The New York Times is waking up to something Via Meadia readers have been thinking about for a while, noting signs of the rapid approach of a new age in transport. It’s going to be big; the automobile was the distinctive invention of the 20th century. The mass production techniques developed in the car industry helped create the industrial model of modern times; the relationship between mass production and mass consumption built around the car industry was a powerful engine for social change; cars reshaped our cities, led to the construction of huge highway systems, and drove a century of increasing dependence on fossil fuels, petroleum above all.
If cars change, the world changes, and cars and the car industry are moving toward the biggest transformation since the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line.
The NYT‘s excellent tech writer Farhad Manjoo offers his readers a taste of what’s coming. He describes taking a drive in the new, top-of-the-line Mercedes S-class, generally considered a proving ground for the technologies that will be in more reasonably priced cars a few years down the line. The article starts there and goes on to examine other ways technology is set to revolutionize how we get from place to place.
What he finds first, and this tallies with reports from tech-forward automotive journalists over the past few years, is that the combination of increasingly sophisticated safety features is getting us close to a tipping point. Think about a car that has cruise control to maintain speed, a “forward-collision avoidance system” that applies the brakes if it detects a car in front of you, and sensors that read the lines on the road and tell the steering system how to stay in the lane. On the highway, that car can pretty much drive itself.
We’re still in the early days, but these computer-aided safety technologies are pushing us, one upgrade at a time, toward a true self-driving car. There are still a few bugs in the system; it’s hard for sensors to see lane lines in a blizzard, and city streets, unlike the highway, sometimes have pesky pedestrians to watch out for. But the sensors, the processors, and the software keep getting better. You don’t need Nostradamus to tell you where this is going.
Meanwhile, companies like Uber, Google, and Tesla are shooting for the moon instead of taking incremental steps. They’re trying build a totally autonomous car from the ground up, a vehicle that, in response to spoken or typed instructions, will take you from driveway to destination with no further work on your part. Google’s prototype doesn’t even have a steering wheel. These projects, too, are moving from the testing grounds to actual use.
But autonomous driving isn’t the only technology set to shake up transport. Manjoo’s article mentions several examples like on-demand bus services whose routes would be determined by riders’ competing needs, entered into their smart phones. And there’s the bevy of car sharing services, which are taking aim at the inefficiency of automotive down time. When you buy a car for yourself, you pay for all the time when you aren’t using it. You also pay through the nose to park it. Not so with car sharing, where you pay for it only when you need it. One car can thus be used virtually all the time, unlocking value that would otherwise go to waste.
The question then becomes how these technologies are going to change the way we live. Many analysts underestimate the impact; the transport revolution is going to shake our world.
One important and obvious area in which the change is going to be salutary is safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recorded 32,719 American car crash deaths in 2013, and autonomous driving systems could conceivably drop that number back down towards 1899 figures (26 deaths four years before Ford was founded, as it fascinatingly happens). We’re already seeing the beginning of this. According to Russ Rader of the IIHS, drivers of cars with front crash prevention systems rear end people 14 percent less than drivers of cars without them. (As more data like this accumulates, expect insurance companies and governments to begin to push drivers more aggressively toward safer, self-driving cars.)
But people worry that not all of the changes are going to be benign.
[T]he transportation system of the near future may also be more legally complex and, given the increasing use of private systems to get around, more socially unequal. And, as in much of the rest of the tech industry, the moves toward tomorrow’s transportation system may be occurring more rapidly than regulators and social norms can adjust to them. […]
Not all coming advances may be democratically allocated. Though the prices charged by car-hailing apps like Uber have fallen sharply because of huge scale, they are not as cheap as many public transportation options. […]
The bigger problem may be the way the culture, laws and our brains respond to improvements in transportation. One worry about technology that makes commuting less of a headache is that it will lead people to move farther away from their jobs, which will in turn increase sprawl and drive up demand for cars, eliminating any overall benefit from the advances.
Trust the New York Times to wring its hands and weep bitter tears over the prospect that more families will have more freedom to live in leafy green places with big yards for the kids, but Manjoo has a point when he says that the consequences will be large, unpredictable, and complex. This revolution in transportation is just one part of an even bigger fundamental change that our society is going through right now, from a society that is based on industrial production to one based on information. As that happens, some of the institutions and behavior patterns that we assume are the default way to organize society will stop working very well.
The end result will be change that is more wrenching, more challenging, much faster, and a lot closer than the American establishment has quite realized. The wrecking ball is heading for the cherished pillars of orthodox blue model thought, which is still pretty much the only way the New York Times core readership can imagine life.
Manjoo frets, for example, that the public transport networks will take a hit. He’s probably right. Public transport is going to suffer because, with more individualized options at lower prices (Uber Bus, or whatever), the public is going to have more convenient choices at competitive prices. What that will mean is that in many cases, the part of the public that uses mass transit will be a smaller share of the whole, and perhaps comparatively poorer. That will create a revenue squeeze on mass transit systems, among other things causing headaches because these have developed as blue model, feather-bedded, competition free union sanctuaries. Fares in the old world of unionized mass transit will be uneconomically high, in part reflecting legacy pension costs; more and more riders will switch to relatively cheap and much more convenient private service. Revenues for traditional mass transit will fall—and taxpayers who don’t use mass transit much themselves anymore won’t vote for subsidies.
Suburbs may lose all interest in publicly subsidized mass transit, and either drop out of regional systems or cut their contributions. This is how death spirals begin: cash strapped urban mass transit will cut back on the frequency of service, and public busses will get older and dirtier as maintenance is delayed. More people flee the public transit system, especially in big cities, and the revenue squeeze leads to more service cuts. Repeat until dead.
A squeeze on mass transit will be only one, and by no means the most disruptive, of the ways the transportation revolution could change our lives. Automobile manufacturing and the industries associated with the consumer car remain the biggest consumer business in the world, with the manufacture of cars, car parts, and the highway infrastructure that the Auto Age demands a cornerstone of the economy in most of the major countries on Planet Earth. There is already a serious global overcapacity in car manufacturing. What will happen to that industry if, in a world of driverless cars, tens of millions of people shift away from car ownership to just-in-time car rental. (Why incur the expense and inconvenience of car ownership when you can get a self driving Uber car or bus on demand?) That kind of world will need less steel, less glass, less rubber. Throw in the jobs lost when the trucking industry goes driverless, and it’s clear that both the developed and the developing world have some difficult adjustments to make. The shrunken car industry that remains will be under fierce pressure to cut costs; there will be many fewer manufacturing jobs — and robots will probably end up with most of the good ones.
The insurance business and the practice of law will also change. In a world of self driving cars, does it make sense to sue the driver when there’s an accident? Wouldn’t the logical party to sue be the company that made the car or the software that guides it? Without millions of lucrative individual insurance liability policies to feast on, that cute little TV gecko will starve to death, and a lot of ambulance chasing lawyers, as well as insurance agents and executives, are going to need to look for new jobs.
And there’s more. It’s a mistake to look at the car revolution in isolation. It’s the intersection of the huge technological leaps we’re taking in communications with the transport revolution that will really shake things up. The nature of work is going to be changing, not just the way we drive to work in the morning. As telework gains ground, many fewer people will be trapped into long, five-days-a-week commutes, meaning, among other things, that there will be even bigger shifts in the way we own and relate to cars and even greater positive impact on the environment and negative impact on employment than self driving cars alone could produce. One likely consequence: climate change models will need to be revised. The world will be pumping much less carbon into the atmosphere in a world of autonomous cars.
The revolution in transportation is coming, and the closer it gets, the more it looks like a real revolution. It’s going to be big and life changing; it’s going to change the way we own and use cars; its going to change the relationship between transportation and the environment; and globally it’s going to save the world trillions of dollars on conventional infrastructure, as we shift from concrete and pavement to the info-structure. It’s going to wipe out millions of jobs and change most of those that survive. But the transport revolution is not the only revolution on our doorstep. The future is much bigger and much closer than most of us have yet grasped.