“By 2030,” says a new report from a group that calls itself RethinkX, “95% of U.S. passenger miles traveled will be served by on-demand autonomous electric vehicles owned by fleets, not individuals.” The Antiplanner is more optimistic about the rapid growth of self-driving cars than most, but RethinkX’s prediction is more dramatic than anything the Antiplanner has said.
As recognized in this more moderate report from UC Davis, RethinkX’s statement is really three predictions in one: first, about self-driving cars; second, about what powers those cars; and third, about who owns those cars. I think 95 percent by 2030 is optimistic for any one of these predictions, much less all of them.
First, the decision about what powers cars is completely, 100 percent independent of the decision about whether humans or computers drive cars. So long as the United States gets most of its electricity from fossil fuels, even natural gas, the environmental benefits from converting to electric cars is negligible, especially since we can make gasoline-powered cars more fuel-efficient.
To the extent that we can convert electrical power to renewable sources of energy, that energy should be dedicated to existing users of electricity, not brand-new users. So there is no moral imperative to shift to electric vehicles, and I suspect the advantages of gasoline over electricity in terms of range and costs will still exist in 2030. So I strongly doubt that 95 percent of our vehicles will be electric powered by 2030.
RethinkX argues that electric vehicles will lead to the collapse of the oil industry, so there is no need to allow companies to do fracking on public lands or build the Keystone or Dakota Access pipelines. I am dubious about that.
Second, the decision about owned vs. shared cars is partly dependent on whether humans or computers drive cars, but that is not the only factor. If computer drive the cars, car-sharing services will be much less expensive than using a taxi, Uber, or Lyft today. But that doesn’t mean everyone will give up car ownership.
Some people live in such remote areas that shared car services aren’t practical. The Census Bureau says that 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas or communities of fewer than 2,500 people. Owning a self-driving car will actually enable more people to live in such remote areas. So that 20-percent-plus will prefer ownership over sharing. In larger communities, many people will prefer ownership simply because they like their personal space.
There is also an economic condition to consider. Car owners only have to pay the marginal cost of driving each additional trip. Car sharers have to pay the average cost of driving every trip. Anyone who thinks they will drive more than the average number of miles will be tempted to own rather than share. For all these reasons reasons, I suspect only about half of vehicle use will be shared.
RethinkX projects that electric cars will last for 500,000 to a million miles or more. That means the capital cost will be a much smaller share of the total cost compared with today’s cars that only last around 200,000 miles. They project that the average cost of sharing a car will then be less than the marginal cost of owning a car, so everyone will share. This doesn’t address people who live in remote areas or who prefer their personal space, and it doesn’t really address the average vs. marginal cost issue because, if shared electric vehicles can last more than 500,000 miles, so can owned electric vehicles. So I’m not persuaded.
Finally, as much as I look forward to self-driving cars dominating the roads, the notion that 95 percent of travel will be by self-driving cars in 2030 is even more optimistic than I can believe. For one thing, 10 percent of our travel is by air, and I don’t think we are going to give up much of that to self-driving cars.
A second factor is that self-driving cars will be dependent on extremely precise maps. On one hand, such maps will allow them to travel on snowy roads where stripes and shoulders are obscured. On the other hand, this means they can only travel on roads that have been precisely mapped.
A company called Here that is making such maps is co-owned by Mercedes, Volkswagen, BMW, and Intel. Ford has invested in a similar company called Civil Maps. Waymo and possibly Apple are making their own maps.
The United States has 2.7 million miles of paved roads and 1.3 million miles of unpaved roads. Maps would also have to cover every driveway and parking area. Despite competition between the various companies, I doubt that all these roads be mapped by 2030, so anyone using other roads will need a human-driven car. Even when all the roads are mapped, some people who want to go off road will need human-driven cars.
The Antiplanner is more optimistic than most about the rate that autonomous cars will penetrate the market because many recent cars can be retrofitted to become self-driving. But most cars made before 2010 or so, and many cars made since then, can’t be retrofitted. For example, I doubt that any cars with manual transmissions can be retrofitted. Even as late as 2030, there will be lots of cars on the road that aren’t self-driving. People aren’t going to toss them all in the junkyard in order to fulfill RethinkX’s prediction.
When the Antiplanner started writing about self-driving cars in 2009, many people thought I was nuts, so I am gratified that so many other people have jumped on the bandwagon. But my major point has been that the effects of self-driving cars are unpredictable. This means we shouldn’t spend public dollars on technologies that self-driving cars will render obsolete. But it doesn’t mean government is omniscient enough to overrule private investments.
RethinkX’s predictions are interesting, but no one should base long-term policy on them. Instead, public officials and government agencies should concentrate on solving today’s problems today, and let the future take care of itself.