Car on Demand

God’s Abacus” by Today is a good day / Flickr

My favorite news magazine, The Economist, features a special report “on the future of the car”. The report covers great topics, but – to my surprise – the analysis is missing a key topic: car sharing. This is even more surprising in the light of a box titled “Distant peak car” – because we may experience that a whole lot faster than we think, thanks to the combination of driverless cars and car sharing. Here’s how and why:

Let’s assume that there is such a thing as an autonomous car. In that case, my wife and myself would certainly need only one car. It would first drive my wife to work (she likes starting early), then it would return and pick me up. From my office, it could then drive to her office to take her home, and then return to pick me up. One car less that’s needed.

Taking this thought to the next level: we are living in a house with six appartments (and nine cars: three families, three singles). One car is probably too few for the whole house, but four cars could cut it. And, as a bonus, we could probably have one sporty car (to impress the spouse for the families, or the potential spouse for the singles), a spacious car to drive the kids’  football team on weekends, and a city car. Speaking of the kids’ football team: they don’t need a driver anymore, either.

And there are of course more people in our suburb who – today – own cars. Providing an entire suburb with pooled cars, that’s car sharing or car pooling or however you’d like to call it. The trick is: today’s car sharing providers struggle with issues of availability and set-up times that spoil the benefit of a shared car: somebody has to go and pick the car up. Sometimes it’s parked close, sometimes it’s parked far away. A shared car that’s waiting at your doorstep when you need it – isn’t that a dream?

Have a Porsche for a first date, a minivan for moving, a BMW, Mercedes or Jaguar for long distances – it’s a degre of luxury only few can afford today. Depending on where you live and how rich you are, you may still keep your “personal” car, but a car of your own ceases to be a necessity, a bottleneck to your happiness.

Today, Germany as a whole has a ratio of ~573 cars/1000 people. Most of these cars are standing around most of the time. How far could this ratio go down? To 250/1000 people for the rush hour? That’s “Peak Car”.

By the way, as a side effect, there will be less cars at any one time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be less demand for new cars. Today, it takes an average person five years to drive 100.000 km. If – statistically – five people share the same car, they will have those 100.000km in just one year, so the car will have to be replaced much more often. (Probably not with mathematical rigor, but you get the idea).

And if cars are replaced so much more often, all kinds of improvements, e.g. to fuel consumption and CO2 emission, can be deployed much faster, too, and what’s more: much more thoroughly.

For example, today, one of the issues for deploying new fuel concepts is the transition time during which both old and new fuel concepts need to be sustained. Car-shared, autonomous, short-lifecycle cars? – Poof! For an entire region like, say, the Berlin suburban area, the transition time from one fuel concept to another can be reduced from decades to years: In the above example, all cars are replaced within 18 months, possibly with the exception of 10% or so for trips into regions with other fuel concepts, and for those, a few central gas stations with the “other” fuel concept can be kept alive (also for “visiting cars”). Who cares if it takes half an hour to reach such a station, the car will go and fill itself up autonomously anyways.

There is still a lot to do. Especially, in all this science fiction, I haven’t mentioned markets and prices anywhere. Just because it’s technically feasible doesn’t mean that it’s economically sensible.

This could be what we get by combining autonomous cars with car sharing: Peak Car.

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