Google's Plan To Rid The World Of Steering Wheels Isn't So Crazy After All

May 28 2014, 6:36am CDT | by

Google’s reveal yesterday of its self-driving car prototype was a surprise on many levels. But perhaps most shocking to the audience at the Recode conference, was the removal of the steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedal. In all Google’s testing to date, it’s been possible for the humans seated in the Lexus RX or Toyota Prius to take back control in an emergency, stepping on the brakes or swerving away from an obstacle. With the built-from-the-ground up design Google just unveiled, that’s no longer the case. That kind of change will likely terrify Luddites, but how will the technology sit with the people for whom these cars are really being built? Likely just fine, thanks.

The long love affair with the automobile

There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of Doug Short, but his work with an obscure government report  speaks volumes about the future. The Department of Transportation each month publishes the Traffic Volume Trends report, which measures how much Americans drive. For as long as the government has been tracking this data, Americans have been driving more, save for some downturns in recessions. Until now, that is. Total miles driven is still below the high set in November 2007, and it’s been flat since the end of the recession in 2009.

But Short’s work  takes things to another level by making a simple — yet critical — adjustment to the report. He adjusts the total miles driven for population growth, to find out just how popular driving is generally among Americans. There, the data is stark. Prior to the current period, the record period of time it took for miles traveled to recover from a recessionary level was 5 years. That occurred in the early 1980s when the country actually experienced not one, but two economic downturns. During that time, vehicle miles traveled fell 6% at the low during the second recession before rebounding sharply.

After that, it seemed like the never-ending rise was with us again. And here’s where it gets interesting. The peak actually was set in June of 2005, well before the onset of the Great Recession. In the now-record, 9 years and counting since, miles traveled are down nearly 10% when adjusted for population and have fallen to levels not seen in 20 years!

While there’s danger in looking at the past decade and extrapolating too far into the future, it seems reasonable to conclude that it will continue. Just over half of 18-year-olds are getting licensed these days, a story in  Fast Company  reported, and those 18-34 are buying 30% fewer cars than they purchased before the recession. While some of that is surely economically motivated, it’s created a change in habits that Google — and whoever ends up building the self-driving cars of the future — can exploit.

Enter the robo-taxi

There has been much work done lately on how millennials have been hard hit by the weak job market, crushing student-loan debt, et al. But while those negative aspects have led to reductions in new household formation, there has also been a powerful renaissance toward city living. At the same time, small but real improvements have occurred in mass transit while bikesharing (Citibike, Bay Area Bikeshre), carsharing (Zipcar) and ridesharing (Lyft and Uber) have taken off.

The result is a generation for whom car ownership is not the rite of passage it was for their parents and, for that reason, it’s not likely something they’ll pass on to their children. This creates a real opportunity for a “tipping point ” in the not too far off future. The timing could scarcely be better. While Google is showing off these prototypes now, commercial availability of a totally autonomous car is still several years away, likely around 2020. These vehicles would likely already be popular; by the time they are for sale, that’ll be truer still.

Costs remain a wildcard, but more significantly, it will take time for the vehicle fleet to turn over. Earlier this year, an IHS study predicted autonomous cars will dominate by 2050 as traditional vehicles age out. In the meantime, a new generation will “age in.” The first grandchildren of the first babies of the 2000s will be showing up around mid-century. While many today romanticize their time behind the wheel and their mastery of “the ultimate driving machine,” those youngsters will likely know driving only through stories and old movies — the same way most of us know horse riding.

To get around, they will order up a vehicle from some kind of ambient, ubiquitous data network and it will arrive — without a driver — in less time than it takes to get an Uber today. If the trip is short, the car might resemble the Google prototype just demoed. If it’s for a popular commute route, perhaps the car will offer to transfer them to a bus or train at a significant cost savings. For a road trip, the app of the future might send the equivalent of a minivan. The implications of this are profound and worthy of much future discussion. But one thing seems certain: Tomorrow’s passengers are no more likely to feel the need to be at controls than we feel the need to cook all of our own food. Our desire for control of the driving experience is already on the wane; the technology has just begun to wax.

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