Why would you want to buy a self-driving car?Wed, 14/12/2016
The joy of driving is a familiar concept, but is part of this joy taken away if you switch to an autonomous car? This perhaps represents the transition from loving to drive, to driving for convenience. With this said, are self-driving cars simply another step towards convenience, leaving the petrol heads behind?
John Gapper, The Financial Times, reports:
Car drivers are often to be seen these days with their heads down, texting or scanning social media on mobile phones. Some have halted at traffic lights but others drive at the same time, distracted by a digital world they find more entrancing than the physical one in front of them.
When I observe this, I think two things. The first is how dangerously they are behaving. The second is, when the time comes for cars to drive themselves, why would anyone buy one?
The same thought was prompted by Volkswagen’s decision this week to create a new brand called MOIA, not to make cars like its Porsche or Audi marques but to provide transport services. Its first effort will be a ride-hailing commuter shuttle service operating initially in Germany with electric vans.
Like other carmakers such as Ford, VW regards “mobility” as a big part of its future, alongside building vehicles. Ford has always “thought about the thing and how many of the things that we sold”, Mark Fields, Ford’s chief executive, said recently. Now it will sell mobility as well as objects.
They are partly being pushed into it by Uber, which has made ride-hailing in cities so convenient and comparatively cheap that it may start to take the place of car ownership. VW’s new service falls between Uber and public buses: passengers hail rides along a commuter route, and a VW van that is bearing others halts to pick them up.
Once they are safely inside the van, or similar ride-hailing vehicles, passengers can text and write emails without breaking the law and killing passers-by. It is a digital hybrid of private and public transport; a fresh incarnation of the minivans that shuttle people around cities such as Johannesburg and New York.
Carmakers foresee a future of self-driving cars — not cars with driver assistance technology such as the capacity to maintain the right distance from the vehicle in front, but truly autonomous vehicles guided by high definition maps and an array of scanners. It will not be common for perhaps another 15 years but the phenomenon is coming, particularly in cities.
When you combine ride-hailing and autonomy, you get an interesting result: ride-hailing and other kinds of on-demand mobility become cheaper and much more convenient. That makes it harder to see why people would want to own their own cars.
Consider why we buy them now. One reason is that they are highly convenient: the owner has transport readily available, outside or near the home, and can go exactly where they want when they choose. They also offer privacy and comfort: an enclosed pod away from the crowds and smells of public transport.
Then there is driving pleasure: the exhilaration of a fast car that can be accelerated along roads with a comforting roar. Anyone who doubts this visceral appeal need only watch The Grand Tour, the global motoring show presented by Jeremy Clarkson and his entourage on Amazon Prime.
The problem for carmakers is that the combination of autonomy and mobility on demand eliminates or reduces each of the advantages of ownership. If a car drives to your door and picks you up when you want it, it is nearly as convenient as having one parked outside. Those seeking privacy together with convenience can order a single vehicle all to themselves.
Driving pleasure will become extinct, whether or not the passenger owns the car. A fully autonomous vehicle such as the electric van that Ford plans to offer for ride-sharing services by 2021, will lack a steering wheel or pedals. Mr Clarkson will not be amused.
This is why drivers who interact with a phone at the same time as steering tell us something. They gain more pleasure or utility from the device in hand than the machine they control. As we become busier, time devoted solely to driving a car increasingly feels like a waste. Some 39 per cent of Americans surveyed by Ford said they commuted by bus, train or taxi in order to multitask.
Carmakers still hope the logic of self-driving vehicles will not impose itself fully. Their concept videos show people driving futuristic cars on open roads and handing over control to the vehicle in cities. Steering wheels slide back into sleek control fascias and the owners become passengers temporarily but remain the main drivers, like airline captains using autopilot.
It is more likely that road transport becomes a utility, something that can be bought by volume, like gas, electricity and water. It is currently cheaper to drive in a car you own than it is to travel the same distance by taxi but autonomy will change that. Ford estimates that self-driving taxis would cost today’s equivalent of $1 per mile, compared with the Uber average of $2.50.
Some people will own vehicles even if they cannot drive them. They will be able to customise interiors and even to personalise the underlying technology. Honda will soon unveil a concept car using artificial intelligence to display “emotions” for its owner. But in a world of cheap, convenient self-driving vehicles, only the wealthy and fussy will bother to buy a car.
Arguably, it’s the younger generations that are most guilty of using mobile phones whilst driving. This means the focus has been taken away from steering and gear changes, suggesting that a mobile phone is more interesting that the car itself. Whilst extremely dangerous, it makes a strong case for younger generations to opt for self-driving cars if they were to be made more affordable in the future.