Eat your heart out, New York Times Magazine: the best design fiction about self-driving cars circulating the internet this week didn’t come from your issue dedicated to that topic. It came from Automotive News, a trade publication that published a 1,500-word time-capsule-from-the-future written by Bob Lutz, an 85-year-old former vice chairman of General Motors. What does he see coming? Think Minority Report reimagined by Dilbert’s boss. It has the clipped, “spare me the Silicon Valley bullshit” tone that you’d expect from an auto executive. But the scorched-earth vision Lutz sketches for the future of his own industry would make even the most glib “disruption”-worshipper blanch.
Lutz’s basic idea doesn’t sound all that shocking: he sees individual autos going the way of the dodo, replaced by self-driving “standardized modules” that speed around picking people up for point-to-point journeys like robotic Ubers, linking up to form train-like chains on highways for extra efficiency. But where Tom Cruise’s sci-fi Lexus in Minority Report acted pretty much the same way while still offering a wisp of personal autonomy (he parked it at his own apartment, after all), Lutz’s version has “no capability for the driver to exercise command . . . You have a blending of rail-type with individual transportation.”
So far, so ho-hum. But as with the best futurism, it’s the social and economic implications of this hastily sketched-out driving experience that end up feeling queasily convincing.
First up: Since these train-like modules already operate like Ubers, expect almost all self-driving transportation to be collectively monopolized by fleets owned and operated by “the Ubers and Lyfts and God knows what other companies that will enter the transportation business in the future.” Just as moving around on the internet is effectively dominated by a quarter-dozen megacorps, so too will moving around anywhere on actual roads. (Except, of course, if you’re rich: then you might hang onto a Tom-Cruise-style personal module after all to ” leave [your] vacation stuff and the kids’ soccer gear in.”)
Lutz imagines the economics of this fleet system working much like the ecosystem of smartphones does now. Chevy and GM will cease to exist as meaningful brands in their own right and will become faceless hardware suppliers like Foxconn. The big (new) brands—”Uber, Lyft, FedEx, UPS, the U.S. Postal Service, utility companies, delivery services, Amazon”—will purchase unbranded modules by the thousands, which they’ll slap their own decals on. (“The low-cost provider that delivers the specification will get the business,” Lutz adds, Dilbert-bossily.)
In that environment, auto performance and styling as we know it are dead, because the structural incentives behind them wither away. Riding in a high-performance BMW versus a Honda makes no difference because “nobody will be passing anybody else on the highway.” People being people (i.e., petty), we may still want to be able to order up a nicer-looking pod to ride to work in than the mail-room schmucks. But don’t expect it to look that much different, says Lutz: “The importance of styling will be minimized because the modules in the high-speed trains will have to be blunt at both ends” so that they can bunch efficiently together. You know how all smartphones basically look and behave the same, whether it’s a $1,000 iPhone X or a $100 Blu R1 HD (whatever that is)? In Lutz’s future, that’s cars.
Dealerships will die out too, except for cottage-industry boutiques that sell luxury pods to the rich like high-end horse breeders. Driving may still exist, but it too will become like horseback riding: a conspicuously elitist hobby. Oh, and publications like Car & Driver and Automotive News? Dunzo. “They’ll be replaced by a magazine called Battery and Module read by the big fleets.”
Granted, none of this may sound all that bad to someone who Lyfts everywhere already. And in fact, it may not be. It’ll be safer, almost surely, but systematically concentrated and homogenized, too. “The open road” myth from Americana will seem as foreign and distant to riders in Lutz’s future as the Geocities era of the web does to a teenage Facebook user today.
As for Lutz, he dryly admits that it doesn’t really matter to him how it all turns out: “I won’t be around to say, ‘I told you so,’ though if I do make it to 105, I could no longer drive anyway because driving will be banned.”