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STRATEGY: Will self-driving cars trigger the doom of automobile?

Mercedes Self Driving CarThe self-driving car as imagined by Mercedes-Benz

Recently Barclays’ auto analyst Brian Johnson forecast in “Disruptive Mobility” that self-driving cars will eliminate most multicar households, reduce the number of cars on American roads from 250 million to below 100 million and cut U.S. annual auto sales by 40% to just 9.5 million units over the next 25 years. That’s almost one million less than the rock-bottom 10.4 million hit in the midst of the Global Recession in 2009. According to the Detroit Free Press, in these predictions Brian Johnson is in agreement with researchers Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).

These findings don’t mean the end of private ownership, but rely on the fact that families with 3 or more vehicles in the household rarely use more than one at a time. According to UMTRI, 84% of households have no trips that overlap or conflict on a typical day. In only 2% of those households were there enough overlapping trips to require three or more vehicles. Johnson says self-driving cars will travel many more miles than personally owned vehicles because they will be used throughout the day for multiple trips.

And this is where I disagree.

Traffic jam. Picture courtesy fastcompany.netCar sharing? What car sharing?

If nowadays families feel the need to own 3 or more vehicles while almost never using more than one at a time, that’s because most car owners cherish the notion of being able, if need be, to go anywhere, at anytime, with whoever we choose. That this option may be unsused and waiting in the garage isn’t the point. It’s there for us to grab, and that’s what we want. It is the very core of private vehicle ownership. Nothing proves that this comfort-habit will change with the arrival of self-driving cars. The fact that the car can drive itself home and be used by someone else while we are busy at work will not mean we will be happy to give it up for the day. What if we suddenly need it? What if all ‘public’ self-driving cars are unavailable at the time because it’s rush hour – like trying to find a free taxi on a rainy day. It’s this anxiety that we are refusing by owning a private vehicle and having it at our disposal, not anyone else. Selfish? Yep. Aren’t well all?

To me, it’s a little similar to saying back in the 1960s that people would lose their private car ownership desire once petrol becomes too expensive. We have not. Granted, ownership rates are falling with millenials that put more emphasis on usage rather than ownership. But let’s pause for a moment to spare a thought for car sharing. In Europe it is starting to show *relative* success, but in the U.S. – the subject of this forecast – no way. We want to go anywhere anytime and not depend on anyone doing so.

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