No doubt the car has come to a pivotal point with the prospect of 'driverless' and sharing cars rather than owning them. What they have in common is the more conscientious and efficient use of resources (materials, energy, time, infrastructure, the environment). In a recent interview Ford's Research & Advanced Engineering VP Ken Washington talked about what he sees as a defining factor. "The new generation is really thinking about how to use transportation in an on-demand way, they are less tied emotionally to the physical vehicle." That should make the car industry's creative juices flowing. Question is: are they?
What's interesting is that the effects can be twofold for the right type of car. Auto-driven cars, used in a shared capacity, may complement, at times even replace public transport. No doubt Google's long-term goal is to make the conventional car obsolete as well as rival public transport. Noticed how unassuming, bland, cute its self-driving pod looks? I'm sure nobody would mind sharing one with other people. Not exactly meant to take it out for the proverbial spin (no manual drive), it's by definition not a car to call your own. However, auto-driven cars that have something more to offer when 'driven manually', can also renew interest in ownership.
The car industry faces two major challenges. One: develop a business model no longer solely based on selling cars, and develop new, what I'd like to call, 'automotive formats' that will make people crave again because they have something new to offer. Two: make cars drive autonomously. Interestingly, Daimler already has its car-share program. No doubt lower than expected Smart sales contributed to setting up Car2Go. Automakers need to determine how fast and far the whole self-driving thing will go in terms of technology, politics, legislation, liability, standardization, mingling with road users that aren't autonomously steered (often overlooked), practicality and consumer acceptance. The question then arises how significant the intermediate phase will be or can be. Why is that? Well, the prospect is that we will stay responsible for a long time, at least until 2025. Dozing off in self-driving cars is out of the question. This means that self-driving cars will feature a steering wheel!
As long as we will have cars that can pilot themselves ánd that contain a mandatory steering wheel, why not offer the person behind the steering wheel the conscious choice between relaxing with the auto-pilot switched on, or active involvement in 'manual override mode'? Could be interesting. It's why we game, not some robot. It already applies to the cherished sports car or SUV of course, but when you emphasize that old-fashioned, gratifying 'live feed' element of driving yourself, people can even come to appreciate a small car that much, that they may actually want to own it. Not just any small car. There is already way too much of the same thing. The magic word is reinvent! No better example than Apple's reinvention of the good ol' phone. Its design and functionality turned out to be such a smash hit, that usage and ownership of the Apple iPhone was taken to a whole new level. It turned into a cult, particularly with young people, and made Apple the richest company in the world.
So, the young can be, to use Ford Research VP Ken Washington's term, "tied emotionally". What's needed is a next-generation approach that encompasses all new possibilities, incl. the potential blend-in with public transport. When occupancy rate is high, public transport is efficient. But a bus' or tram's standard bulk and weight do form a handicap at hours when demand is less. One can already envisage a 'jack of all trades on wheels' make its appearance: energy-, cost- and space-efficient, maneuverable in dense city traffic, yet comfortable and safe, with excellent ergonomics to make it an early adopter of driverless technology, looking like nothing else that's available, and offering a new take on driving. It can come in the form of traditional ownership, rent or lease. Use it on a car-share basis, and it can become semi public transport-like in self-driving mode - what you might call an 'auto-mobile' in the truest sense.