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Leon Kaye headshot

Lyft Co-Founder: Autonomous Cars Will Be the Future in 5 Years

By Leon Kaye

Autonomous cars will provide the majority of Lyft's rides in five years, co-founder John Zimmer wrote on Medium over the weekend.

A technology once seen as decades away is approaching faster than most of us believed possible just a year or two ago. Automakers are in a mad scramble as they seek to establish primacy in this still unknown and untapped market. But Zimmer sees Lyft paving the way to that future, with his company owning the cars that move commuters from home to work, or to a restaurant, coffee house or bar.

Such a vision would make the drivers who work for ridesharing companies nervous as they rely on these services, for better or for worse, to score additional income. Zimmer, however, insists autonomous cars, as part of a company-operated fleet and not owned by individual drivers, will be the reality for three main reasons.

A company-owned fleet is more efficient

Writing as if he came straight from a business school seminar, Zimmer touted the efficiency of a company- or network-owned fleet rather than depending on a system linking individually-owned cars.

As with the demise of Relay Rides (now Turo), consumers in general are loath to rent out their cars to strangers (they’d rather drive themselves). Passengers also want a clean car and reliable drive, which are assumed in this age of Yelp-inspired rating systems.

The end of private car ownership

Zimmer predicted that car ownership in cities will practically end by 2025. Much of that is due to demographics, as younger consumers are obtaining driver's licenses at a rapidly declining rate. Owning a car, once seen as a ticket to freedom and adulthood, has become viewed as more of a financial drain.

After all, the purchase of a home, equities and even clothing (if taken care of and sold to a consignment shop), at a minimum, can result in some return in value. But that is not the case with a car, which some view as a money pit. Add the fact that citizens are returning to the cities, and fewer consumers wish to deal with the hassle of car ownership.

The built environment will change

This where Zimmer throws off his CEO specs and puts on his utopian, rose-colored glasses. He sees cities with fewer parking spaces, fewer parking lots and, of course, fewer cars sitting empty on the streets. Zimmer believes our future could be in cities where, as was the case during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were far more people on the streets than vehicles.

As cars moved from the first assembly lines of Henry Ford, to the post-war interstate freeway system, people increasingly abandoned public transportation. Zimmer delivered a narrative of how the rise of cars is tied to everything from the decline of small businesses to a rise in crime to even the loss of community. True, we see a reversal of this long trend in more cities such as New York, where underpasses, parking lots and even parking spaces are torn up and turned into everything from sidewalk cafes to micro-parks.

So, what does the future hold?

The big challenge is whether consumers will buy in. Yes, the evidence suggests autonomous cars can be safer than those driven by humans—but it is important to note that it will be decades before all humans are eliminated from the roads. Yet no one considers the impact this shift will have on people. The loss of a Lyft income may not be felt on Wall Street, but it has an effect within many households. Furthermore, on paper it sounds great to have a seamless system in which a car shows up at a moment’s notice, and without the hassle of insurance, gasoline and maintenance.

But this renewed spirit of community we are promised will probably not be the reality, as we already live in a world glued to our smartphones. We will continue to have this same lifestyle a decade from now, as we arrive in these revived neighborhoods every evening from work, only to leave again by autonomous car to meet a friend across town  . . . with whom we’ve been texting all day.

If we do start relying on these companies for our transportation future, expect it to be the way it is now with cable TV, cell phone service and airlines based on these companies’ track records: limited choice, poor customer service, nickel-and-diming and frustrated consumers. Ridesharing companies have a lot of work to do and trust to build before they sell us on a future that sounds fantastic now, but could be infuriating later.

Image credit: Spiros Vathis

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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