This month’s print and online editions of The CEO Magazine include a piece by me on carmakers’ concerns about SAEVs – shared autonomous electric vehicles.
Short version: the carmakers all believe that SAEVs will happen, and perhaps quite soon, probably sometime in the 2020s. And they fear the arrival of SAEVs may essentially destroy them, by turning them into commodity producers of hardware for “mobility services firms”. In this world, you won’t own a car; you’ll just tap the mobility firm’s app whenever you need to go somewhere.
This will puts a huge hole in the business model of “The Ultimate Driving Machine” and all those other car brands:
Are the industry leaders scared? “Oh, yeah,” says Sam Abuelsamid, co-author of a major report on the evolution of SAEVs published in April by technology research firm Navigant Research. “The industry has been doing business in the same way for more than 100 years. This is a huge transformation … everybody’s terrified.”
Writing the piece was a lot of fun: you don’t often get to write up an industry contemplating its imminent extinction. These guys have been thinking for a long time about how SAEVs will change their world.
SAEVs and the city
Thinking about the full range of second-order effects of SAEVs is limited by the reality that we really don’t see any self-driving cars yet.
But one obvious key to all this is the Jevons effect, named after the world’s first great resource economist, William Stanley Jevons. He noted in 1865 that technological improvements that burnt coal more efficiently did not cut coal consumption. “The very contrary is the truth,” he declared; cheaper coal meant more coal-burning. He was, of course, exactly right. Our entire modern world is shaped (as they say in the pop history business) by the Jevons effect.
When we think about the effects of SAEVs, we can say that they do several things. But all of those things together add up to a huge fall in the monetary and time costs of travel:
- SAEVs will be far cheaper than the car in your garage: they will have less moving parts, lower insurance premiums, lower energy costs and far, far higher utilisation rates.
- They will put you in a private cocoon where you can work or relax, combining the best features of cars and public transport. My guess is that a lot of SAEVs will come with big screens and surround sound.
- By enabling cars to be packed together in giant convoys, they will reduce congestion.
- Because they will be so much safer at a given speed, speed limits will be raised – probably first on certain freeway lanes, where they will be separated from the human-driven traffic.
And the Jevons effect predicts that cheaper travel – easier on the hip pocket, quicker, and nicer for you – will mean more travel.
Or looking at it another way, SAEVs will do much the same thing that building freeways will do: attract more traffic onto the roads, except at a higher average speed than we’re used to today. A corollary of this is that people will take more, longer trips.
And particularly, people will be willing to accept living further away from their work, because the commute will still take no more time than they’re spending on it now.
What half an hour gets you
If you doubt this could happen, be aware that there’s a thing in the world of urban transport called Marchetti’s constant, which is the average amount of time people reserve for their daily commute. It’s about an hour, or half an hour each way. Marchetti’s original paper, which still seems to be held in some esteem, argues that this has dictated the shape of cities back to Athenian times.
If all of this is right, SAEVs could well give us cities sprawling on a scale we have never seen before. Melbourne’s boundaries could extend to Bendigo, and Sydney could become one continuous city from Newcastle to Nowra. After all, for most of the city’s history, most people have wanted more space.
This is just one possible and fairly obvious second-order effect of the move to SAEVs. There are dozens of others. My favorite so far is Benedict Evans’ suggestion that SAEVs could lower smoking rates: a substantial proportion of cigarettes are purchased at service stations as an impulse buy, and that won’t happen when no-one stops to get petrol any more.
I’m inviting Tropodillians’ speculation on possible holes in my scenario above, and on ideas for other second-order and even third-order effects. For instance, will public transport survive? I’m starting to think not. And if it does, how long can the unions hold out against the removal of train drivers?
Extra: A few reports.