Autonomous Vehicles and the Disaggregation of Transport
Every innovator’s challenge is to overcome users’ and investors’ reflex to fit the future into the paradigm of the present. Some change is so radical that it changes the context into which it is introduced. As Marshall McLuhan is believed to have said, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”
The “tools” are the first intended innovation, and occasionally one comes along and changes everything around it, which then “shapes us” in utterly unpredictable ways. The car was such an innovation 100 years ago, and autonomous vehicles will do the same to our world.
I’m really intrigued by this reshaping on the horizon, because it harmonizes so well with the Age of Disaggregation that I see all around us.
Let’s take last weekend. I’m driving my Zipcar to Connecticut to pick up my daughter from summer camp. Beautiful day, lots of highway greenery, spurts of traffic, coupled with idling engines belching CO2 into the atmosphere, some questionable driving decisions by folks around me, crashes, and yes I got a speeding ticket (can you see where this is going?) and then it hit me – in 20 or 30 years, none of those things will exist, except the highway and the greenery.
Looking through the windshield and not the rear view mirror, this is what I see: My daughter’s kids speeding along at 90 miles an hour or even 120 laughing at the thought of a 65 mph speed limit (trooper, I assure you I am not laughing), nor will they understand how a society could tolerate 36,000 annual fatalities caused by tons of hurtling metal under the dubious control of human beings, and when automobile fatalities fall close to zero they will view car crashes as a distant barbarism eradicated in their parents’ time much as my generation views polio. Traffic delays and the attendant air pollution will be unknown.
Personal transport will become a mix of Uber and Netjets, but with no drivers. When you want ground transport you will tap on your phone (or nudge your brain implant with a neuron), and the service you subscribe to will dispatch one of their cars (“On Demand Mobility”). A person in a big city will never knowingly sit in the same car twice. The cars will either cruise around between rides, or wait like digital homing pigeons in large garage/maintenance facilities scattered about on underutilized land parcels. On the highway, cars equipped with sensors will form up into inconceivably fast convoys with bumpers inches apart, each car communicating with and adjusting to the cars that enter and exit the roadway.
No one will know how to drive or park (though at times it feels like there are some early adopters on the road today), and NO INDIVIDUAL WILL OWN A CAR.
We are already at the on ramp of this new world: the cost of car ownership in New York City is close to $10,000 a year to park and insure the car, – so with Zipcar I’ll never own a car again. Think that’s just a New Yorker’s aversion to getting behind the wheel? In LA (LA for God’s sake!), many people are already leaving their cars at home and using Uber instead. And my son and daughter’s generation? Fewer of them are bothering to get driver’s licenses.
Once you take parking out of the equation, our entire built environment will change. Every city street on planet earth will automatically expand because all parked cars will disappear – replaced, I hope, by bicycle lanes. Many real estate projects that today cannot win approval, or get funded, for lack of parking will be built. How will planners, architects and builders replace sterile surface parking around schools, hospitals, office buildings and regional malls: with lawns and trees around each building, or will they choose greater density and use the aggregated reclaimed space for central parks? Imagine “driving” up to WalMart for the back to school sale in a Minicooper, and then being picked up hours later in an SUV with plenty of room for you and all your new stuff.
Public transport may be uncoupled from mass transit. Instead of upfront infrastructure investment in “hard track” and cumbersome buses moving everyone to Grand Central terminals and Union Stations, the future of transport may look more like the school bus model but disaggregated and bespoke, with small groups moving from doorstep to doorstep in a network of coordinated vehicles. “Ten minute walk to the L Train” will disappear from apartment ads. And if it is cheap and easy to move small teams to any location within a 30-60 minute drive of their residences, will it make sense to house all divisions of a firm in a large downtown office building?
Will this disaggregation of mass transit accelerate the disaggregation of our workforce by making less densely developed locations more accessible without massive upfront investment? Or will it slow workforce disaggregation by freeing up land and making New York and SF and London and Tokyo cheaper? I don’t know, but it will be fun to watch.
So don’t make the mistake of underestimating change by single-storying innovation. You could think of autonomous vehicles as if they were another feature like Power Steering, such as “Great, now when I commute alone to work in a Midtown office building from the suburbs I can do crosswords instead of holding the steering wheel.” In fact, almost nothing in the previous sentence will be the same. I feel the same way about multimillion dollar investments in urbanish test tracks like MCity, because we have no idea what our cities will look like when the autonomous vehicle becomes the norm.
I experience this same effort to fit a radical new idea into the glove compartment when I tell people about RealConnex, the real estate, technology, and media company where I wear a couple of hats. Many say “Oh, you’re a crowdfunder like Fundrise?” “No.” “Oh, I know, you’re a listing site like Loopnet?” “Uh, no – they’re great companies, but we are really different and will change how everyone raises capital, finds investments, and acquires customers.” Our subscribers are summoning an empowered, frictionless, disaggregated future.
When you summon Lyft or Uber on your phone, the app tells you who and what you are going to get, and when. Don’t bring that same expectation when you summon the future.