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How Google's Robot Cars Will Revive Sprawl

In the latest installment of Butterfly Effect, we examine Google's autonomous vehicles, seemingly a vision of the future—they'll potentially make commuting a dream and maybe even help kill the Big Three. But for those same reasons, it has the potential to set us back by revitalizing suburbs and damaging the economy. Here's how.

Google founders with robot car

1. Google's Robot Cars

Testifying before the Nevada State Assembly in April to have the state legalize its driverless cars, Google lobbyist David Goldwater asked the state’s transportation committee to "imagine a time when we will be able to call our public transportation on our cell phones or smartphones and tell it to come to our door to pick us up, without anybody in it, take us to our job, and be released to go perform the same service for somebody else."

But a world filled with robot cars may have consequence even their creator can’t predict. Driverless cars would be a perfect match for car-sharing services such as Zipcar or Getaround, gradually replacing the idea of car ownership with "mobility-as-a-service." That, in turn, may lead to a precipitous fall in car ownership—as high as 50%—while breathing new life into suburbia and creating more congestions as the pain of commuting lessens. And what would halving the number of cars on the road mean for the Detroit Three—and the taxpayers who’d like the rest of their bailout back?

Six months before that hearing, when they were first reported in The New York Times, Google’s test cars had traveled 140,000 miles with only one accident. (A car was rear-ended while stopped at a light.) Since then, its car czar Sebastian Thrun—a former Stanford AI professor who won DARPA’s autonomous vehicle competition in 2005—has been vocal about the possibilities of cars without drivers, including fuel efficiency and fewer fatalities. And, perhaps most importantly, a future without horrible commutes.

2. The Commute of the Future

At last month’s Maker Faire 2011 in San Mateo, California, Thrun regaled the crowd with visions of a "car-train" composed of robot cars traveling on highways in close proximity to each other, using the "drafting" technique typical of NASCAR drivers to speed up while saving fuel by as much as 25 percent. "Think about the car as a medium of mass transit," he said, because you wouldn’t have to think about where you were going or how you were getting there.

"The typical American spends an average of roughly 100 hours a year in traffic," the economist Tyler Cowen wrote a few weeks ago in support of driverless cars. "Imagine using that time in better ways—by working or just having fun."

One thing is certain—our current commutes need changing. They are making us fatter, unhappier, lonelier, and are probably killing us. Last month, researchers at Sweden’s Umea University published their finding that couples in which one partner commutes for longer than 45 minutes are 40% likelier to divorce.

But what if driverless cars mimicked transit instead? What if you could watch movies, make Skype calls, or play with your children in the back seat until you were delivered to your doorstep? A game-changer in terms of commuting time and cost, it would breathe new life back into suburban sprawl; it's not a problem to live two hours from work when you can spend those two hours as if you were on your couch. And what if you didn't even have to be making payments on that car that was driving you to work. Robot cars could allow us to drastically reduce car ownership.

3. "Zipcar, come here."

"What if I could take out my phone and say, ‘Zipcar, come here,’" Thrun asked rhetorically at a conference last year, "and a moment later the Zipcar came around the corner?" It’s not a stretch to imagine robot cars as a boon for car-sharing services.

But better positioned are new peer-to-peer services such as Getaround, which launched two weeks ago with 1,600 cars already enrolled—equivalent to 20% of Zipcar’s fleet. Membership is free, insurance and 24-hour roadside assistance is included, and all that’s required of car owners is installing a keyless remote to allow other Getaround users to unlock the car.

In a driverless world, owners would barely notice when their car was missing. They would just call another while their formerly sunk cost was out earning money. It would beat letting it collect dust in the garage every day, which is what most of us do now.

"There are over 250 million personal vehicles in the U.S. and they sit idle an average of 22 hours each day," according to Getaround cofounder Sam Zaid. What would happen if, thanks to Getaround and Google, they only sat idle for, say, 20 hours a day? How many fewer cars would we need?

4. As Goes GM, So Goes The Nation

If Thrun and Sam Zaid of Getaround are correct, it could be possible to dramatically increase the utilization of cars (and congestion) while shrinking their numbers overall. (Highways would be as crowded as ever, but there would be a lot more open parking spots.) And then what would that mean for the (formerly) Big Three?

For the answer to that, we need look no further than 2009, the U.S. auto industry’s annus horriblis in which the total number of cars on the road contracted for the first time since World War II. Not coincidentally, both GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy that year.

More troubling than the one-time dip of the financial crisis is the gradual erosion in the number of teenage drivers, whose numbers have fallen below 10 million (from a peak of 12 million in 1978), despite the largest teenage population ever. "Many of today’s young people living in a more urban society learn to live without cars," theorized the environmentalist Lester R. Brown at the time. "They socialize on the Internet and on smartphones, not in cars."

Perhaps in the future, they will socialize on smartphones in driverless cars. In that case, to survive, the auto industry's business model might be starting to look like the smartphone one—with the hardware made in China, and the brains supplied by Google.

[Image: Google Blog]

Read more from Fast Company's series The Butterfly Effect: How China's Real Estate Bubble Is Toying With Commodities And The Global Recovery

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  • John Eight Thirty-Two

    The basic point of this article is that efficiency is bad and consumption is good. By that reasoning, I ought to go smash my neighbors' windows. Think of all the good I'll be doing for local glaziers! I, for one, welcome our new robot drivers. They can't be as bad at it as the humans are -- they're killing a hundred people every day, just in the US.

  • Das M


    I can see where this can be very useful but I do not see a majority of humans becoming passive enough to beckon cars and then go to sleep inside their cars. The idea that it may replace the limited functionality of the existing cruise control makes sense. As people become more and more distracted, cars becoming safer and smarter makes sense.

    Many here are offended because it takes away the pleasure of driving and control of the car. I enjoy driving long distances because I enjoy driving. Automated transports do exist and I don't see people clamoring to jump in for the experience. 

    What we might end up could be a mix of automation, human control and a system that takes over when people loose control or a dangerous situation arises. The race car speedway will continue to exist for sure.


  • addavis01

    I'd like to believe that driverless cars would take off a la Minority Report. Watching cars zip along roads effortlessly and communicate with each other to allow seamless traffic flow seams utopian. But even utopia man always yearns for one thing, and that one thing is control. The ability to makes ones decision based on a given stimulus and condition. And in a world where people change their minds on the whims of such petty things as hunger, we need t control so that we can do a U-Turn in the middle of traffic to go to the McDonalds we just passed. So automated driving may seem perfect, but only if it's driving another perfect creation, which humans simply are not.

  • Kevin McLaughlin

    It's a great and important attempt to look at the impact of new technology and our changing relationship to 'the car' - but makes a big error in logic, I think. eg "In a driverless world, owners would barely notice when their car was missing." In fact, why would they even bother to own a car? The less 'fun' a car becomes (ie to drive), the less reason to own one. And if you could simply request a car to come to your house, who cares where it is parked when not in use? Don't forget, road tolls will be in effect. So maybe the cars will look more like VW buses, picking up not just you but your neighbours too? Those could be the cheaper option ie self-driving mini-buses, and maybe SMART cars for individuals in a hurry, and Prius for families. The point is that the car of the future will be shared, not owned.

  • bep

    Good information, poor thesis.  It is great to read about how fast the technology is developing.  But the author's theory that it will be bad for the car companies and therefore bad for everyone is weak, at best.
    Will the technology take over overnight, and cause a sudden precipitous switch in behaviors?  Unlikely.Could American car companies use this as an opportunity to be the first ones with the new technology, and gain an advantage in the world market?  They can and they should, instead of having to play catch up like they're currently doing with hybrids and electrics.Is a technology that will make life better for us a bad thing because some companies will have to learn to adapt?  Well, should we never have taken up that newfangled technology known as the automobile, because it was terrible for the horseshoe-makers and the carriage industry?