Today, the discussion around Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) is centred mainly around the technology itself. With prototype vehicles only recently being allowed on public roads in Ontario, a fully automated vehicle is still years away from widespread adoption, although more and more vehicles being sold today are including elements of AVs, such as self-parking and autonomous emergency braking.

There are certainly many angles of Autonomous Vehicles to discuss. As mentioned above, there's the technology angle. Another angle is the potential transportation and land use impacts of Autonomous Vehicles—a topic recently covered by UrbanToronto. Then there's the legislative and legal aspects (will we need speed limits if AVs are determining the maximum safe speed at which to travel?). The aspect that this article will look at, however, is the paradigm shift that could occur surrounding vehicle ownership once AVs are introduced.

As with any prediction about life in the future, a degree of speculation is inherent in analyzing the technology's impacts. It's less a pronouncement of what will be and more an extrapolation of ongoing social trends, drawing heavily on the predictions regarding the anticipated evolution of AV technology.

The predicted evolution of AV technologyThe predicted evolution of AV technology, image courtesy IBI Group

Since any potentially transformative impacts on ownership are predicated on technological development, understanding the timeline for fully autonomous cars is a key starting point. Most professionals involved in the development of AVs believe that fully automated vehicles will not be commercially available until the early to mid 2020s. The evolution towards this point is already well underway, however, and is progressing quite rapidly. Features like lane departure warnings were only just a few years ago available exclusively on high-end vehicles, but are now making their way into vehicles that are within the price range of the majority of buyers.

It's also important to define what "fully autonomy" entails. Put simply, it means a vehicle that does not rely on, nor even has the ability to rely on, humans for physical control over the vehicle at any point. No steering wheel, no brakes, no gas pedal. You're simply along for the ride. Earlier this month, Volkswagen unveiled Sedric, a car which does just that.

Volkswagen's latest concept car, SedricVolkswagen's latest concept car, Sedric, image courtesy of Volkswagen

So how will this affect the paradigm of vehicle ownership? Most cars used in an urban or suburban environment are parked an estimated 95% of the time. For owners, this means that the price of a car, gas, insurance, and maintenance is a lot to pay for something they only use for 5% of the day. The linear extrapolation of the current paradigm is with a fully automated vehicle, it would drop the occupant(s) off at their destination, and then either go park somewhere nearby, or drive itself back home. However, this is still an inefficient use of the vehicle. Also, as history has shown us, the extrapolation of technological advancements is rarely linear (just look at the fax machine from Back to the Future Part II).

Nonetheless, given these factors I believe that the model for vehicle usage will switch from an ownership-based one to a subscription-based one. In other words, car manufacturers will transfer from selling one specific vehicle, to selling a sort of vehicle "plan," much like cell-phone plans are sold today.

Plans would differ with regards to a variety of elements, including number of kilometres driven per month, number of pick-ups and drop-offs per month, number of overnight/multi-day trips per month, response time from the time the request is entered, areas where the user can request a vehicle, and of course the types of vehicles that can be requested. Just as some phone users need more talk minutes, some need more data, and some insist on only the newest iPhone, a variety of plans could respond to the differing needs and priorities of drivers.

With car companies shifting to this model, dealerships would become less about selling physical cars, and more about selling vehicle plans that best suits individual needs. Like we see today with cell phone plans, it's quite likely that car companies will try and bundle different kinds of services into their plan options, in order to differentiate themselves from their competition. For example, Rogers includes NHL Gamecentre Live with many of their plans, and Bell includes CraveTV with many of theirs. It wouldn't be a stretch to imagine Ford or GM or Toyota including free WiFi in their cars as part of certain plans, or any other number of perks.

The interior of the Mercedes Concept F 015The interior of the Mercedes Concept F 015, image courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Let's consider a few examples. Person A is in their mid-20s, lives in a condo in Midtown Toronto, and normally takes transit to and from work. Today, owning a car presents an expensive proposition, given the cost of parking and insurance, and the limited amount of use the vehicle would actually get. Person A would likely opt for a "light plan," with a maximum of 100 km/month, 10 pick-ups & drop-offs/month, a 10 minute response time (the time it takes the vehicle to arrive at your location from the time you submit the request), and only allows access to "economy" class vehicles (akin to today's Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, etc). In many ways, this is very similar to car share programs like ZipCar today, only that since it is done through the car company itself, there would likely be a much larger pool of vehicles to be able to draw from.

Person B is a corporate executive who lives in Oakville, prefers to drive to work in Downtown Toronto, and is frequently away on business trips. They may want a plan that include a high—or unlimited—cap of kilometres per month, unlimited pick-ups and drop-offs, a guaranteed response time, and a luxury vehicle. They would also likely want a plan that has a "roaming" option, which works across major cities. No rental car would be required, as they could request a vehicle in San Francisco just the same as in Toronto.

Person C is part of a family of four that includes two teenagers. They may want a plan that includes a high cap of kilometres and unlimited pick-ups and drop-offs as well, but may also be attracted to an option that allows anyone living at that address to request a vehicle, even if two people in two different locations want one at the same time. In this case, the entire family could share the same pool of kilometres, and could request anything from a minivan for the whole family, to a compact car for just one person. 

One of the biggest shifts for the car companies that would come as a result of something like this would be the way that they 'dispatch' vehicles to meet demand. Like cell phone companies today—with the placement of cell phone towers—the key will likely be location. It's unlikely that vehicles will be kept active on the roads at all times, so strategically placed parking locations would be needed to ensure a prompt response time. As such, parking lots with easy access to major arterials or expressways would become quite valuable to car companies looking to improve their "coverage" in a certain area. Dealerships themselves, often located on arterials, would also become good dispatch lots.

Of course, this model wouldn't work for everybody. Rural or small town residents would likely have difficulty under this model, as the size of the car pools and the dispatch times required would make such a model unlikely to work in those environments. For them, the "traditional" ownership model would likely continue.

However, there are two societal groups in particular for whom this model would be life-altering: senior citizens, and those with mental or physical disabilities that prevent them from driving. For many seniors, having their driver's license taken away, usually for health or medical reasons, can severely hamper their ability to get around and perform day-to-day tasks such as grocery shopping. For them and anyone with a wide range of disabilities that prevent someone from being able to drive (Paraplegia, Blindness, Cerebral Palsy, some forms of Autism, Epilepsy, etc), access to such a service could make a monumental difference in their quality of life.

Elbee, a vehicle that allows direct access by wheelchairElbee, a vehicle that allows direct access by wheelchair, image courtesy ElbeeMobility.com

Of course, correctly predicting the future is an inherently a difficult task, as it's virtually impossible to account for all the key variables shaping our eventual reality. However, having an idea where the technology of Autonomous Vehicles is headed sheds light on how many aspects of our lives will be changed. It is very likely that children born in 2017 will never be able to get, nor will ever have the need for, a driver's license. Those same children will likely look back on manually driven cars the way we today look back on the horse and buggy; the technology's charm and folksiness met with a slight sense of disbelief that that was ever truly a common means of transportation.

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