How Google's Robot Cars Will Revive Sprawl

In the latest installment of Butterfly Effect, we examine Google's autonomous vehicles, seemingly a vision of the future--they'll potentially make commuting a dream and maybe even help kill the Big Three. But for those same reasons, it has the potential to set us back by revitalizing suburbs and damaging the economy. Here's how.

1. Google's Robot Cars

Testifying before the Nevada State Assembly in April to have the state legalize its driverless cars, Google lobbyist David Goldwater asked the states transportation committee to imagine a time when we will be able to call our public transportation on our cell phones or smart phones and tell it to come to our door to pick us up, without anybody in it, take us to our job, and be released to go perform the same service for somebody else.

But a world filled with robot cars may have consequence even their creator cant predict. Driverless cars would be a perfect match for car-sharing services such as Zipcar or Getaround, gradually replacing the idea of car ownership with mobility-as-a-service. That, in turn, may lead to a precipitous fall in car ownership--as high as 50%--while breathing new life into suburbia and creating more congestions as the pain of commuting lessens. And what would halving the number of cars on the road mean for the Detroit Three--and the taxpayers whod like the rest of their bailout back?

Six months before that hearing, when they were first reported in The New York Times, Googles test cars had traveled 140,000 miles with only one accident. (A car was rear-ended while stopped at a light.) Since then, its car czar Sebastian Thrun--a former Stanford AI professor who won DARPAs autonomous vehicle competition in 2005--has been vocal about the possibilities of cars without drivers, including fuel efficiency and fewer fatalities. And, perhaps most importantly, a future without horrible commutes.

2. The Commute of the Future

At last months Maker Faire 2011 in San Mateo, California, Thrun regaled the crowd with visions of a car-train comprised of robot cars traveling on highways in close proximity to each other, using the drafting technique typical of NASCAR drivers to speed up while saving fuel by as much as 25 percent. Think about the car as a medium of mass transit, he said, because you wouldnt have to think about where you were going or how you were getting there.

The typical American spends an average of roughly 100 hours a year in traffic, the economist Tyler Cowen wrote a few weeks ago in support of driverless cars. Imagine using that time in better ways--by working or just having fun.

One thing is certain--our current commutes need changing. They are making us fatter, unhappier, lonelier, and are probably killing us. Last month, researchers at Swedens Umea University published their finding that couples in which one partner commutes for longer than 45 minutes are 40% likelier to divorce.

But what if driverless cars mimicked transit instead? What if you could watch movies, make Skype calls, or play with your children in the back seat until you were delivered to your doorstep? A game-changer in terms of commuting time and cost, it would breathe new life back into suburban sprawl; it's not a problem to live two hours from work when you can spend those two hours as if you were on your couch. And what if you didn't even have to be making payments on that car that was driving you to work. Robot cars could allow us to drastically reduce car ownership.

3. "Zipcar, come here."

What if I could take out my phone and say, Zipcar, come here, Thrun asked rhetorically at a conference last year, and a moment later the Zipcar came around the corner? Its not a stretch to imagine robot cars as a boon for car-sharing services.

But better positioned are new peer-to-peer services such as Getaround, which launched two weeks ago with 1,600 cars already enrolled equivalent to 20 percent of Zipcars fleet. Membership is free, insurance and 24-hour roadside assistance is included, and all thats required of car owners is installing a keyless remote to allow other Getaround users to unlock the car.

In a driverless world, owners would barely notice when their car was missing. They would just call another while their formerly sunk cost was out earning money. It would beat letting it collect dust in the garage every day, which is what most of us do now.

There are over 250 million personal vehicles in the U.S and they sit idle an average of 22 hours each day, according to Getaround co-founder Sam Zaid. What would happen if, thanks to Getaround and Google, they only sat idle for, say, 20 hours a day? How many fewer cars would we need?

4. As Goes GM, So Goes The Nation

If Thrun and Sam Zaid of Getaround are correct, it could be possible to dramatically increase the utilization of cars (and congestion) while shrinking their numbers overall. (Highways would be as crowded as ever, but there would be a lot more open parking spots.) And then what would that mean for the (formerly) Big Three?

For the answer to that, we need look no further than 2009, the U.S. auto industrys annus horriblis in which the total number of cars on the road contracted for the first time since World War II. Not coincidentally, both GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy that year.

More troubling than the one-time dip of the financial crisis is the gradual erosion in the number of teenage drivers, whose numbers have fallen below 10 million (from a peak of 12 million in 1978), despite the largest teenage population ever. Many of todays young people living in a more urban society learn to live without cars, theorized the environmentalist Lester R. Brown at the time. They socialize on the Internet and on smart phones, not in cars.

Perhaps in the future, they will socialize on smart phones in driverless cars. In that case, to survive, the auto industry's business model might be starting to look like the smart phone one--with the hardware made in China, and the brains supplied by Google.

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