If the driverless economy is imminent, and the endgame is fleets of fully utilized robot vehicles that create radical reductions in personal vehicle ownership, why would a car company be complicit in undermining its own market? The answer is that it wouldn’t.
No car company actually expects the futuristic, crash-free utopia of streets packed with Level 5 driverless vehicles to transpire anytime soon, nor for decades. But they do want to be taken seriously by Wall Street as well as stir up the imaginations of a public increasingly disinterested in driving. And in the meantime, they hope to sell lots of vehicles with the latest sophisticated driver-assistance technology.
So it’s really about the “latest sophisticated driver-assistance technology” – particularly for collision avoidance. If built-in technology can prevent everything from fender benders to fatalities, that’s most of the problem solved, at least as far as insurers are concerned.
And it may be the cost of insurance that drives the real change. If, say, you have a car that prevents almost all accidents with respect to your personal liability, presumably you’ll see massive savings on insurance. Which means, in turn, that those without the technology will see massive increases. And may not even be able to afford it.
But there will also be a responsibility for those with driver-assistance technology to continually upgrade and maintain it to fail-safe standards. Or again, the liability will be crushing if it can be shown that the owner was negligent in doing so.
So here’s the question: why take personal responsibility? Why, rather than owning a car, instead rent, lease, share or contract with the provider of vehicles – effectively service providers rather than car sellers. The service provider takes on the responsibility for the technology, and the liability, while also providing the latest versions in a very fast-changing market.
Rather like car-sharing already, you won’t actually have to own a car to get the benefits of a car. And that will have two further radical consequences.
It will break the psychological bond an individual has with the personal vehicle they purchased – a bond cultivated with a century of advertising and cultural expectation. By contrast, no one really falls in love with the particular smart phone they have at the moment, knowing the technology and model will change so fast. It’s the service, not the hardware, that creates the dependence.
Then, once the personal bond with the vehicle is broken, it changes how government can approach taxation. At the moment, it’s almost a third rail in politics to directly tax a driver by, say, increasing the price of gas or imposing a toll – anything that’s visible to and resented by the driver. But what if government instead was taxing the service provider?
How much, for instance, is the tax on any individual cell-phone call? You don’t know and you don’t care. The tax is invisible, incorporated into your service contract, which is paid for once a month in a way you hardly notice. What if the same was true for transportation services? Rather than the car driver paying the tax, it was paid by the transportation service provider, who was also responsible for collecting it.
The Mobility Pricing Commission, currently looking at options for road pricing in Metro, should be thinking about a future scenario where taxation is separate from infrastructure and instead is incorporated into the price of a service which almost everyone will need. Rather like your phone.