Sick of being stuck in traffic? By 2030, your daily commuting nightmare will be a distant memory. And you won't have to grip that steering wheel in angst any longer, as a self-driving car will ferry you from your home to your office to your favorite watering hole in the evening.
At least, that is the wildly optimistic prediction from RethinkX, a California think tank that insists the 100-year history of private car ownership will soon come to a screeching halt. Forget the Clean Power Plan; forget the Keystone Pipeline; and never mind your political leanings or the deluge of executive orders from U.S. President Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama: Driving will be completely different in 13 years thanks to economics, and cities will be transformed in the process, as parking garages and disruptive street-widening projects become a 20th-century anachronism.
The future, say RethinkX’s researchers, will be driven not by individual drivers, but by transportation as a service (TaaS). The team at RethinkX looked at several factors to reach their conclusions, including future U.S. passenger car fuel demand, the predicted future of trucking, energy forecasts in overseas markets and several of the U.S. Energy Information Agency’s forecasts. The study also relied on the assessments of what analysts predict will be the most popular automobile models in the coming decade, assumptions of future electric vehicles’ range per charge and the cost of manufacturing these next generations of vehicles.
RethinkX's predictions are certainly bold, and will cheer those who believe society is barreling toward a dystopian future due to climate change risks. The study’s authors say oil consumption will increase in the near term, but will peak at 100 million barrels per day worldwide sometime in 2020 – a figure that will drop to 70 million barrels daily by 2030.
With consumption figures like that, much of the domestic shale oil and tight oil production would no longer be commercially viable. Major fossil fuel projects such as the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines would be rendered useless. Overseas, major offshore oil production sites in countries like Nigeria, Norway, Venezuela and the United Kingdom would no longer be profitable; the same fate would befall the oil sands in Canada.
Oil prices may crater further in price to as low as $21 a barrel by 2021, RethinkX predicts; but that low cost will not excite drivers, as changes in how most Americans will move about town will render our notion of car ownership increasingly obsolete during the 2020s.
According to RethinkX, as autonomous cars become approved by regulators and increasingly accepted by consumers, companies including Uber, Google, Baidu and Tesla will be ready for this new reality as automated driving converges with the advancement in electric car technologies. And the conventional automakers such as GM and Ford will have no choice but to transform their business models, as it will eventually no longer make economic sense for most Americans to own their own vehicles.
As electric cars become cheaper and ridesharing companies take advantage of that scale, the result will be that the price of TaaS could be as low as one-tenth of the cost of individual car ownership. And even if a consumer’s vehicle is paid off, the cost of operating it will still be 25 to 50 percent higher compared to what that same person would spend exclusively on an autonomous car service.
From RethinkX’s point of view, the growth of electric self-driving cars will create a monster onto itself: The lack of maintenance necessary for a typical car with an internal combustion engine means that this next generation of vehicles can roam the roads 10 times more often than the cars of today. Hence the days of cars sitting idle 95 percent of the time will be over, as future vehicles will be constantly shuttling around town taking passengers to work, home and play. Car ownership would become the exception, no longer the rule, as 80 percent of adults will turn to a future ridesharing subscription instead, RethinkX projects.
Such a reality would translate to a massive macroeconomic benefit, too, as the average household would save $5,600 in expenses annually. That could provide quite the financial windfall, as these trends could boost U.S. GDP by up to $1 trillion, perhaps even ending any nascent talk of a future need for a universal basic income.
Key to this scenario is technological advancement, full regulatory approval and, most importantly, consumers’ embrace of what is generally described as “Level 5” (full autonomous vehicles). If this technology does not advance, then all bets are off.
But some cities are already in the motions of planning for a future where sidewalks could be wider and less space is needed for parking. San Francisco, for example, started a “parklet” movement earlier this decade that has transformed over 40 former parking spaces into mini open spaces. And Pittsburgh, where Uber has launched an ambitious self-driving car testing laboratory, is eschewing street-widening for more bicycle lanes and wider sidewalks.
Even if ReThinkX’s vision is only reached halfway or less, America’s increasingly congested “smart cities” could become more pleasant places in which to live and work.
Image credit: Foo Conner/Flickr
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.