TechMunch: Transport in a World of 8 Billion

Tony Seba, a futurist and lecturer at Stanford, believes that we are on the cusp of the fastest, deepest disruption in transportation history. You don’t need a crystal ball to see where he is coming from.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution continues to gain momentum, Seba predicts that by 2024 the concept of individually owned cars will be obsolete and the internal combustion engine will cease to be competitive with electric motors. A trip outside the capital cities of Europe, however, suggests that while we’re certainly on the journey, six years might be a slightly optimistic timeline.

The average American household spends $10,000 on car upkeep per year – a figure Seba believes could be cut by 90% under Transport-as-a-Service (TaaS). And yet consumers are buying more cars than at any other time in history. In 2017 UK households borrowed an estimated £40 billion to acquire legions of the latest models – 90% of private buyers used personal contract plans, fuelling concerns of an economic car-crash.

The current ownership model means that most of these cars sit unused 95% of the time. Mike Ramsay, a research director at Gartner, has said owning a car has never really made sense. Despite the obvious pitfalls of the current model, vehicle ownership is deeply engrained in today’s culture. This raises the question of how Seba’s anticipated change in attitudes can take place over the timescale that some tech firms are predicting – speaking at a recent conference, Dara Khosrowshahi said it will take 10 to 15 years for full autonomy to happen. It seems fair to surmise that autonomous and human-operated vehicles will have to safely co-exist on the same roads during the time it takes for the latter to fade into obsolescence.

The impact of autonomous vehicles

As the sharing economy continues to boom, driverless cars are seen as a major opportunity for TaaS companies, allowing commuters to use a roving fleet of autonomous vehicles instead of owning their own. Besides saving individuals thousands of pounds, the shift to autonomous will bring myriad societal benefits; from reduced travel costs to a drop in wasted commuting time, increased road safety and a cut to vehicle emissions. The fact that autonomous vehicles are likely to be electric will have the added benefit of reducing the noise pollution produced by four-wheeled egos burning around our streets.

TaaS – changing how we look at urban spaces

London has always been a beacon of inspiration for the trendsetters of my home city, Dublin, where words like Shoreditch and Brixton have become adjectives. Traditionally this has come in the form of inventive new ways to imbibe.

A recent trip to Peckham Levels can attest to this. It was eye-opening to see how, with a bit of chipboard and some wall-hangings, our perception of something as ubiquitous as a carpark can so quickly change. 7 levels of an under-used multi-storey carpark have been converted into a new creative workspace and cultural destination. Repurposing 90,000 sq ft of floorspace has allowed over 600 vendors to set up shop in the heart of London. Not only has it allowed people who otherwise would’ve struggled to afford, or even find, a workspace in such a central location, but the inexpensive nature of this change in land use has encouraged a whole community to develop around it. I expect to be visiting something similar in Dublin soon.

This is great, if a bit millennial-orientated, however, this is just one example. Up to 24% of a city’s total area is occupied by cars in some way, releasing this space would allow endless opportunities to be creative where space is otherwise limited. With only 5% of their time spent in use, huge swathes of cities are used as storage for cars. In London 80% of public space is dedicated to roads, while at the same time struggling to find new land to keep up with building demand.

Without the need for parking, streets could be redesigned to dedicate more space to cycle lanes and pavements. It may even help reverse the trend of pricing out inner-city residents we’ve seen in recent decades, possibly enabling my generation to plant our feet on the rungs of the property ladder, while still enjoying exotic vegetables, and minimising urban sprawl.

Autonomous vehicles will dramatically change the economics of personal mobility. They will irreversibly revolutionise how people travel and their relationship with cars. But they will also dramatically change how we interact with our urban spaces in many ways.  To me this is the most welcome outcome. In an increasingly urban world and with a global population twice that of when my dad bought his first car, the notion of individual ownership seems increasingly obsolete. Far from liberating, it’s choking us.

While it may seem hard to imagine such a rapid and dramatic shift occurring not only in the physical world, but in our collective psyche, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t until after WWII that the practice of regularly brushing teeth was adopted. I believe this shift has the same potential to improve our lives. At the very least, it might eradicate some of the dreadful driving-associated jargon developed during the last century, like road-rage, petrol-heads and pedal-to-the-metal. Eugh.

Nathaniel Ogden, Technology