No Parking Anytime: The Bold New Future of Driverless Cars

Courtesy Mercedes-Benz USA

In our driverless future, will there be any reason to own a vehicle?

In September, at a press conference in San Francisco, Ford Motor Company announced it would be underwriting the Bay Area’s bike-share program, expanding the supply of bicycles from 700 to 7,000 by 2018. Why is one of the largest car manufacturers in the U.S. footing the bill for a program to get people out of their cars?

A century after Ford designed a car inexpensive enough for millions of Americans to own, the company—indeed any company involved in transportation—is going all out to anticipate the right response to the imminent end of car ownership. Okay, maybe not imminent, but we’re beginning to witness some of the most radical transformations in the way we get around since the car was first introduced.

Car-sharing companies like Zipcar started in 2000 to little fanfare. They had devoted users, sure, but car sharing wasn’t translating into broader changes in policy and behavior. The real force behind the systemic change we’re seeing today emerged around 2010: The taxi industry was upended when transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft came on the scene, offering riders the convenience of calling a car from wherever they were through an app (and paying for it without any cash having to change hands). Soon after, these companies began to offer different levels of service, from carpools to shuttles to black cars, expanding their reach and levels of affordability.

It seemed at the outset that the ultimate goal of TNCs was to do away with taxis. A few years in, it’s becoming clear their ambitions are far bolder: to replace car ownership itself.

Traditional car companies too are acknowledging that, with the increasing adoption of self-driving cars, owning a motor vehicle will become a thing of the past. Many have partnered with TNCs; others are investing in ventures like Chariot (not incidentally purchased by Ford in September), which is a sort of stylish shuttle for daily commuters. Apple and Google are in the mix as well, as is, of course, Tesla, which hopes to move past the safety issues that plagued it earlier this year. They’re all hard at work envisioning what the future might look like.

That future “won’t roll out homogeneously or in a monopolistic fashion because of the complexity of the ways in which we travel,” says Susan Shaheen, codirector of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s similar to the way we transitioned from landlines and desktop computers. The mobile phone is ubiquitous but did go through evolutionary phases.”

If you live in a large American city where costs of parking and car ownership are high, distances are walkable, and there is reliable public transit, it may no longer make sense to own a car today. (If you live in the suburbs, you’ve got a little more time to let this sink in.)

“Once you’ve made that leap [away from the car], you won’t even have to think about how you’re going to get where you need to go,” says Emily Castor, Lyft’s director of transportation policy. “You’ll expect that this robust redundant network with a variety of available options will feel more spontaneous.”

“Robust redundant network” is classic transportation-speak for having a lot of different choices for getting from point A to point B. Not long ago, you could almost count those alternatives on one hand: bus, train, taxi, bike, feet. That’s because we live in a country designed around the car, so much so that any other form of transportation is referred to as “alternative.”

Critical mass plays a big role in competitively pricing these options: The more reliably companies can fill all their seats with riders, the lower they can make the price. But that price will be even lower in the future because TNCs’ business model is contingent on the impending arrival of self-driving cars, which will affect the greatest hard cost—drivers—radically. Also essential? The electrification of passenger vehicles. It’s virtually impossible to make the case at this stage in the innovation game for a nonelectric car.

Initially, autonomous vehicles will be available on limited routes, somewhat similar to a bus service but not as fixed. (This is already happening in Pittsburgh, where Uber just rolled out a fleet of self-driving vehicles that can be summoned by users.) Over time, people will be able to take an autonomous car everywhere. But they most likely won’t buy and own autonomous cars.

That’s why housing developers in some cities have begun offering Uber or Lyft vouchers to prospective residents in lieu of parking spaces. It’s why car companies are introducing programs like Audi at Home and BMW’s Reach-Now, which allow you to select the model of car that fits your immediate need. (Going to the mountains for the weekend? Order an SUV.)

Public transportation is changing too. The days of a transit agency solely running buses are done. Journeys will become—again to use transit jargon—“multimodal”: some mass transit, some autonomous vehicles, some walking. “It’s all about giving transit a more diverse toolbox,” says Castor, who notes that Lyft has begun partnering with both urban and suburban transit agencies on a multitude of programs.

Optimists see the trend away from ownership as a move toward more walkable cities. Cities won’t have to be designed around parking because the car will no longer need to be parked. This could result in a radical transformation of physical infrastructure (fewer roads!), more carpooling, less traffic, parking lots turned into playgrounds or affordable housing, more partnerships with public transit agencies.

But a more dystopian scenario seems plausible too, one where jobs are lost to autonomous vehicles, public transit services are de-funded, and long commutes are considered no big deal (and could encourage urban sprawl). There’s the possibility that automated car rides become so cheap and convenient that people lack any incentive to walk. “This is where very thoughtful public policy is needed,” Shaheen says.

Change won’t happen in most places overnight. Undoing car-focused infrastructure is an extremely complex and expensive undertaking. Further, many people would no sooner get rid of their car than get rid of their arm. It’s more than a mode of transportation—it’s integral to the American dream.

And unknowns abound: Who is responsible for an accident? Should the car’s software be insured? Should the passenger? How can people be made to feel at ease getting into a driverless car? What happens if someone throws up in the back seat or has a heart attack?

All this presumes too that cars are an inevitable part of our future. But are they? “Once designers of automated vehicles are no longer bound by the outdated limitations of accommodating either internal combustion technology or human operators,” writes self-described cyberarchitect Chenoe Hart, “they could move far beyond our present-day intuitions of what a car should look like. Our future passenger experience might bear little resemblance to either driving or riding within a vehicle; we’ll inhabit a space that only coincidentally happens to be in motion.” The most dramatic way to put an end to car ownership would be, naturally, to put an end to cars.

For the latest self-driving concept car designs, see our story »