Ford’s announcement this week that it will build a self-driving car by 2021 for ride-sharing services could be taken as yet another signal that human-piloted cars could someday become extinct. This was followed by Uber announcing that it will start testing an autonomous vehicle service in Pittsburgh by the end of this year, albeit with a human driver at the helm ready to take control.
Ford and Uber are far from alone in preparing for a future of self-driving taxis. In January, GM invested $500 million in Lyft, and a short time later spent a reported $1 billion to acquire the self-driving driving start-up Cruise Automation.
And while Google has yet to reveal a business model for its self-driving car project, all it takes is a glance at search giant’s autonomous pod to realize that the company intends to provide some kind of robo-ride service. I also predict that the primary motivation behind Apple’s not-so-secret automotive ambitions is not to produce and sell an iCar, but that the company will emerge as the dark horse in the autonomous ride-sharing race.
But before hardcore car enthusiasts protest that they’ll never let computers drive for them, keep in mind that Ford, Uber, and the rest of the companies entering the autonomous ride-sharing space so far have limited plans for their fully self-driving vehicles. And that while automation will become increasingly common, it won’t be pervasive.
In announcing plans to introduce a self-driving car in five years, Ford CEO Mark Fields noted that the company is still heavily focused on producing millions of human-piloted vehicles, indicating that the future of driving (and self-driving) will be multifaceted. “Even as we continue expanding to an auto and mobility company, “we continue strengthening our core business of making the world’s favorite cars, SUVs, trucks and electrified vehicles,” Fields said.
“If you need a thrill ride, we have the Focus RS, the new Ford GT, and, of course, the Mustang. Need a truck with the most capability? Our F-Series will help you get the job done,” he added. “And, starting in 2021, if you want to get around a city without the hassle of driving or parking, Ford’s new autonomous vehicle will be there for you too.”
The key word here is “city.” People in living in urban areas with limited parking and easy access to public transportation have always had to weigh the cost vs. the benefits of owning an automobile. The advent of new mobility options such as ride- and car-sharing services have made individual vehicle ownership of vehicles by city dwellers even less attractive, and developers in urban areas and even suburban are starting to offer incentives to residents to live vehicle-free.
Since the worldwide population is projected to become more urbanized over the next several decades, there will likely be big demand for the kind of cars and services that Ford and Uber announced this week and others are gearing up for. It will also be big business and will likely change transportation as we know it in cities. “We see autonomous vehicles as having as big an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line 100 years ago,” Fields said.
Beyond transforming personal mobility in cities, self-driving technology will also revolutionize how freight, goods and services are delivered. But as one auto exec told me, the U.S. “is a very big country.” And while self-driving cars and trucks may work well in cities as well as on long stretches of highway they may not be as effective—or fun—on winding country roads. And I’m sure ranchers and farmers won’t be hauling hay bales in the back of a Google car either.
So while we may see self-driving cars take over city centers across the country and the globe—and human-piloted vehicles may even become outlawed in some overcrowded urban areas—I’m convinced that the pleasure of driving won’t go away anytime soon. But the displeasure of sitting in downtown traffic and looking for a parking spot could become extinct.