What Will Happen When Nobody Owns Cars?
Earlier this month, Lyft’s co-founder John Zimmer described a future where no one needs to own a car. He envisioned a happier (Lyft-enabled) future where the sidewalks can be wider and there’s more space for public parks and places to meet your neighbors since cities needed less space for parking cars.
It’s a stunning burst of speculation that begs for some analysis. And it also gives a special insight into the internal engine that’s driving John Zimmer.
Zimmer establishes that he’s always loved cars, starting with the very first toy “Hot Wheels” cars he’d had as a three-year-old. But even back in 1990 — when he was six — Zimmer was also fascinated by the fast-talking pitchman for Micro Machines, who’d interrupt Saturday morning cartoons to describe the bedazzling array of things kids could buy for their miniature model city.
At times Zimmer’s essay feels a little like the same pitch, with breath-taking bursts of speculation about fleets of autonomous self-driving Lyft cars and “common spaces where culture can thrive — and where new ideas can be shared in the very places where cars previously stood parked and empty.”
His 4,100-word essay rushes through the history of transportation — how the railroads created cities in the 1860s, followed by the 20th-century arrival of those neighborhood-splitting highways, and how “our cities were dramatically reshaped to favor cars over communities.”
He points out that 96 percent of the time, our cars are parked, which he describe as “the equivalent of 240 million of the 250 million cars being parked at all times… For the most part, your car isn’t actually a driving machine at all. It’s a parking machine.” His conclusion? “America is running a failing transportation business.”
Maybe that’s just the way you think when you’ve spent your life talking to venture capitalists. In grad school, he helped start a ride-share service, and within a year of graduating, he started the forerunner of Lyft with Logan Green. He still talks about a class on City Planning that he took in grad school.
But if you believe that self-driving cars are in our future, then you’ve basically agreed with his initial premise that our world is approaching a third transportation revolution — and the only real question is how we’re going to implement it.
“It is within our collective responsibility to ensure this is done in a way that improves quality of life for everyone,” he said.
He paints a discouraging picture of an America with 700 million parking spaces, taking up 6,000 square miles — an area bigger than Connecticut. And with projections that 100 million more people will move into America’s cities by 2050, “it certainly doesn’t help to continue devoting so much of our space to unoccupied cars.”
A lot of this speculation seems inspired from a single set of statistics: that the percentage of young people with driver’s licenses is decreasing, and that today a millennial is 30 percent less likely to buy a car than their counterparts from previous generations. (My first thought: Maybe they’re just poor?)
Zimmer seems to believe this signals the arrival of a world in which we all travel solely through the use of ride-sharing apps. “Every year, more and more people are concluding that it is simpler and more affordable to live without a car.” His prediction? People in cities will start ditching their cars.
Zimmer argues that the invisible hand of the free mark will eventually lead people away from a life full of expensive and unexpected car repairs — not to mention gasoline and car insurance (and the never-ending hunt for parking spaces). And like any good salesman, Lyft’s co-founder says he just wants to pass the savings on to you. “We cut the hassle and you get the one thing you really want: the true freedom to ride.”
But didn’t we hear the same arguments about mass transit? (“With local monorail systems, you won’t even need your car anymore!”) People didn’t feel comfortable relinquishing their autonomy. But why spoil a good speculative essay about the future?
First, he takes issue with fellow futurist Elon Musk, who believes individuals will rent out their self-driving cars to others. No, Zimmer argues, they’ll just rent their own cars — from services like Lyft! These autos, after all, will be professionally cleaned and maintained, with a steady availability. He has some fun imagining it too. “Will they have couches and TV screens? Will happy hour take place with friends on the ride back from work?”
Zimmer has it all worked out — even down to when it all happens. Within 5 years, there’ll be a mix. But within 10 years — no humans on the road.
“At first, fully autonomous cars will have a long list of restrictions. They will only travel at low speeds, they will avoid certain weather conditions, and there will be specific intersections and roads that they will need to navigate around,” he speculated.
He anticipates a spike in demand when self-driving cars first arrive — because they’ll be so popular. And this will encourage people to give up their cars altogether — fueling even more demand. So that’s good news for human Lyft drivers — for about 3 years. But then the robots will take control.
Will this world really come to pass? People worry about Amazon controlling all the shopping in the future. But what happens if Lyft (or Uber or some other yet-to-be-launched service) controls all the driving in the future?
And the essay takes some other big leaps of logic. Zimmer points out that technology has eliminated the need for many other things. Do you really need a DVD player now that you can just stream videos online? Do you need a CD player when music is digitized? “Eventually, we’ll look at owning a car in much the same way,” he argued.
But if we’re talking about “eventually,” anything’s possible. Maybe no one will shop, because everything we need will be delivered by Amazon drones. Or generated on our 3D printers. Maybe we’ll all be enjoying a Universal Basic Income because robots have taken all our jobs. So no one will ever need to commute.
Personally, I want a self-driving car with a robot in its trunk that will hop out, buy me groceries, bring them home, and then cook dinner. I mean, as long as we’re speculating about the year 2050…
There’s any number of scenarios where it would be handy to own your own car. What happens when your date wants to leave that remote restaurant overlooking the beach — do you really want to hope there’s a self-driving Lyft vehicle nearby that can take you home? Or maybe you just don’t want Lyft knowing where you go to church. What if I’m robbing a bank? And how will teenagers park in Lover’s Lane?
What if people buy more self-driving cars — for example, aging Baby Boomers who are suddenly able to “head out on the highway” once more? Maybe Musk is right — maybe renting out your self-driving car will make more people willing to invest. Maybe in five years we’ll all have flying cars?
A lot of this depends on what the world will look like when we have self-driving cars. I can see insurance companies pressuring people to switch to the safer self-driving cars — maybe even governments demanding that all those fallible human drivers clear the roads for their artificially-intelligent superiors. But I also know people who will never be comfortable sitting in a driverless car while a piece of software hurtles them down the highway. I can imagine them forming their own fierce advocacy group. (“You can take my car away when you pry the steering wheel from my cold, dead hands…”)
Zimmer’s article was cited — well, pretty much everywhere: the BBC, Time, CNBC, Quartz, The Verge, Recode. Maybe that was the idea? But you can tell he’s really committed to his positive vision for the future.
“Eventually, we’ll be able to turn parking lots back into parks. We’ll be able to shrink streets, expand sidewalks, and make room for more pedestrians. That means more local shops and small businesses, more shared spaces, and more vibrant communities. This translates to better cities — and better lives — for people all over the world.”
While I remain skeptical — it’s an undeniably attractive picture.
Feature image via Pixabay.