vehicles, the nightmare scenario is ceding too much control over our movements to unaccountable private corporations, becoming dependent on an entity that could whisk away a service when it pleases, and develops and 'disrupts' faster than government regulation can keep up. Maybe there's something to the promise of freedom in those cheesy car commercials after all.

Do you think that we will see the end of personal car ownership in our lifetime? Will that be a good or a bad thing?

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  • Vincent DeSapio May 1, 2019 Link to comment

    A recent article I read stated that the average cost of owning a car from age 20 to age 70 was $1 million. This doesn't include fuel and repairs, but includes the the amount of money that could have been earned if the money spent on purchasing the cars had been invested instead. The major reason most U.S. citizens don't have enough money in their retirement accounts is because they pay too much for housing and automobiles. If more citizens understood this, their attitudes toward owning a car would change.

  • itprolonden Jan 23, 2019 Link to comment

    The economy is booming. I don't know where you live but in the states, it's great.

  • storm Jan 22, 2019 Link to comment

    I don't think the US is at that point. But it could be true in the EU, Japan, Korea. Driverless services or even shared services require a population density to be profitable not present in much of the US still.

    The government granted monoploies of post and phone service bear this out. These services were required to serve all citizens equally, with certain outlier segments. If a business wants to compete it has to meet those same requirements from day one that's a lot of infra structure to build out and support. Deregulation showed that the profit centers remain in the dense populations. Rural phone, cell internet , and cable continue to lag the cities. No money in it.

    There is a population movement towards cities in the US. That will help support such services but only increase traditional ownership in less dense areas.

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    Deactivated Account Jan 22, 2019 Link to comment

    Why not, at least robots don't drink and drive.

  • Albin Foro Jan 22, 2019 Link to comment

    My standing prediction is that humans will be glad to see robots drive large transit and delivery vehicles (scrupulously law abiding, never double parking), human and robot driven personal vehicles will never mix - the same scrupulous granny-driving we'll like in big trucks will infuriate us among millions of robots stopping on yellow, never exceeding speed limits or pushing through left turn signals. To avoid road rage and vandalism, urban cores will gradually restrict or special-license human driving and it will take half a century for much change outside them. (Interesting to read about hitching rides - I recall the days when "ride sharing" meant thumbing by the side of the road - late 60s it was friendly and many of us saw the world that way, got creepy and impractical in the 70s, but now there are apps for that.)

  • Vijay Jan 22, 2019 Link to comment

    After the sale of my last car, I have not bothered to look at buying a new one since there are services like Uber & Ola readily available. Yes occasionally there are hick ups & inconvenience but nothing that warrants purchase of a new car. Still planning on getting a cycle though. :-)

  • Rusty H. Jan 22, 2019 Link to comment

    Once the people born before around 2005 are gone, this might be more of a deal, but, for people like me, a tail end baby boomer, no way would I just "subscribe" to a car. I grew up during the muscle car era of the 60's-70's. A car is part of you. I've driven nothing but mustangs for 40 years. I don't really customize them but do some minor tweaks to make it more "personal".
    Yeah, the younger generation would be more apt to do this, but not the old fogie types like me.

    • itprolonden Jan 23, 2019 Link to comment

      Exactly! I grew up in So Cal and it has/had a strong car culture.

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