The end of privately owned cars

It’s kind of a heartbreaking story (at least to me) but an interesting piece from the BBC caught my eye this weekend and provided some food for thought. Could you be living in the last generation where private car ownership is commonplace? That’s the theory being highlighted by Justin Rowlatt, who notes that recent trends in both technology and commuting habits suggest that within only 20 years, people owning cars will be largely a thing of the past. In fact, you may have already bought the last car you will ever own.

A growing number of tech analysts are predicting that in less than 20 years we’ll all have stopped owning cars, and, what’s more, the internal combustion engine will have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Yes, it’s a big claim and you are right to be sceptical, but the argument that a unique convergence of new technology is poised to revolutionise personal transportation is more persuasive than you might think.

The central idea is pretty simple: Self-driving electric vehicles organised into an Uber-style network will be able to offer such cheap transport that you’ll very quickly – we’re talking perhaps a decade – decide you don’t need a car any more.

And if you’re thinking this timescale is wildly optimistic, just recall how rapidly cars replaced horses.

So that’s the starting point of the theory and as crazy as it sounds, it didn’t take long for me to realize that he’s making a good point. As horrifying as I personally find the notion, driverless cars are coming and nothing is going to stop them. Also, electric cars for short distance travel are becoming increasingly feasible for normal use. Combine those facts with the ascendant popularity of Uber, Lyft and similar ridesharing services and what do you get? Fleets of small, short-haul vehicles that you can summon to virtually any location on a few minutes notice.

Now consider how much money we all spend on cars. New ones are very expensive to buy and the average driver gets saddled with car payments for several years. Then there’s insurance, gasoline, scheduled maintenance and repairs. It all adds up. For most of us, if summoning an automaton with an app on our phone could take us pretty much anywhere we need to go for ten or twenty bucks, that starts sounding like a good deal.

It would only take hold in the cities at first, I think, where traffic is worse and commuting distances tend to be shorter. But eventually, it could work for most folks in the suburbs or even in rural areas.

I grew up in the era of muscle cars and trucks. We had to do all of our own repairs, up to and including replacing engines. Cars were a sign of status and a projection of strength. The world would be a sadder place without them as far as I’m concerned. But the author in the linked article makes a lot of sense. It may actually happen and it could be far sooner than you may be thinking.