Self Driving Cars: Implications You Might Not have Guessed

August 23, 2016

Autonomous vehicles will be here sooner than anyone thought, and they will have an internet-like impact on society.
That’s one reason why Uber has an estimated market cap 20 billion dollars higher than General Motors. Who knew?
The modern industrial economy is to a great degree centered around auto manufacturing and production. What if we suddenly need only 10  percent as many cars?  What if a key bottom rung of the employment ladder, the taxi, truck, or bus driver, disappears?

Here, Robin Chase, Co-founder and former CEO of ZipCar, considers the landscape.


Simply eliminating the drivers from cars, and keeping everything else about our system the same, will be a disaster. Picture zombie cars — those with no one in them — clogging our cities and our roads, because it will be cheaper to keep them moving than to pay for expensive urban parking, and cheaper to bring retail to a customer than to pay rent on a retail store. While the number of vehicle miles driven skyrockets, our transportation infrastructure revenues, dependent on the gas tax, parking, fees, and fines will disappear. Unemployment will spike as professional drivers will be be laid off in droves. It will be a nightmare of pollution, congestion, and social unrest. Let’s break it down.

Congestion. The traffic alone will make people curse the technologists who brought AVs to our streets. Right now, our “congested” roads and cities are mostly filled by individuals driving alone in their cars (75 percent of all trips). Just imagine our streets and your frustration when 50 percent of the cars have no people in them at all.

When we don’t have to drive them, we’ll use our cars more. My 2004 Prius costs me about $1.50 for an hour of run time. It will be cheaper to have my car double-park or circle blocks rather than pay for a parking meter or, heaven forbid, pay for parking in a downtown garage. It’ll also be cheaper to have my car pick up pizza or drop off dry cleaning than to tip a delivery person. Endless double-parking and block circling already happens in places where the cost of a human driver is either very cheap (think Delhi) or expense is irrelevant (think about luxury black cars in New York City).


But there is so much opportunity to love! If we steer toward it, and plan for it, we will get benefits that once seemed as distant and unlikely as those science fiction scenarios I mentioned earlier.

Shared cars. For starters, getting away from our wasteful model of car ownership totally eliminates the congestion problem. If we share rides in shared cars, we will only need 10 percent of the cars we have today. That also makes a huge dent in our pollution problem. Just as Zipcar, Uber, and Lyft have demonstrated, wireless technology and smartphones have taken almost all the hassle out of sharing. AV technology removes all of it.

I feel pretty confident about this estimate. It’s from an excellent study by the International Transport Forum at the OECD that used actual origins, destinations, and timing for trips in the city of Lisbon. This is in line with numbers I’ve heard from a modeler at Google, a transport planner for the Bay Area, and taxi studies in Singapore and New York City. I can even see how this happens. A bold mayor will be the first mover, welcoming a discrete pilot within city limits. A hundred cars will shepherd tourists, students, late shift workers, and the curious. No one will die. It’ll be cheap and convenient.

After all, these first vehicles won’t be cheap, so unlike personal cars, which are idle 95 percent of the time, these will be intensively used — rather like Zipcars (the company I co-founded) or taxis. Today, 50 percent of all Uber and Lyft rides in San Francisco are shared — meaning that passenger-strangers going in the same general direction are sharing the trip and enjoying a reduced fare. If I use Zipcar’s economics (like self-driving cars, Zipcar doesn’t pay for drivers), the company is profitable earning about $70 per car per day. The cost of “fueling” and maintaining electric cars is one tenth that of regular combustion engine cars, and the parking would be cheaper since most vehicles could be stored in distant locations the little time they are not in use. When we take trips in shared cars, the cost of inner city travel will be the same as bus fare and the trip time will rival personal car travel (especially once you remember you never have to find parking).

The very landscape of our cities will change. On-street and almost all off-street parking, including parking garages, will be unnecessary and we’ll get rid of them. Communities and local governments can come up with criteria and priorities for how to repurpose that newly available public space: wider sidewalks, more street trees and plantings, bike lanes, street furniture. Progressive cities will make use of old parking lots, garages, and gas stations to fix what was lacking: affordable housing, green space, grocery stores, schools. Proactive cities will know their priorities neighborhood by neighborhood, as well as their criteria for action, before the transition begins.

Our energy grid will expand, while the climate benefits. As we move BTUs from fossil fuel gasoline to electricity, the incremental energy will come from renewables. Of course this will only happen if we demand that it be so, with state-based regulations. But we should, since installing new wind and solar capacity will mean jobs, to design, manufacture, install, and then maintain this new additional capacity. And, we have to because every nation has pledged to have zero emissions by 2050. There’s also a second order benefit: savings in military spending and wars avoided by weaning ourselves from fossil fuel dependency for passenger vehicles.

Detroit Free Press:

As head-spinning the pace of change, no one has found a way to make money from a service delivered through a product that may not be sold to consumers anytime soon, if ever.

If you think Apple making a car is a stretch, can you imagine the Detroit Three competing with Uber, Amazon or even iTunes, by selling shared mobility through apps? They may not have a choice.

Volvo’s tie-up with Uber is just the latest example of a car manufacturer hooking up with the ride-sharing giant. Toyota has made an unspecified investment in Uber. GM is committed to putting autonomous Bolts in Lyft fleets, but has not said when.

These cars won’t be sold at dealerships for personal use.

Lyft co-founder John Zimmer told Bloomberg News earlier this year that 80% to 90% of all shared rides occur in the 20 largest metro areas.

Today, about half the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050, that will grow to three out of every four people. In the largest mega-cities, owning, operating and parking a privately owned vehicle will be prohibitively expensive and inconvenient in gridlocked traffic.

“All the major automakers can see that their business model based around simply building a vehicle and selling it for a profit may not sustain them in the second half of this century,” said Ian Riches, director of automotive practice at Strategy Analytics in London. “Unless they do something they’re almost guaranteed to fail.”

Uber is well-established and well-financed, and is causing partnerships between manufacturers and mobility technology start-ups to accelerate.

Last month it sold its China business, which had lost $2 billion over the last two years, to competitor Didi Chuxing for $1 billion, while retaining a 20% stake in Didi. Before that it had raised about $15 billion from various sources, including $3.5 billion from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

Uber remains privately held, but venture capital firms estimate its market capitalization at $68 billion, or nearly $20 billion more than General Motors’. If the company pursues an initial public offering, investors will see how much it is making or losing, although CEO Travis Kalanick has said the business is profitable in the U.S. and Canada.


12 Responses to “Self Driving Cars: Implications You Might Not have Guessed”

  1. Can you get a DUI with a level 4 autonomous vehicle?

  2. Ron Voisin Says:

    No one is going to properly anticipate how this will play out. But as always, we have to put up with whose self-proclaimed rocket-scientists who think they do know.

  3. redskylite Says:

    The idea of self driving cars makes me feel all of my nearly 70 years old, it’s almost a leap beyond my imagination, rather like giving my late grandad the latest smart phone to play around with (even a standard home line would baffle him). Solar Powered driver-less cars have been in use for some time at Masdar City and seem very successful. The onus should be on mass transit rather than individual vehicles I would have thought, but there is pleasure in driving a car across interesting landscapes, that would cease to exist. But there again there is also pleasure in viewing a mountain glacier, that will be sadly taken away from future generations and we have to pay prices for our indulgences.

    Space robots help clear the road for self-driving cars

    “Aside from equipping the car to deal with unusual events, Fong said the toughest part of the task is enabling it to understand and communicate clearly with human drivers, who sometimes forgo turn signals or drive erratically. “When we are still in this world of some cars that are manually driven and some that are autonomous, we are going to have to figure out how we signal between the two,” he said, “until we flip all the way over where everything is autonomous and then we don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

  4. stephengn1 Says:

    To me, in terms of climate change solutions, oceangoing autonomous vehicles will be far more important than those that are land based. The surface of the ocean is completely undervalued.

    Oceangoing solar powered robotic boats will clearly clean plastics and other pollutants from the ocean

    Oceangoing robotics could install and maintain enormous energy harvesting and CO2 to fuel catalysis operations

    Oceangoing robotics could install and maintain huge Co2 to harmless or very useful black carbon conversion operations

    Oceangoing robotics could install nearly maintenance free “albedo panels” in far more places than the Arctic.

    Ocean robotics could also manage fish stocks and autonomously manufacture a wide variety of products, including many food products. But if we are to survive as a species, we must start creatively thinking along these lines now.

  5. firstdano Says:

    The traffic alone will make people curse the technologists who brought AVs to our streets. Right now, our “congested” roads and cities are mostly filled by individuals driving alone in their cars (75 percent of all trips). Just imagine our streets and your frustration when 50 percent of the cars have no people in them at all.

    That makes us sound really, really stupid.



    • Andy Lee Robinson Says:

      Bit like circulating blood cells waiting to pick up some oxygen.
      The parallels between a city and an organism are quite striking.

      What is stupid is the sheer waste of energy:
      2000 kg to move 70 kg of meat with 15% efficiency.
      My solar ebike: 30 kg to move 70 kg of meat with 85 % efficiency.

    • pendantry Says:

      … so stupid that it’s only when you stop and look at it from the outside that it’s possible to see how truly stupid homo fatuus brutus really is.

  6. neilrieck Says:

    According to the IEEE, next year (2017) most automobile manufacturers will produce vehicles employing “guardian angel mode” which will make it virtually impossible to hit another vehicle. While this is not fully autonomous, it will eventually lead to fully autonomous in 5, or more, years.

    Despite what we hear today, Tesla vehicles are currently the safest car on the road based upon accidents per 1,000 Km driven which means that insurance companies will favor similar technologies. Someday soon, you will be required to present telemetry which indicates how many times you drove vs. how many times the car could have driven. People who take control more often will pay higher premiums.

    Now consider this: parking where I work is very limited and becoming expensive. I live less than 10 Km from work which means that I could tell an autonomous vehicle to drive back home, then come and get me at 5 PM. This will be a waste of resources if the car burns fossil fuels but is no big deal if it is an electric vehicle recharged by solar.

    But why buy a vehicle then only use it one hour out of 24? Doesn’t it make more sense to keep it busy by passing it over to Uber to make a few bucks? In fact, why buy a car at all?

  7. mbrysonb Says:

    I think a transition like this involves too many changes and too many possible paths (all dependent, to varying degrees, on details of regulation, technology, finance, infrastructure, the timing/sequence of various shifts etc.) to be predicted, even in broad-brush terms. But changes with massive financial, environmental, resource and social implications are coming, and good policy choices can make all the difference. We need to think hard, look for opportunities to change in ways that preserve flexibility, watch for successful policies and shifts elsewhere, and generally pay attention to what’s coming and go after opportunities for win/win changes.

  8. It’s good to hear that traditional automobile companies such as Ford and Volvo are entering the game as well.

  9. […] via Self Driving Cars: Implications You Might Not have Guessed — Climate Denial Crock of the Week […]

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