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To Possess or Not to Possess: The Battle over Autonomous Car Ownership


By David Freas and Savannah Peterson

Think about how you got to work today. Do you own whatever got you there? Did you enjoy the experience or wish someone else, or some other technology was at the helm? A lot is about to change as we enter the era of autonomous vehicles. Here to hash out whether or not we’ll own one are David, VP of Business Development and Savannah, Director of Innovation Strategy.

Savannah: Hello, autonomous auto-makers. I am your target market. I was born between 1980 and 2004. I am employed (at least at time of publish), and I commute from San Francisco to my job in Palo Alto. It’s nice to meet you. Let’s make a deal: how about we put the user first, let’s do this smartly, and let’s try and get it right out the gates. Self-driving will be adopted faster than ride-sharing will: we will still own our autonomous vehicle.

David: I believe that you will never own a fully autonomous vehicle. Don’t misunderstand me, autonomous vehicles are on their way, and will be common forms of transportation by 2025, according to Zack Kanter. In case you haven’t been paying attention, semi-autonomous vehicles are already here! My point is this: You won’t need to own them. You will access them as a service. Think Netflix meets Uber. There are three reasons that this model makes more sense than owning one, except the top 1%: 1) behavioral trends, 2) convenience, and 3) economics.
 
Savannah: You have a solid theory, but I believe it comes down to both form and function. Practically speaking, it doesn’t make sense for certain people in remote areas to ride share. Look at our agricultural industry for example, certain people need their cars to function in our current economy. Yes, it’s easy and economical for me to “pool” or “line” with other folks traveling to neighborhoods across a city the size of a pea on the weekends, but it’s not as convenient for friends of mine in the wine industry to traverse remote vineyards - at least not yet.  
 
David: More people are moving to urban centers every day [US Census]. While living in a diverse and dense city like SF certainly has its perks, parking is not one of them. Spending twenty minutes circling for an open spot sucks. With more people moving in, it will only get worse. Additionally, the millennial generation doesn’t value car ownership as a signal of success in the same way as boomers. It’s what you do with your money, not how much you have [Ford 2015 Trend Report].
 
Savannah: I put my money where my mouth is, and into my vehicle. More than its function, “form,” in this case is an expression of pride. I love my car. I just had to put nearly a paycheck into it and managed to coax them into throwing in a mini-detail on the house. Walking up to her, my swan white 1999 SLK230 Kompressor, I filled with joy, seeing her there, sparkling, polished and fresh, both under and above the hood. This glee isn’t just vanity-driven (though a detail is definitely a self-treat), it’s also my private escape pod. Literally, my vehicle for accessing everything I need and desire. If this sounds utopian, it should be disclosed: I just moved back from two car-less years in NYC and I’m still infatuated with the return to privacy + freedom my Mercedes provides.

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David: As a father of four, I don’t have much free time. In fact, pure leisure time is at an all-time premium and trending in the wrong direction. My wife’s car has a minor ding that I’m supposed to have fixed now for about four months. As of this piece, I’ve got to wonder what the oil change situation is. Owning a car is a chore. We’re a two car family and only my wife’s car can accommodate all six of us. Good luck to us if we need to give another child or two a ride. It’s a twisted version of the fox, chicken, and corn riddle to juggle baseball games and chores every weekend. And, don’t get me started on the DMV…
 
Savannah: When David and I first began discussing self-driving cars, he brought up the fact that we likely will no longer own them. While pragmatic and likely given the evolution of the sharing economy, desires to live greener and a new, artificially intelligent system that operates our throughput from point a to point b, it still made me a bit queasy. “But, I just got my baby…” I said, essentially writing in sharpie across my forehand, “i’m single and sans kids,” but more importantly, I was really saying, “this car, no matter how small and how old, is a symbol of what I have achieved.” David looked at me a bit aghast and was surprised, citing the widely held belief that millennials prefer ride-sharing. I did learn to drive on a tractor, and often stray from typical millennial stereotypes, but I knew I couldn’t be the only one.
 
David: The economist in me can’t stand seeing cars sitting in parking lots and garages for 19 to 20 hours a day. Based on AAA’s figures, this equates to an annual average of $7,397 of wasted utility. An autonomous car won’t need to sit there unused; it can drive other people around while you don’t use it. The sharing economy makes sense. Even today, relying on UberX instead of owning a car is often a better economic proposition.

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Savannah: A car driving non-stop will barely last a quarter. Assuming a car drives 40 mph on average 24 hours a day, it’ll hit 100,000 miles after just 100 days. 200 days in, and it’d be lucky to still be on the road. Despite the “waste,” which I’d playfully argue is actually “conserving resources,” it turns out my fellow millennials like cars, too. Contrary to what experts had predicted for the last half a decade, Bloomberg recently reported that “Millennials accounted for 27% of car sales in the U.S. last year, up from 18% in 2010.”  According to J.D. Power & Associates this makes us the second largest car buying group in America, besides our parents.
 
David: The auto manufacturers see this coming too, as evidenced by Bill Ford’s Blueprint for Mobility and BMW’s Mobility Program. The two players set to win are Uber and Google. They have the technology, the service acumen, and the war chests needed to get through the transition. As for me, I look forward to trading in my car for a subscription to BMW.
 
Savannah: Do not dismiss my materialistic outlook as industry pessimism. However, I don’t doubt that we’ll adopt the autonomous lifestyle. However, I just think we’d like to own our piece of it. We are the generation of “I”, and we are a generation still young enough to collectively be early adopters. This should be music to the self-driving car manufacturers’ ears. Additionally, Elite Daily reported that “71% of millennials would rather buy than rent a car and 43% are either very or completely likely to purchase a car in the next five years.” Bingo.
 
We’d love to hear your predictions for autonomous car ownership. Please share your thoughts with us here in the comments section, or on twitter: @SpeckDesign.