Cars provide us freedom and liberty. At least they used to.
The modern car has improved our lives substantially since they were first introduced in the late 1800s. Considering automobiles substantially upgraded our mobility from a 15-mile range to easily 400 today. The popularity of cars surged as they delivered an immediate benefit for an immediate need. And if you think about it, every decade since then has delivered monumental innovation, value, and performance. The automotive industry developed new markets that facilitated commerce and empowered people with a newfound ability to become mobile for attending work and school.
Today, the modern car comes at a cost. Setting aside the fact that roughly 35,000 people die from them annually, the financial burden has increased while the overall quality of life has decreased. AAA has determined that the average vehicle in the United States costs between $6,500 to $10,200 annually to operate. The average sedan costs $8,558 respectively.
This financial burden is a silent one that people tend to not think about thanks to four, five, and six-year loans that are issued by lenders. The average American after-tax income for a single person is $39,940 and for a married couple $117,795. For a single person with one vehicle, that computes to 21% of their income, which is almost as much as the recommended cost of housing. For a married couple with two cars, the cost is a bit more manageable at 14.5% of their combined income.
Now comes the freedom aspect of owning a car. Are we free while operating them? Traffic congestion continues to get worse, but it must be everyone else’s fault. We don’t realize that we are the problem. When sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I like to think we all have pondered ways to solve it. Additionally, we are beholden to many different taxes (fuel, registration, emissions testing, property taxes, etc) that derive value from your wallet to the state, city, and federal governments. I don’t think these taxes are necessarily bad, but they exist nevertheless. I didn’t even mention how terrorizing it is to purchase a car in the first place.
While working at Local Motors, I engaged in many serious discussions about how to solve for these transportation issues. It kept me up at night. It kept me stewing while sitting in traffic knowing that there’s little that can be done today about it. One of the topics that I think about (even several months later) is the concept of occupancy. That is, the number of seats in a vehicle occupied divided by the number of seats available. Even compact sedans would have a low occupancy rate if there are no additional passengers.
For the first half of this year, I enjoyed the opportunity of carpooling. We both had the same destination 45 miles away, and we benefited from access to the HOV lane. Our fuel expenses were cut approximately in half, and we accrued half as many miles on our cars. It felt like we were hacking the system of driving without losing any mobility. The concept of ridesharing has shifted from something “nice for the planet” to one that was functional and financially rewarding. I believe Uber and Lyft have put us a little more at ease when it comes to letting other passengers into our cars.
I don’t want to own a car. I want mobility.
I would love if I could cut 15% from our annual expenses and put that towards other necessities — let’s be serious: paying down debts and saving. I would happily pay half of our vehicle operating costs in the form of taxes if we can access an interconnected transportation system by way of a shuttle, bus, light rail, and high-speed trains, all working in tandem to move people wherever they want to go.
Our generation has been mischaracterized as enjoying avocados with toast and living our lives one Snap at a time. I can’t say I know anyone who ever had toast with avocado, but I have observed one social behavior that seems to have faded: the emotional fetish for our cars. I know fewer and fewer people who celebrate purchasing an expensive car to one-up their peers. Millennials and presumably Gen-Z don’t reap as much social capital from driving cars they can’t afford. Probably being sacked with the most expensive education costs doesn’t help, either. It’s also slowing down home ownership for the largest segment of the population.
Currently, we’re doing a poor job to improve our vehicle occupancy rates to reduce our commute times. SUV sales increased 7.5% nationwide from April 2016 to April 2017. Just as city planners are responsible for expanding infrastructure for more drivers, we’re also accountable for reducing the space that our vehicles consume. Do we need to be driving an eight-seater by ourselves?
Embedded above is a video clip of traffic in Los Angeles. I’m sure they just love driving.
The future of driving
The future will become driverless. It won’t be immediate but it’ll be soon. The automotive incumbents will fight for theirs by way of impeding innovation, but self-driving vehicles will ultimately win because it is the will of the people and companies will have to follow the money. We’re living in a culture war featuring technology companies against the status quo.
Autonomy is an incredible technology that will bring its share of anxieties for the existing workforce and decrease fatalities. The major upgrade for personal mobility will occur when we bridge multiple forms of transportation together. When a person can step out their front door and get to the other side of town without memorizing a bus stop schedule, then the current reality of driving today will be obsolete. By multiplying self-driving capabilities with the efficiency of mass transit, we could render the same level of disruption that put horses back into their stables by the 1920s.
Surveys have suggested there is strong support for autonomous driving. Millennials and Gen Xers wholeheartedly embrace the technology shift, while older generations tend to be skeptical. Regular use of ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft demonstrate that people can gain mobility without the financial and legal burden of owning a car.
Over time, cars will become as significant as the manufacturer of the nuts and bolts holding them together. The emotional connection people have with cars as possessions and other forms of status will diminish while the connection and loyalty to service providers will rise. The existing automotive manufacturing infrastructure will be reduced to a supply chain to build nameless aluminum shells that are sold to several transportation authorities. When high-output DC electricity becomes more prevalent, expect factories that once made prized internal combustion engines to produce batteries and electric motors. Volvo has already declared they will make the shift.
Expect that parking garages will probably be retrofitted into commercial spaces. Parking lots that once charged people by the hour or day will be abandoned, and entrepreneurs will build affordable housing (hah!) or repurpose them for companies like Amazon to create charging bays for their delivery drones. I predict commercial real estate will become a lot more interesting over the next 20 years.
When vehicles can get us to our destinations quicker, safer, and more affordable, maybe they will finally provide us greater freedom and liberty.
Photo credit: Bill Dickinson