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The Autonomous Car: Freedom of Space vs Freedom of Time

Freedom means different things to different people. It’s a word with many nuances. But like any word, its meaning is evolving over time in subtle and surprising ways.

For Americans, freedom has long been closely associated with the experience of driving your automobile. Marshall McLuhan once observed that “The car has become an article of dress without which we feel uncertain, unclad, and incomplete in the urban compound.” For my generation (late boomer) the car has symbolized freedom in myriad ways - freedom to be myself, away from the watchful eyes of parents; freedom to be in charge, and decide where to go and what to do; freedom to listen to the music that I liked, really loud; freedom to hang out with my friends and have fun; freedom to date girls, and learn about love; and, more importantly, the freedom to go wherever I wanted to go, without anyone having to drive me.

This last connotation of freedom, freedom to go wherever you want to, has been a central idea in the automotive space. Car commercials stereotypically show open roads, scenic vistas, and beautiful destinations as stock footage to evoke the longing to go distant places and seek out far-flung adventures. The image of that open road represents the path to freedom.

But, our concept of freedom is evolving, slowly moving away from freedom of space to freedom of time.

The car has become an article of dress without which we feel uncertain, unclad, and incomplete in the urban compound
— Marshall McLuhan

Freedom in the automotive category used to primarily evoke the freedom of space - the ability to move around and go places. But, the Internet has shrunk our concept of space - it’s now possible to go places virtually, and even go to virtual places. We now have access to places and spaces that in the past, we could only experience firsthand. We can easily be armchair internet travelers, experiencing distant places and people though portals to alternative universes like streaming video, webcams, video chat, and chat rooms - today 183 million Americans play video games. We spend more and more time in virtual places like virtual worlds and video games, destinations that you can’t find on a map.

Our concept of freedom is evolving, slowly moving away from freedom of space to freedom of time.

As population increases and tourists and travelers overrun the scenic wonders of the world, it has become more and more difficult to actually go to dirt world destinations. There are permits, waiting lists, and all kinds of restrictions that constrain our experience of even the wildest of places, like scaling Mt. Everest or ascending Machu Picchu. Entertainment, from sports games to rock concerts, has increasingly become an expensive logistical nightmare, sucking time for distant and diluted live experiences. It’s just not as easy or as fun to go places anymore. And when we do go, it’s by plane, not by car.

As a result, freedom of mobility has become less important. We can go places and see things virtually now. And, often the experience is actually better than being there live.  I can experience Everest without the expense and the hardcore training required. I can get great camera angles and instant replays of my favorite sporting event.

Freedom now is shifting emphasis towards freedom of time, because time is finite, and we seem to have less and less of it. With increasing demands with limited time, there are just not enough hours in the day to do what we want to do. Freedom is now primarily defined by having the time to do what you want to do. We need more time to be able to chase our dreams and experience things in “real life”, and we need more time to get the mundane chores of daily life out of the way, so that we can have more of that “free” time.

This is important for the automotive industry, because cars are where we spend significant amounts of time. Gridlock is bad and getting worse in every major metro area in the U.S. Driving has become a chore. The average full time commuter in the US spends almost 26 minutes a day traveling to work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. To put that into a larger perspective, we spend an average of more than 100 hours a year commuting to work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. Commuting is even worse in our big cities, with commute times lengthening as reported by Forbes.

Where we once saw open roads, we now sit in stop-and-go traffic, wishing it would somehow move. We try to multitask while we drive to get something out of our commute time, but our multitasking is making us more distracted and becoming more and more dangerous. Driving isn’t the fun it used to be - it’s become a frustrating time suck. Hence, the allure of the autonomous car Imagine getting all of that driving time back. For many urban commuters that’s an hour or more a day. That feels like getting a 25 hour day when you just get 24 now. What would you do with that free hour? I’ll bet you can visualize a lot of things that you’d rather be doing than wearing down your brakes in stop and go traffic.

Our time is precious, and we’d love to have more of it. Freedom now means having the time to do whatever we want, rather than the ability to go places in our cars.