Two iconic figures in the car industry — former General Motors head of product development Bob Lutz and Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance Chairman Carlos Ghosn — have recently outlined competing visions for the future of transportation. Lutz’s is a merciless dystopia of automated pods run by huge corporations and hobbyist drivers confined to dude ranches. In Ghosn’s, alternative forms of transportation don’t kill car ownership but complement it.
Technological progress is often described in terms of inevitability. You know the comparisons: Oil is the new salt, doomed to decline as a geopolitical commodity; traditional cars are the new horses, about to be pushed out by superior technology. This is still a human world, however, and progress is what humans decide it is. Both perspectives — Lutz’s and Ghosn’s — are based on human choices. We need to think about them now, before they actually have to be made.
Lutz, who acknowledges that he’s unlikely to be around to witness the world he paints with a certain sadistic relish, wrote in Automotive News that in 15 to 20 years, “human-driven vehicles will be legislated off the highways.”
“The tipping point will come when 20 to 30 percent of vehicles are fully autonomous,” he wrote. “Countries will look at the accident statistics and figure out that human drivers are causing 99.9 percent of the accidents.”
Once that happens, Lutz said, only a minority of people will want to buy their own self-driving vehicles, clinging nostalgically to the feeling of autonomy a car confers on its owner. But most transportation will be handled by companies such as Uber and Amazon, which will acquire big fleets of autonomous “modules” that people will summon to carry them someplace or deliver stuff. These modules will move extremely fast and extremely close to one another on highways, unhindered by dangerous human drivers. Only the elite will teach children to drive so they can spend some off-time on a race track or an off-road “dude ranch.” The market for performance cars will be like today’s market for racehorses.
This means, Lutz wrote, that car dealers would go extinct and volume carmakers — the only relevant ones — would either turn into transportation providers or become the equivalent of today’s contract manufacturers of mobile handsets, brandless and left at the mercy of fleet owners.
The human choice in this scenario isn’t made by consumers but by legislators deciding to ban humans from public roads. That may sound implausible, but there are already signs that regulators, at least in the United States, are embracing self-driving vehicles faster than expected. Driverless Chrysler Pacificas outfitted by Alphabet subsidiary Waymo already ply the streets of Chandler, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix. It seems that the people in charge of making transportation safer are buying the tech companies’ argument that self-driving vehicles get into accidents only because other cars are driven by humans.
It’s too early to accept these claims. According to a 2016 Rand Corporation report, Americans have about 1.09 crash fatalities per 100 million miles driven.
“Fully autonomous vehicles would have to be driven hundreds of millions of miles and sometimes hundreds of billions of miles to demonstrate their reliability in terms of fatalities and injuries,” the report said.
In other words, the current small fleets of self-driving vehicles would need to stay on the road continuously for hundreds of years to produce useful statistics. Last month’s safety report by Waymo says that its cars have driven 3.5 million miles on “real-world roads” in eight years (and of course these real-world roads are like the wide, well-marked streets of Chandler, where it never snows and there are 299 sunny days per year).
As with most of their innovations, tech companies will push their irrelevant statistics at regulators with large lobbying budgets and exhortations to keep up with progress and support innovation. In the United States, it’s conceivable that the government will give up without much of a fight and start thinking seriously about regulation only when it’s too late, as it’s doing today with the social networks only after they proved vulnerable to abuse by foreign governments and pretty much anyone else.
In Europe, where the pushback against U.S. tech is strong, regulators may be more vigilant, and with good reason: European cities aren’t at all like Chandler, and driving in them requires more judgment and skill. To the contrary, European urban planners have long plotted kicking cars out of those cities. Paris regularly announces “car-free days” and wants to eliminate non-electric cars from the streets by 2030; some Parisians even envision the city ring road, the Peripherique, without cars. At the moment, these moves are meant to favor public transportation and bicycles, but cities are not immune to the temptations of driverless electric pods. They want to be post-car, and Lutz’s “module” definitely is that. But in Ghosn’s vision, regulation-driven change doesn’t obliterate consumer choice. Tightening emissions standards would speed the switch to electric and hybrid drivetrains, but without killing off the traditional car-ownership model.
“A lot of people think this is substitution,” he said Wednesday at a Bloomberg conference in New York. “It’s not — it’s addition.”
Ghosn is an autonomous-driving enthusiast. Like the tech boosters, he believes that self-driving cars will be safer than human-driven ones. But his vision is about alleviating the stress of driving for private car owners rather than taking away their ability to drive.
Is Ghosn, one of the most visionary figures in the car industry — after all, the Nissan Leaf, developed on his watch, was the first mass-market electric car — too timid in his vision? As far as I’m concerned, he’s just advocating more choice.
Today, one can own a car (and drive it) to have the full control many people like, even if it entails certain risks. One can also use car-sharing services or use an app to hail a ride — not in a driverless “module” yet, but that’s probably coming eventually. One can also opt for public transportation or ride a bicycle.
Our family uses all these options as needed, and we’re pretty much perfectly mobile in any situation we can imagine — more so than ever before. This is a setup we consumers must push regulators to preserve. It would be a shame to end up in Lutz’s world of huge faceless fleets simply because we’ve given regulators too much power.
Electric cars are already about to be foisted on us before they’re as convenient to use and as reliable as traditional ones, and before they’ve become decisively superior environmentally to fossil fuel vehicles. This shouldn’t happen with autonomous driving.
Societies are not always wrong when they push back against “inevitable progress.” We’re often told that nuclear energy is statistically safe, but a single accident can affect generations — and so Germany is phasing out nuclear power. Scientists tell us that genetically modified food is safe — but some European countries still resist the use of pesticides used with engineered plants. Mobility is just about ripe for the same sort of pushback to preserve the variety of available options — Ghosn’s world of “addition rather than substitution.”
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.