The tech world has been abuzz about the developments of the self-driving car, visions that are supplanting the earlier visions that would have filled the sky with flying cars. But beyond the hype and the promise, how will autonomous vehicles—and their accompanying technologies—really enter our lives?
On my 45-minute drive to work, I like to listen to books and podcasts. Recently I heard an episode from a favorite podcast, the NPR radio series "This American Life." It was one of their best shows ever, a behind-the-scenes look at a Jeep dealership in the throes of trying to hit their monthly quota. The show beautifully creates a sympathetic view of the century-old art of car salesmanship and the interplay between customer, salesperson, manager, dealer, and automaker that defines car buying. (Give it a listen.)
What struck me about the show is that this is already a view of cars as seen in the rear view mirror. Did you know for instance that starting in 2006, annual miles driven in the U.S. have dropped year over year? We are now at 1996 levels. Telecommuting, Internet shopping, higher gas prices, car sharing, and urbanization mean that we need fewer cars, and of course, fewer dealerships.
At the same time, car technology is changing at an accelerating pace. Cars are getting smarter, safer, and, eventually, they’ll be able to drive themselves. I’m keenly aware of these shifts because my firm, Lunar, has been doing more work for car makers, helping them marry an understanding of people and trends with emerging technologies to create designs that will be useful and desired by people down the road.
From where I sit, three major shifts will move the car from a depreciating asset that every family owns to a mesh of hardware, software, and services that meet our transportation needs in a multidimensional way that destroys our assumptions of what a car is.
While Tesla has built a desirable electric car, perhaps its most important disruption isn’t in the fact that it’s electric, nor is it the 17" touch screen whose interface can be updated by Tesla as fluidly as Google updates any of their offerings. The most disruptive thing that Tesla is doing? Selling cars in shopping malls through store-like environments that upend the dealership model.
In short, they are selling cars the way Apple would.
The focus is on making a desirable product, showcasing it with a high degree of control and consistency, and simplifying the process so that it takes nothing away from the excitement of buying a new car. Why has no one else done this? Because it’s requiring a massive lobbying effort, changing century-old laws state by state to allow Tesla to sell direct to consumers, skirting the requirement that cars be sold through independent dealers.
But Tesla is doing the hard work because it sees through to the result: delivering a seamless buying experience makes for better relationships with customers. They are starting with a blank slate and designing the experience they want to deliver.
Despite the fact that we all know using a smartphone while driving is dangerous, being alone in a car is in many respects the perfect time to connect with friends and colleagues. It’s just too tempting not to pick up a smartphone and make a call, or, regrettably, send a text.
But before long, cars will be able to pilot themselves, at least for part of the drive. This is coming, and I predict that before 2020, luxury car models will be offering this capability. And when they do, the first difference will be that we can be better connected during our transit. We’ll fill the time with more phone calls, with more texting, with more social media, with more email.
More than that, our cars will begin to leverage the big data about us and merge it with our calendars and our social networks to help us move around more fluidly. This future car will connect with your calendar when I encounter traffic, letting you know that I'll be late for our meeting, for instance. It will help me optimize my errands by making inferences about my shopping habits and to do list. It will assign kids to me when my wife is running late. It will make me a "friend taxi" when my route coincides with your errands. In short, my car will be a vehicle for helping me be better connected.
With that stage set, what will be next? The trend is not good for car makers: fewer miles driven, more urban living, car sharing on the rise, digitally empowered services like Uber and Lyft. To survive, car brands must use the new technologies and social trends to transform themselves into service companies that provide mobility to their customers, rather than just cars.
And some seem to be taking heed. BMW and Mercedes have already created service experiments in test markets around the world. Mercedes has created a kid taxi service called Boost, and both companies have created car sharing experiments under their own labels (BMW is DriveNow, a partnership with European rental agency Sixt; Mercedes has built Car2Go which you can leave anywhere when you’re done with it.)
When fully autonomous cars become a reality, the equation really gets fun. Mashups of car brands with features like ZipCar, Uber, and Facebook will transplant traditional car ownership with mobility memberships that not only offer you "wheels when you want them" (ZipCar’s motto) but also deliver "wheels where you need them." These memberships will grant credits for riding your bike and taking public transit (see Mo: Mobility), and give you the flexibility of the kind of vehicle you need. Taking a client to lunch? Order up a Lexus! Going to Ikea? Get a truck. Commuting? Enjoy discounts for carpooling.
The hidden benefits of this on-demand mobility will be many. Land that has been dedicated to parking will become available for other uses, less energy will be spent moving people around, people will become more mobile, time will be reclaimed for additional productivity and enjoyment, and the fright mode of transport will be available to match the need.
Of course, it might not be the car brands who build these mobility membership platforms. I’ve written it this way because I think they should. But it’s not a foregone conclusion. Google for one is working on all of these pieces of technology except for the car itself. If they don’t move with some agility, the car brands could become secondary commodities in a mobility platform model defined and owned by a Google.
But no matter who owns the new model, the future of driving won’t be driving. The romantic notion of going for a drive for the drive itself—the idea that the British call motoring—will fade away. Getting into a car in 20 years will be, more than ever, about getting from Point A to Point B, and whoever is providing that service will be judged for how seamlessly and luxuriously they deliver that mobility.
[Image: Motor car, 1908 via Flickr user Blue Mountains Local Studies]