It was a difficult question even before the coronavirus pandemic hit: When self-driving cars eventually rule the roads, will Americans own their cars or make use of ride-hailing fleets?
The challenge is now threefold. Self-driving car technology had already reached a plateau, and getting to full Level 5 autonomy will be more difficult than many had thought. With the nation’s economy hobbled by the virus, investment is slowing. And to car owners, their private automobile is now a sanctuary, and it’s unclear how long that attitude will persist.
A CarGurus.com poll of 400 active car shoppers, conducted in May for this article, asked, “What is your overall opinion about the development of self-driving cars?” It showed 22 percent of customers were excited by the prospect. A survey of auto owners in 2019 showed 31 percent of them were excited for autonomous cars.
The question about the long-term future for the world’s cars is far from settled, and the experts (some of whom see disaster for the planet if people own autonomous cars as we own our cars now) differ sharply in their perception of where we’re heading.
Last year, Tesla’s chief, Elon Musk, predicted that his company would have a million “robotaxis” on the road in 2020. To put it mildly, that’s not happening. Mr. Musk said in April that the cars would simply have the “functionality” this year. “Regulatory approval is the big unknown,” he said in a tweet.
The outlook is now cloudy. “The top priority of automakers around the globe is to conserve cash and generate revenue as they ramp up plants,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Cox Automotive. “That has pushed future technologies, like autonomous vehicles and even some electric vehicles, not off the stove but to the back burner temporarily.”
Jessica Caldwell, executive director of Insights at Edmunds.com, adds that achieving the twin goals of autonomy and electrification “was challenging even back when the market was healthy and functional.”
Americans had been opening up to the idea of the robotaxi, but the pandemic is making passengers think about the last person to ride in any ride-share vehicle, driver or no.
A survey by the IBM Institute for Business Value, released this month, found that half of those surveyed intended to make reduced or zero use of shared ride-hailing once restrictions are lifted. There was equal skepticism about public transit.
“A large percentage of the population will look to alternatives, like the personal vehicle,” said Ben Stanley, global automotive business lead at the IBM unit. “You control who’s in that.”
Robin Chase, a co-founder of Zipcar, which offers hourly rentals, argues that private ownership of self-driving vehicles is a recipe for more congestion and pollution, unemployment for millions of drivers, and huge losses of transportation revenue from taxes, parking, traffic tickets and registrations.
She added that attitudes toward the automobile were changing. “Most people think of cars in a very utilitarian way,” she said. “For some of us, cars are a status symbol, but for most, especially millennials, they’re a means to an end. People don’t want to spend all their money on cars.”
Ms. Chase is one of many who look forward to an era of shared autonomy that will take a big chunk of today’s autos off the road, freeing up space for people. In this scenario, the cars left on the road would be in use most of the time, efficiently serving a multitude of consumers and eliminating the need for a great deal of parking. Today’s cars are, on average, parked 95 percent of the time.
Susan Shaheen, professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed via email that shared automated vehicles “have the potential to support pooled rides and reduced vehicle ownership,” but she cautions that more research is needed to understand their full impact on consumer behavior — including vehicle miles traveled.
The effect of the virus “on consumer perceptions regarding hygiene, and the health and safety of shared and pooled vehicles, will need to be carefully considered,” she added.
Still, a major turnabout in vehicle ownership could be in the offing.
“Autonomous cars will definitely be shared,” said Sam Abuelsamid, the Detroit-based principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights, who cites practical reasons. He added that consumers were already paying $38,000 on average for new cars and trucks, and that especially in the early years, self-driving technology would add $5,000 to $20,000 to the vehicles’ price. “Self-driving cars will remain very unaffordable for a long time,” he said.
John DeCicco, associate director and research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute, takes the opposite view. He doesn’t think there is a business case for huge fleets of shared autonomous cars.
“The reason the privately owned automobile has been so successful is that individual owners capitalize the largest cost of the system — we buy the cars, and put a lot of emotional content into them,” he said.
That willingness to buy into the system does not extend to the expensive and shared self-driving car, Mr. DeCicco said.
“When it’s not their own car, people want the cheapest ride possible,” he said. “They don’t want to pay for the acquisition of the vehicles or their upkeep.”
The costs of the fleets fielded by Uber, Lyft and other such services are borne by their gig economy drivers, but the switch to autonomy could require ride-hailing services to become large-scale fleet owners or lease holders.
“The fundamental financial equation for mass-scale, non-individually owned vehicles is difficult, and always has been,” Mr. DeCicco said.
In a 2019 Energy Institute report, Mr. DeCicco laid out a nightmare scenario for environmentalists.
“Although the timing of full automation and the forms it will eventually take are highly uncertain, its long-run effect is likely to be greater transportation activity over all because it will cut the cost of mobility and increase the convenience, flexibility and variety of ways to move both people and goods,” the report said.
Some analysts see a mix of cars on the road, including in Europe. “Some clearly will be privately owned, but having empty cars running errands or circling for their owners is something that city streets were simply not designed for,” Philippe Crist, adviser for innovation and foresight at the International Transport Forum of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said via email. That means that European cities will favor shared use of autonomous cars, he added.
The question of ownership is unsettled, in part, because the technology is still evolving.
“The real challenge has been to make automated vehicles that consistently equal or surpass the driving performance of an average safe driver in all conditions and in all situations,” Mr. Crist said. “It turns out humans are pretty good at that.”
Self-driving cars might move faster to full autonomy if they could talk to each other and to technology-enhanced buildings, traffic lights and other elements of the infrastructure. Mr. DeCicco laments that the federal government has been slow to adopt so-called vehicle-to-everything regulations, also known as V2X. “An unwillingness to invest in V2X will slow down progress,” he said.
Advances were finally being made even without federal standards, Mr. Abuelsamid said, although there are two competing technologies. Some V2X was first installed on Cadillacs in 2017, and elements of the technology will be made available on Ford and General Motors vehicles in 2022 and 2023, he said.
“V2X is definitely a benefit,” Mr. Abuelsamid said. “With just onboard technology, cars can’t see what’s around that blind curve or what’s in front of that truck. If V2X is widely deployed, it will result in extended situational awareness.” And faster deployment of autonomous cars.
In 2017, Ms. Chase instigated the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities, created with the World Resources Institute, the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Transportation for America, C40 Cities and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, among others. There are more than 180 public and private endorsers.
One principle is that autonomous vehicles “are part of shared fleets, well-regulated, and zero emission.” It does seem likely that self-driving cars will be electric, because the industry is moving in that direction in tandem with its push for autonomy. But whether they’ll also be shared is far from certain.