Riding into the future
Fleets of autonomous vehicles will transform the way we work, live and travel across the globe.
Imagine a world with no service stations and no parking stations. Where houses or apartment blocks won’t require garages or parking bays. Where there are no speeding tickets or parking infringements, and the promise of no road fatalities. Where private commuters travel long distances to work while catching up on the latest report or some extra sleep.
The advent of fully autonomous personal transport will likely be the most significant technological advance of the 21st century. Driverless vehicles will change the way everyone across the world lives, works and travels.
How autonomous transport systems will function will stretch the human imagination, says Simon Caspersen, co-founder of IKEA’s Innovation Lab, Space10. “The day fully autonomous vehicles hit our streets is the day cars are not cars anymore. They can be anything,” Caspersen told Dezeen magazine. “The primary function of transportation disappears to give rise to other functions. It could be an extension of our homes or our offices or our local cafe.”
The concept of car ownership itself is under threat in a world dominated by autonomous vehicles. The line separating public and private transport will blur. Stanford University lecturer Tony Seba believes personal mobility will go down the same route as other industries, from music to news, by moving to a subscription model he calls “Transport as a Service” (TaaS).
Seba thinks the TaaS era is imminent. He says all cars sold by 2025 will be electric. By then, electric vehicles will be up to 10 times cheaper to operate and maintain than those with internal combustion engines powered by fossil fuels, making them ideal for fleet buyers.
On The Driven podcast, Seba explained why he believes TaaS will be the dominant way to travel as early as 2031. “Assume in 2021 you’re going to buy a new car. Essentially your decision is going to be: do I want to spend $50,000 (over five years) to buy a new car or do I want to pay $100 a month to get a subscription? [It’s] like Uber on demand. It’s a 10-time cost differential – it’s a no-brainer.”
Whether you own a car – or order one – will not come down to sentiment but economics. The biggest and most profound impact will be in our cities, at least initially.
Professor Travis Waller, executive director of the Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation at the University of New South Wales, isn't sure Seba's time projections are accurate but he is certain TaaS will play a significant role in our future.
“I think we'll start seeing them [autonomous vehicles] in niche domains first, like long-haul freight,” Waller says. “Then, once it does truly start happening, it'll be a quick transition. I think that point [widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles] is still a bit off.”
Business and governments will need to invest heavily for the new technologies to thrive, he says. “It’s how we’re planning our infrastructure, how we're designing our cities, how we're setting up our regulations and our markets, and our supply chains…these are very long-term goals.”
Although lower transport costs will drive the TaaS transition, communities will need to adapt quickly to take advantage of the momentous societal changes. House and apartment designs won't need to accommodate parking spaces; new suburbs won't need elaborate ribbons of house-lined streets or be situated near railway stations.
“A lot of people make their location decisions based on mobility – where they can have a car or if they have access to transport,” Waller says. “Is it on a bus line? Can I get parking? All of these decisions may go away. Where we choose to live and work and go to school completely decouples from this issue of transport.”
Seba says civic leaders will need to find uses for vast tracts of city real estate currently devoted to car parking. Transport will become so cheap, he argues, retailers will pay potential customers to visit their shops.
Waller and Seba disagree on the TaaS revolution’s impact on traffic congestion. Seba says it will all but disappear. Waller says congestion will still exist but manifest in different ways. Small towns and regional centres may benefit as city-weary folk looking for better quality of life take advantage of cheap driverless transport systems.
“We will redesign our communities and how we conduct our lives,” Waller says.
Certainly, international land travel could be a vastly different experience in a TaaS world. Moving vast distances across continents cocooned in autonomous vehicles, travellers can explore parts of the world they were either unwilling, or unable, to attempt before. They also wouldn’t need to worry about many practical considerations, such as finding a parking spot in a foreign city.
“In a way,” Waller says, “the world will be accessible and open no matter where you go.”
Waller believes the future of transport is never about creating the perfect system – it will be about finding the highest levels of efficiency. Society will need to deal with personal freedom and privacy issues as powerful fleet companies accumulate data on our movements and behaviours. But TaaS may offer the chance for anyone – perhaps those who live remotely or can't afford a car – to benefit from advancing technology. It might allow society to provide better or greater access to services to our most vulnerable.
“Every day, everyone has to struggle one way or another with mobility,” Waller says. “We have to get from somewhere to somewhere else. This, potentially, will disrupt that completely.”
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