The automotive and technology industries are moving quickly to develop driverless cars, a move that could result in a loss of independence for millions of consumers.
At least that's the view of some automotive experts.
In a special report on autonomous cars, The Economist's Tom Standage, the magazine's deputy editor and head of digital strategy, looks at the emerging technology's implications for personal mobility, car ownership, and the future of transport.
His conclusions may come as a shock to consumers accustomed to owning a personal vehicle and having it available at all times. As driverless cars become the norm, Standage predicts car companies will be selling rides, not cars.
For example, if you find you need to make a quick run to the supermarket a few miles away, you simply hop in your car and go. But in the future, driverless cars will be so expensive you probably won't own one.
Hitching a ride everywhere
No matter where you need to go, there will likely be thousands of autonomous vehicles on the road operated by ride-hailing companies. Still, it might not be all that convenient.
First, you would have to summon a car and have it drive you to the supermarket. After you have purchased your groceries, you would have to summon another car to take you home, paying for the ride each time. The more trips you need to take in a car, the more it will cost you.
As Standage sees it, autonomous vehicles will undermine individual car ownership, with car companies "selling miles rather than metal boxes." However, there may be many car-loving consumers who would not find that appealing.
Like owning a horse
Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor for Kelley Blue Book, emphatically believes there will be some consumers who own cars, but he likens it to how a few people continue to own horses, which were the principal mode of travel a century ago.
"Driving will move from being a necessity to a recreational pursuit," DeLorenzo told ConsumerAffairs. "There will continue to be privately owned tracks and off-road areas where people will be able to drive vehicles."
But that doesn't mean he thinks you'll always be able to hop in your car and drive to the grocery or dry cleaners on the spur of the moment. Driving you own car might be confined to specific areas.
"I also foresee scenic zones, like the California coast and other places, where people will be allowed to drive vehicles," DeLorenzo said.
The issue of coexistence
In fact, automotive experts are currently thinking about how millions of driverless cars would coexist on the roadways of America with cars driven by humans. DeLorenzo believes technology could provide an answer.
"I believe that if human-driven cars are allowed to operate in autonomous zones, by that time all cars will be equipped with Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) transponders that will allow the seamless integration of both human and autonomous vehicular traffic," he said.
"If the autonomous car knows the direction of the human driven car, whether or not it is being braked or accelerated, and things like the steering wheel angle, then I see no problem in allowing them to be part of the traffic pattern.”
And that would be important for consumers' continued independence, since driverless cars will cost tens of thousands of dollars more than the average vehicle.
But if governments end up banning human-driven cars, as The Economist believes is likely, consumers will find a simple task like running to the supermarket to be more of a hassle.
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