Independence Day: When we'll be prisoners of our cars no more

As driverless technologies improve, there'll be no more Uber, Hertz, or even car owners. Here's how Amazon and Apple will take us all for a ride.

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This Independence Day, in the year 2019, I am thinking not only about those more traditional freedoms -- of religion, speech, and from oppression -- but also, our freedom of mobility.

I am, as a product of Gen X, perhaps among the last generation to be obsessed with the notion of car ownership. Yes, I love cars. I love the different body designs. I love how each one drives differently. I love the history and culture that surrounds the different automotive brands. I love the activity of going out for rides with no objective other than to take the top down on my Camaro convertible and drive.

But I don't enjoy the burden of owning cars -- particularly, two vehicles. My wife is the more frequent driver, so she needs a car every day. When I am not traveling, my car sits in my garage, about 90% of the time, as I work from home.

The car provides freedom, but it's also a prison

My wife does about 7,000 miles a year on her Infiniti. I've only put 12,000 miles on my Chevy convertible so far, and I've owned it since late 2016. That's hardly justification for vehicle ownership.

While automobiles have enabled modern cities to become today's megalopolises, and have given people nearly unlimited freedom to travel, we are, to some extent, prisoners of our cars. For many of us, ownership requires monthly payments and also insurance policies that are based on the odds of accidents created by human beings. Owning a vehicle also comes with the responsibility of maintenance. And, of course, fuel costs.

And parking? The entire idea of parking for a self-owned automobile is wasteful and absurd, because it sits in a spot all day when you have to go to work, and then it sits in a spot all night when you go home. So, all this real estate in modern city designs is wasted, because we all need to have a place to put that car. And the volume of traffic is also an undesirable byproduct of how many people need to own personal vehicles to get anywhere or for businesses to transport materials.

Many groups of people, in particular, millennials, are cooling to the idea of not just owning homes but also owning cars.

sydmeadcreditsubscriptioncommutercars1970.jpg

Conceptual artist Syd Mead, whose futuristic designs appeared in the original Blade Runner, depicted these subscription commuter cars in this illustration from the 1970s.

ZDNet

Ride-sharing reaches the height of its popularity

No wonder services like Uber and Lyft are so wildly popular: They offer people tremendous personal freedom without the burden of car and auto insurance payments, fuel/energy consumption, and maintenance.

I used to rent cars when I did business travel. Now, if I'm going to be in a city where Uber and Lyft have service, I no longer do so. It's just that much more convenient to pick up my smartphone, click a button, and have a driver summoned within minutes.

No parking hassles, or worries about returning the vehicle. No concerns about having to gas it up, and no expense reports for a pricey auto rental.

The only thing I need to be concerned with is taxi receipts, which Uber is happy to email me automatically.

And, at home in Florida, I've frequently summoned Uber just so my wife and I can go out locally to the many restaurants offering a happy hour and have a couple of drinks without having to worry about getting safely home.

The ride-share trend is so popular now one would think that the existing ride-share services have a bright future ahead of them.

That said, I think Uber and Lyft may only have a few years left.

There is a disruptive force on the horizon, and that is driverless electric vehicles. Uber has (unsuccessfully) dabbled in this technology, and while it has had setbacks, the company resumed its testing with a new facility in Pittsburgh, Penn.

Lyft is also pioneering a self-driving service in Las Vegas with its partner, Aptiv, and has completed 55,000 rides to date.

However, in my mind, there are only two companies that can sufficiently change the way the auto and ride-share industry works: Apple and Amazon.

But neither Apple or Amazon has much to do with cars now. So, why those two?

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Apple's massive, secret car project

Let's start with the Cupertino company. We know Apple has a sufficiently large, secret project underway that has something to do with cars. And, on June 25, 2019, it purchased Drive AI, a company that creates autonomous buses and has ridesharing in the Arlington, Texas area, for an undisclosed sum.

I don't think this is some souped-up version of CarPlay that it intends to license to automotive manufacturers to enable them to plug and play with autonomous driving. I believe it is developing an actual car. But I don't think this is a car anyone is going to be able to buy, per se.

What I think Apple is developing is its version of Uber. But it's going to be way, way better and far more exclusive.

I believe that Apple, to continue to differentiate itself as a luxury brand, is working to integrate ride-share technology with its iOS products. One of the privileges of iPhone ownership in the future could be access to an exclusive ride-share service, owned by Apple, using premium driverless electric vehicles only available to that service.

What would you pay on top of iPhone ownership every year to be able to summon your luxury, robotic electric car 24/7? How about $1,000? Or $2,000? Or $3,000? And what would you be willing to pay on the average per ride -- if not per year or month? Five dollars? Ten dollars?

For $3,000 a year, I might seriously consider it, even though I love my cars. Maybe even $5,000 a year. It's still considerably cheaper than a luxury car lease and overall total cost of ownership.

And at $1,000 or even $2,000 a year? It's a no-brainer. It would also fit into the proposed "Apple Select" service that I described in an earlier article.

Apple is one of the few companies that has considerable financial and engineering resources to work with an automotive manufacturer such as GM, Chrysler, Nissan -- or even Tesla -- to build a specialized EV for ride-sharing and to create the automated charging infrastructure for these things as well as the service depots to keep this running.

Tesla would be a great partner for such an activity since it has the superchargers already built-out, but Apple wouldn't necessarily need its help, because the company can buy its way into anything.

While an Apple ride-share service would be fantastic, it is probably a bit further away than we would like. The driverless technology is very close to being fully baked, but the required legislation on a federal level -- let alone city-by-city basis -- could easily take five years before the US would even allow fully driverless cars on the road.

There is always the usual scuttlebutt that Apple has considered, and it is still considering buying Tesla. That would be one way of it getting it quickly to market. But it also wouldn't surprise me to see Elon Musk, once his autonomous driving software is perfected, to create a type of Uber-like ride-sharing service that exclusively uses his vehicle technology, and for his customers to be able to buy into that, like some form of timeshare as I've described above.

Imagine an Amazon service called PrimeRide

While Apple toils on this in secret and perfects its driverless electric DNA, there is Amazon.

Amazon might be working on something similar, but it will be tied to incentives and rewards with Prime and branded something along the line of PrimeRide.

Initially, these will be delivery vans (electric or gas -- I don't see CEO Jeff Bezos waiting for EV tech or driverless tech to mature) good old humans will drive.

These vehicles will serve double duty for Whole Foods and local Amazon deliveries, and when they aren't delivering, they will pick up passengers and have limited things for sale on the van like snacks and drinks.

I also see it offering an affordable pick-up-from-the-house-and-drop-off-to-work service for commuters in the suburbs who don't want the hassle of owning a primary or secondary car that sits in a parking lot all day long.

With AWS, Amazon can use big data and other kinds of analytics and computer learning techniques to schedule morning and afternoon pick-up routes as well as for dispatch.

Potentially, I can see Amazon's next purchase being Uber or Lyft.

I don't see it developing a unique vehicle like Apple, which might be some Syd Mead-esque, pod-like thing for up to four people.

Amazon might work with Tesla or an established auto manufacturer to produce customized multi-person vehicles, but it doesn't have to because it can go totally off the shelf.

Amazon can quickly capitalize on its Whole Foods acquisition by making each location a base of operations for these vehicles to fuel up, charge, and have driver shifts.

If either Apple or Amazon's efforts come to fruition, the auto industry is going to be severely disrupted. Rental car companies almost certainly will face additional consolidation, and we will see the traditional ride-share companies face significant challenges. They may disappear entirely, especially when driverless electric tech becomes not just technologically mature but more accepted legally and culturally.

A vision of a driverless future

When autonomous driving software is perfected enough that virtually all vehicles traveling roads and highways become driverless, our society faces a total disruption.

Initially, this is likely to happen with long-haul type driving, where safety issues from driver fatigue are a real problem. The elimination of accidents and the improvements that the logistics and transportation industry will enjoy alone will provide learnings for other things such as bus travel. Eventually, different kinds of autonomous rideshare and other transportation services will arise, which will offer a range of different types of autonomous vehicles depending on the needed application and desired amenity levels. As with anything else, there will be budget, business, and luxury offerings.

Owning a car will no longer make sense, and residential and commercially zoned neighborhoods may radically change due to a vastly reduced need for long-term or short-term parking spots. Space can be much better optimized if only 20% to 40% of existing car parking space is needed for personally owned vehicles. Only the truly wealthy, who will want special privileges and offerings that these services cannot provide, will continue to own their cars.

There will be other added benefits: Our aging population, which will be working much longer due to their increased lifespans, will have freedom of mobility -- even though they may not be well-suited to driving anymore. They will pull out their mobile device, request a pickup, and their ride will be there in minutes.

What happens to the drivers? In the future, it will be an activity that will be regarded as an unnecessary risk, a vestige of a more dangerous time that most of us will relegate to history. They will be considered perhaps as we think of smokers today. Or meat eaters. They will be persona non grata individuals that put their own lives at risk and also those around them by their unpredictable behavior. They may even be removed by law from the road during prime hours or segregated to recreational driving courses or areas and may be negatively evaluated by their policy-issuers on their insurance risk, as well.

I love my cars. But I love my freedom and not having to worry about a vehicle even more.

Are you up for a trip in Apple cars or a PrimeRide? Talk Back and Let Me Know.