Yes, Americans Will Learn to Unlove Their Cars

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Stuart Staniford is unconvinced that Americans will ever warm to the idea of relying on networks of driverless cars instead of owning cars themselves:

You won’t get any argument from me that driverless cars are on the way, but the idea that people will then agree to get around in networks of super-efficient automatic taxis that they don’t own is, I think, complete wonkish naivety….The vast bulk of spending on cars in the US is for irrational emotional purposes: status display, feelings of safety, etc, not simple transportation….I see this in Silicon Valley in spades; parking lots dotted with Mercedes and Porsches well suited to doing 150mph on an empty autobahn or 200mph around a race-track, none of which ever get to do anything of the sort. Maybe occasionally the owner gets a break in the traffic on Highway 1 on a weekend away, but that’s about it — maybe half an hour a year that they get to do what the car is actually designed for and the car ads told them it would make them feel good doing. Yet highly accomplished and rational meritocrats will cheerfully stretch the household budget to have one of these things to show off in the driveway or the parking lot at work.

As a person who drives a Porsche and doesn’t even get half an hour on Highway 1 each year, I’m obviously sympathetic to this view. But I still think it’s mistaken. Let me count the reasons:

  1. Sure, lots of people buy cars as status symbols. But lots of people don’t. Honest. At a guess, I’d say that at least half of all drivers basically just buy transportation and don’t actually care much about cars as status symbols. And half is a lot.
  2. Even among the status obsessed—or, more accurately, especially among the status obsessed—time is the most precious commodity. Driverless cars will appeal to the well-off because they’ll allow them to be workaholics for an hour or two a day formerly dedicated to driving. And I suspect that once you stop actively driving a car, you’ll start to view it as much less of a status symbol. After all, how many mucky mucks who qualify for a corporate/government car service decline to use it? And it’s not like a plain black Crown Vic or Town Car is really much of a showpiece.
  3. This may be a generational thing. Young people already have a different attitude toward cars than the boomer generation, and they’re also more tech savvy. I suspect the idea of using a smartphone to call up a car and get ferried around will be pretty appealing and, in some circles, a status symbol in its own right.
  4. Subscribing to a car service that’s fast and efficient will be a lot cheaper than owning a car, and different companies will offer plenty of different service levels (think gypsy taxi vs. yellow cab vs. limo service). When you add up all the things that will conspire to make cars less of a status symbol, those savings will loom very large for all but the very richest folks.
  5. This isn’t an all or nothing proposition. It could well start out with people using a service to provide a second car, instead of owning two cars. Or it might start with the elderly. Or in big cities. Or with technophiles. Or environmentalists (better than a Prius for showing off your low-carbon bona fides). But if the technology works, this is simply too compelling not to catch on one way or another. And this is precisely the kind of thing where my faith in the free market to come up with innovative solutions is practically unbounded.

Needless to say, there are still questions of whether the technology will ever work, as well as questions of liability and legal status. If those don’t get resolved, the rest of this is moot. But if they do get resolved—and I fully expect them to—there’s simply no way we won’t see a future of car subscriptions. It probably won’t happen exactly the way I expect it to, but it will happen one way or another.


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