Ford, autonomous cars and the edge of the driverless cliff
Nobody knows for sure what urban transport will look like in 10 years, but one thing's for sure: self-driving cars are going to cause a massive revolution. This revolution will not only impact the way we get around, but in the way our cities and social lives are designed.
It's also a huge time of upheaval for automakers, who are staring down the barrel of a fundamental shift in their business model. After more than 110 years of selling lifestyle products directly to consumers, most car manufacturers are now coming to grips with the fact that individual car ownership is likely to absolutely plummet in the next 20 years.
Driverless roads will happen sooner than you think
A recent paper by RethinkX, which, to be fair, definitely takes the optimistic side, has put some numbers to it. In this research team's opinion, a driverless electric taxi service will be massively cheaper than car ownership on the day it launches. And it estimates that's only 4 years away, in 2021, which doesn't seem to be an overly ambitious target at this point.
Getting around in a driverless uber, says the report, will be 4 to 10 times cheaper per mile than paying off and running your own new car. It will even be 2 to 4 times cheaper per mile than running, fueling, parking and maintaining a car you already fully own. On day one. And it will get a lot cheaper from there, not to mention safer and more convenient.
That kind of value proposition doesn't foretell a slow transition to driverless technology. It foretells the kind of revolution that's going to upend our transport systems inside a decade or two. It foretells huge issues with what to do with the millions upon millions of cars we've already got, that just won't make sense to run anymore; RethinkX projects that within just 10 years of regulatory acceptance, driverless cars will be doing 95 percent of road miles, even if they'll only represent 40 percent of the cars on the road.
Above all, it warns automakers of a full-on, ruthless scramble to get these things to market, en masse, as next-wave driverless mobility service providers like Uber, Lyft and everyone else rush to get driverless cars on the road in big volumes and carve out a piece of the service pie.
If you think this sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky, consider this: Ford has just sacked its global CEO, and elevated James Hackett into the top job, a guy who until a week ago was running its autonomous car program. That's how seriously they're taking this. Institutional investors are demanding decisive, visible action on this issue, and making it clear they want no part of auto companies that aren't ready to be large-scale players in the coming decades.
A rough transition is coming
So Ford is preparing for a rough transition from being a direct-to-customer sales operation into … What? Perhaps a "mobility service provider," offering its own brand of pick up/drop off driverless car service direct to customers. An application developer as well as a carmaker.
Perhaps a supplier to other mobility service providers, churning out hundreds of thousands of anonymous JohnnyCabs to be operated by the Ubers and Lyfts of the world. Perhaps it's got to develop its own Level 4 driverless cars (totally driverless operation), or perhaps it needs to suck it up, figure out how to work with a Google/Waymo type operation and stick to its strengths in manufacturing. Silicon Valley and Detroit have a lot to learn from one another.
Perhaps Ford's future is something different altogether, including e-bikes and integrated electric scoots to fill in the last-mile gaps in a hyper-efficient ride-sharing economy.
At a mobility discussion panel in Sydney on Monday, Ford's Australian President and CEO Graeme Whickman spoke about how next-wave autonomy could open up cheap, convenient transport for entire segments of users that currently face high barriers to entry: the elderly, the young, the blind and disabled.
"We believe that mobility – and all the advantages and benefits that come with it – are a human right,' said Whickman, "the mobility solutions that have served us for the last 100 years, won't serve us for the next."
He went on to admit that Ford's internal discussions had ranged as far as VTOL flying taxis and 3-D commuting, but stressed that the focus over the next few years is squarely on Level 4 autonomy and making sure that the company isn't left behind when this wave breaks.
Initially, Whickman said, the focus would be on providing self-driving cabs to large mobility service providers. But Ford also seems to think that once costs come down there will be room in the market for people to buy their own, relatively affordable, autonomous family cars.
That could be nice for people who still see cars as a lifestyle accessory, or those who are sick of being blasted with advertisements on their daily commute. Mind you, being tied to a single vehicle that you need to charge, maintain and (worst of all) wait for will be considerably more expensive and far less convenient than simply hailing the nearest e-cab.
A new age of utility over prestige?
Either way, it's looking like we might be seeing the end of the glory days for the auto industry. The family car has been a primary transport tool, a cultural icon and a status symbol for just one short century, but in that time we have completely designed our lives and cities around it.
The autonomous revolution will bring an equally profound set of changes in our lives over the next century. Robo-cabs will be akin to public transport; it's hard to see people caring what brand of taxi they travel around in – certainly not as much as they love their own cars in this economy. The vast majority will be as cheap as possible and are unlikely to be glamorous.
So the potential is very much there for a race to the bottom between autonomous carmakers hoping to supply the transport service industry. If Uber's buying or leasing 10,000 cars at a time, the pressure on cost could be enormous.
But so could the opportunities, and the chances to change our cities and daily lives for the better, the cleaner, the safer and the more social when humanity stops spending millions of hours every day behind the wheels of giant metal death traps, raging at our fellow commuters and burning fossil fuel. This will be a fascinating transition to live through.