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Car ownership - a dying thing?

By Clive Longbottom

At a recent BMC event, CEO and Chairman Bob Beauchamp stood on stage and gave a view on how the rise of the autonomous car could result in major changes in many different areas.

The argument went something along these lines - as individuals start to use autonomous cars, they see less value in the vehicle itself.  The "driving experience" disappears, and the vehicle is seen far more as a tool than a desirable object.  By using autonomous vehicles, congestion can be avoided, both through the vehicles adapting to driving conditions, accidents being avoided, areas where non-autonomous vehicles are causing problems being by-passed and so on. The experience becomes an analogue to SDN - the car's function can be seen as the data plane (it gets from point A to point B) is decided by a set of commands (control plane deciding what should happen) through commands issues by the management plane (what is the best way to get from point A to point B?).

It is then seen that the tool is not being used that much - for long periods of time, it is in the garage, drive or roadway doing nothing.  It needs to be insured; needs to be maintained - it becomes an issue, rather than a "must have".

Far better to just rent a vehicle as and when you need it - a "car as a service" approach means that you don't need to maintain the vehicle.  Insurance is a moot point - you aren't driving the vehicle anyway; it is the multiple computer "brains" that are doing so, working a full 360 degrees at computer speed, never getting tired; never failing to notice and extrapolate events going on around them.  Insurance is cheaper and only has to cover damage caused by e.g. vandalism and fire: theft is out, as the vehicle is autonomous anyway and can be tied in to a central controller.

Insurance companies struggle; car manufacturers have to move away from marketing based on seeing fast cars driving on deserted roads to selling to large centralised fleet managers who are only interested in overall lifetime cost of ownership.  Houses can change - no need for a garage or a drive and cities can change with less need of parking spaces.  More living space can be put in the same area - or more properties on the same plot of land. Autonomous driving means less time spent commuting; less frustration; less fuel being used up in stop-start traffic.

When Bob first said this, my immediate response was "it will never happen".  I like my car; I like the sense of personal ownership and the driving experience that I get - on an open road.

However, I then took more of an outside view of it.  Already, I have friends in large cities such as London who do not own a car.  They use public transport for a lot of their day-to-day needs, and where they need a vehicle, they hire one for a short period of time.  Whereas this may have been on a daily basis via Hertz or Avis in the past, newer companies such as City Car Club allow you rent a vehicle by the hour and pick it up from a designated parking bay close to you and drop it off in the same way wherever you want.  The rise of Uber as a callable taxicab company is also showing how more people want the ease of using a car, but not in owning the vehicle themselves.  These friends have no requirement for a flashy car badge or for the capability to get in "their" car and drive it at any time - in fact, the majority do not like driving at all, and would jump at the chance of using an autonomous vehicle, so removing this last issue for them.

As tech companies like Google improve their autonomous vehicles on a rapid basis, manufacturers such as Mercedes Benz, Ford and GM are having to respond.  Already, over fifty 500 tonne Caterpillar and Komatsu trucks are being used in Australia to move mining material, running truly autonomously in convoys across private roads in the outback, allowing 24x7 operations with lower safety issues. 

Just as the car manufacturers are coming out of a very bad period, they now stand a chance of being hit by new players in the market.  Elon Musk, of Tesla electric car fame, is a strong proponent of autonomous vehicles.  Amazon would like to take on Google, and it is likely that other high-tech companies will look to the Far East for help in building simple vehicles that can be used in urban situations via a central subscription model.

Sure, such a move to a predominantly autonomous vehicle model will take some time.  There will be dinosaurs such as myself who will fight to maintain ownership of a car that has to be manually driven.  There will be the need to show that the vehicle is truly autonomous; that it does not require continuous connectivity to a network to maintain a safe environment.  More companies such as City Car Club will need to be brought about, and suitable long-term business and technology models put in place to manage large car fleets and get them to customers rapidly and effectively without a need for massive acreage of space to store cars not being used.  Superfast recharging systems need to be more commonplace; these vehicles need to be able to recharge in minutes rather than hours, or to use replaceable battery packs.

Certainly, moving to the use of autonomous electronic vehicles where overall utilisation rates can be pushed above 60% would result in far less congestion in city centres and so in less pollution, less impact on citizens' health and less time wasted in the morning and evening rush hours. Indeed, Helsinki has set itself a target of zero private car ownership by 2025.

At the current rate of innovation and improvement in autonomous vehicles, it is becoming more of a "when" than an "if" as to when we will see a major change in car ownership.  The impact on existing companies involved in the car industry cannot be underestimated.  The need for improved technology and for technology vendors to work together to ensure that an autonomous future can and will happen is showing signs of being met.