I drove a car just as soon as I was legally able to. Couldn’t wait. A learner’s permit was obtainable in Alberta at age 14 back then, so within days of my 14th birthday I was happily out on the road, behind the wheel of a freedom machine. I owned my first car, a light blue Volkswagon Fastback, by the time I was 18.
My own son, who is now 24, has never owned a car, and professes no interest in doing so. It was my suggestion, not his, that he obtain a driver’s license, since I believed, perhaps naively, that it enhanced his chances for gainful employment. My son’s cousin, same age, similarly has no interest in driving. His friend Mendel, a year younger, has never bothered with the driver’s license.
They all own mobile devices of course, and if they ever had to choose between a car and a smart phone it would not be a difficult choice, and the auto industry would not be the beneficiary.
Times change. And yet, more than ever, Canada is a suburban, car-dependent nation. Two-thirds of us live in suburban neighbourhoods and three-quarters of us still drive to work, most of the time alone. Vancouver, where I spend most of my time, now has the worst traffic congestion in all of North America, this year finally overtaking perennial frontrunner Los Angeles.
If ever a technology is in need of a revolution it has to be cars. As uber venture capitalist (and Netscape co-founder) Marc Andreeson has been pointing out of late, most cars sit idle most of the time, like 90% of the time. And the actual figure for occupancy on car trips is 1.2 persons per journey.
Car co-ops, and car-sharing companies like Zip Car of Car2Go point the way. Many people have begun sharing, rather than owning a car. But if you take the numbers mentioned above and add in the coming phenomenon of the Google robot car, the potential transportation picture becomes truly intriguing.
Driverless cars are now legal on public roads in Nevada, California and Florida. Since 2011, there have been two collisions involving Google’s robot cars. In one incident, the car was under human control at the time; in the other the robotic car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light. We might assume that a human was driving the car that rear-ended the robot.
What if no one owned a car? What if you could simply order up a driverless car ride on your smart phone any time, anywhere? Your robot car would arrive at your door, it might stop to pick someone else up en route, but it would then drop you off at the entranceway to wherever it is you’re wishing to go to. You would pay a fee for this service of course, but it would be minor in comparison to what you now pay if you own and regularly drive a car.
And of course the need for cars would nosedive, because these robotic cars would be in use nearly all of the time, say 90% of the time. Car numbers would plummet, meaning traffic congestion would be a thing of the past. And it keeps going: garages, driveways, parking lots would begin to disappear. Our urban landscape, which has essentially been designed to accommodate cars, would begin to transform. A lot more green space would become available.
And I haven’t even mentioned the reduction in carbon pollution that would ensue with the reduction in cars, carbon pollution being a problem which just may threaten the stability of civilization in the coming years.
Cars have been with us for about 100 years now. Our relationship with them over that period has at times been tender, at times belligerent, at times top-down, sun-in-your face, wind-in-your-hair fabulous, at times utterly savage. For those people who love cars, who fuss over them, restore them, take them out for careful drives only on sunny Sunday afternoons; I hope those people keep their cars, as an expensive hobby. For the rest of us, those of us who use cars simply to get from A to B, for whom cars are just a form of convenient transport, the days when we need to own a car are disappearing. For my money, the sooner the better.