Cliff Banks - The Banks Report

Private Car Ownership — A dirty Word in Silicon Valley?

To steal a phrase, Silicon Valley appears to be gripped by an “irrational exuberance” for the future utopia promised by connected and autonomous vehicle technology.

At the recent Connected & Charged conference presented by Prospect Silicon Valley held at the SAP campus in Palo Alto, CA, it was striking to see the attention given by panelists and speakers on doing away with private car ownership.

The question of whether car ownership is bad for society wasn’t even discussed — the answer seemed to be clear in minds of the participants. To be fair, this was the symposium’s sixth year (and Silicon Valley seems to have events weekly that focus on autonomous or connected technology) so the question likely has been debated and answered already in their minds.

This autonomous vehicle technology will enable an explosion in ride sharing which will help solve vexing issues such as traffic congestion and pollution.

Investors are being swayed by arguments that millennials will buy into the new sharing economy because they’ll see the folly of owning a vehicle that sits 95% of the time. Meanwhile, proponents cite data that shows millennials are getting driver licenses at a lower percentage than did their parents; they say they are less interested in owning a vehicle; and miles driven are declining.

Add it all up, and within a few years, none of us will own a car (according to a December Wall Street Journal Editorial by Dan Neil, hobbyists,hot rodders and Flat Earthers will be the only private owners in 25 years).

Instead, we’ll summon whichever vehicle-type we want using our phones, and it will appear in our driveways, clean, pristine and fully charged (never mind that consumers have yet to grasp the benefits of electric vehicles, despite what so-called experts say).

Instead of ownership, we’ll either share in a lease with friends and family (although Ford’s Credit Link initiative in Texas had yet to sign anyone up after three months of being live); or we’ll participate in a subscription-type plan such as the one Audi is offering in different cities.

At the conference, all of the talk was about millennials with a few comments about how ride sharing will help the elderly thrown in. Parents were conveniently ignored.

None of the participants on a panel at the end of the day whose topic was “The Future of Mobility: Beyond Car Ownership,” had an answer when asked what their companies were doing to make ride sharing convenient to parents.

I’m an avid Uber user. I use it when I travel; I use it often to go to the airport or to downtown (Detroit) for meetings or dinners. I see the benefits of of Uber or Lyft-like services.

But as a parent, I don’t see how these services will replace car ownership outside of urban centers. It’s not convenient — furthermore, you wouldn’t want to ride in a vehicle after my children have been in it. Not to mention, will I want to put in a child-car seat every time I want to go out with my child? Not a chance. (The topic of why such services are inconvenient for parents warrants its own article).

Meanwhile, ride sharing services for children have been slow to take off. Shuddle closed in April. The founders couldn’t make money — the costs of finding and training the right drivers was too high.

There are other services, such as Kango, HopSkipDrive and Zum, but I doubt we’ll see any large investors jump in. They seem to view it as a high-cost with low-to-no margins play. The message seems to be: parents aren’t interested in ride sharing.

I’m not a millennial — I graduated high school in 1988. But I — nor my friends were much different than today’s millennials. Few of my friends owned their own cars in high school. I didn’t buy my first car till I was 21. I lived in Philadelphia and had a good pair of legs and public transportation.

But once I started moving into adulthood, not owning a vehicle proved to not to be practical. I bet many of today’s millennials will find themselves in similar situations. Once they start thinking about marriage or having children, owning a car will suddenly become much more practical. And they aren’t going to think in terms of the inefficiencies of having a car sit in a driveway 95% of the time. Convenience will be the driving motivation.

The promise of connected and autonomous vehicles is exciting. It will change and likely improve our lives in ways we can only imagine today. But to say it’s going to replace private car ownership on a large scale irrationally ignores the realities of life.

(A note about the Connected & Charged Symposium : It’s well worth the time and cost for people involved in transportation solutions. It’s strong event where presenters and panelists presented intriguing solutions to numerous transportation issues facing cities and municipalities).  

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