By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. The incessant buzz emanating from every auto company executive, every lemming-like regurgitator in the media and every 30-second blurb that passes for news these days is that ride sharing with electrified autonomous cars is The Future of Mobility.
Soon, like by 2025 soon, auto company profits – at least the auto companies that were smart enough to buy in to the notion (and lawyer-up with the key tech companies holding the intellectual property that will help get it done) – will be exploding as our cities become hotbeds for autonomous electric vehicles and the concept of mass ride sharing. The automobile industry and our automobile culture as we’ve come to know it will be upended in favor of a Utopian future where the hoary notion of actually owning a vehicle will give way to a sublime, hassle-free lifestyle enhanced by the act of summoning zombie cars to go to the store, to do errands, to get you to a restaurant, etc.
It will go something like this: You will pay a monthly fee like you do with your cell phone to link up with a transportation company of your choice. This will allow you access to the cornucopia of delights of a car-owning-free society like no bills for insurance, gas, maintenance, upkeep, etc., etc., etc. The sky will be bluer and the grass will be greener, and nary a discouraging word or unpleasant encounter will be found.
And to make things even better - at least from the auto companies’ perspective - this will allow these car purveyors to take on a sheen of hipness unlike at any time in their history (they think) while lapping up tremendous profits approaching 20 percent (according to the most optimistic of estimates), because the mileage will pile up on these vehicles at a prodigious rate and they will have to be replaced at an equally furious pace.
(It should be pointed out at this juncture that this mobility Nirvana will only be available in a handful of the major cities at first, at least the ones that really, really want to do away with the hassles of owning a car en masse. As for the people in the rest of the country, you know, the ones who actually have to get somewhere and do mundane tasks like go over to the next county for work, they will be left behind for the most part to become known as The Expendables.)
The Future of Mobility, according to those who are all-in with the concept, will be a boon to our aging population as the geezer-behind-the-wheel factor will be eliminated, traffic accidents will become a thing of the past, and we’ll become a nation of Shiny Happy Riders as the concept of actually driving becomes part of the dismal past that the futurists would all like us to forget.
It also means – allegedly – that the idea of public transportation, and the use of buses and trains will become greatly diminished as well, as there will be no need for those antiquated solutions because we’ll all be whizzing around in autonomous electric cars with our personal destinations and habits locked in to the system in perpetuity.
This last notion has been made especially ironic – or moronic as the case may be – around these parts because the regional transportation brainiacs here in southeast Michigan have actually approved a 3.3-mile – count ‘em - light rail system in the city of Detroit for $140 million that does little for anybody except allow early drunk-riding between various hot spots in the resurrected parts of the city. (I say early because the system stops at 10:00 p.m.) The expenditure for this system - it’s eventually supposed to be built-out another five miles - will eventually top $500 million. This, remember, in a city that has such an embarrassing, crumbling infrastructure that it’s nothing short of criminal. To call it The Streetcar That Leaves A Lot To Be Desired is the understatement of this or any other year. But I digress.
The Motor City, as it was once quaintly known, will become The Autonomy City if industry overlords have their way. They’re not only betting on this Grand Transformation taking shape, they’re hell bent on leading the charge, because the idea of playing second fiddle to Silicon Valley when it comes to the future of mobility is abhorrent and unacceptable to the auto companies and their suppliers, which is perfectly understandable.
But this Grand Transformation presents an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, the race to electric cars and full autonomy is the new Golden Ticket and everyone wants a piece of it. This – allegedly – will define the new transportation industry and The Future of Mobility. It just doesn’t get any bigger than that for industry futurists, I can assure you. On the other hand, there will still be hordes of people in this vast country of ours stuck in The Real (Old) World who will be left out of this New Enlightenment phase of personal mobility, and The New Mobility companies (formerly known as “the automakers”) will still have to make, sell and service “old school” vehicles that people need and rely on.
I predict that the transition to this Grand Transformation and the Future of Mobility is going to be a painful one. It’s not just the problems associated with the technology that are sure to come to light, it’s the fundamental phasing out of the idea of freedom that originally came with personal mobility that will become an issue.
This country was fueled by the freedom to roam, an enduring wanderlust that drove us to see, and to do, and to be. And we explored and settled its vastness with a relentlessness that knew no bounds. This individual freedom of mobility was part and parcel of the American spirit and it’s part of what made this country great. And now? We’re transitioning to a new dimension of mobility that will leave many out in the cold, and on many levels too.
The futurists are building on, remarkably enough, the pathetic concept of “over sharing” – the one that has paralyzed this country to the point that it has turned into a national nightmare fueled by the relentless din of social media – turning it into the defining platform for the future of our mobility.
The individual, as you might guess, will be marginalized, and for those who grew up with the concept of mobility being a form of individual expression, well, the sooner we shuffle off of this mortal coil, the better, because The Future of Mobility - as it’s being defined for us - will put a premium on nameless and faceless disengagement.
And the auto industry as we once knew it will be marginalized too. What once was considered to be the lower end of the market – the mundane, bottom-feeder “commodity” cars - will make up the vast majority of the transportation “devices” at our disposal. Yes, traditional brands will still exist at a premium – imagine an autonomous vehicle in a Mercedes or Porsche wrapper, for instance – so as to extract higher monthly fees, but that will be the extent of it. And remember, you might be willing to pay for that luxury wrapper, but you will still be “locked-in” to a system that will have zero tolerance for deviation.
What does this mean for the vibrant network of hot rod builders and gifted craftsmen and craftswomen who dot the landscape across the country, you might be wondering? I believe that they will in fact thrive in the gathering darkness of autonomy.
As long as there are people willing to seek out that last measure of individual expression and freedom of mobility on their own terms, there will be a shred of the American automobile culture, as we once knew it, left. And the gathering darkness of autonomy will be held at bay for a couple of decades, hopefully.
But let’s just hope that these mobility futurists don’t get a hold of a copy of Soylent Green anytime soon. That would be a giant bowl of Not Good.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
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