Not so fast: The transportation revolution might be coming, but the rollout is slow

Detroit has hosted one of the world’s most important auto shows for the past three decades. For a week each January, the city’s cavernous Cobo Center turns into a lavish celebration of automotive performance and design. This is where former Chrysler president Bob Lutz once rammed a Jeep Grand Cherokee through a plate-glass window, and where generations of Corvettes, Jaguars, Mustangs, and Porsches first met the press and public, rolling onto stages with their engines racing. The show is like a revival meeting for anyone entranced by fast, beautiful machines and the thrill of piston-driven power.

In 2018, however, the North American International Auto Show took on a quieter, more futuristic tone reflecting the tectonic changes happening in the global industry. (We also learned that in 2020 the event will move to June.) Many carmakers’ presentations included electric cars that glided silently into view. Prototypes of autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles were everywhere. Elaine Chao, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, promised her agency would help smooth the regulatory path to getting tomorrow’s cars on the road sooner. Ford execs talked up the company’s partnership with Domino’s Pizza—yes, your first encounter with a driverless car just might be seeing one pull up to deliver a large MeatZZa pie. GM announced its plans for the Cruise AV concept, a self-driving vehicle purportedly so beyond the need for human supervision that it won’t even have a steering wheel. The General also announced plans to launch a fleet of autonomous taxicabs in some unnamed city next year. If that project gets off the ground, Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer notes, “We’ll officially be living in a world of self-driving cars.”

Elaine Chao, U.S. Secretary of Transportation.
Elaine Chao, U.S. Secretary of Transportation. North America International Auto Show

Electric cars have been around for more than a century, and automated systems that help cars stay in their lanes, detect obstacles, and even brake in emergencies are nothing new, either. But the surging emphasis on EVs and the stunning new advances in autonomous technology suggest we’re reaching a tipping point. Is the car as we know it—powered by a combustion engine and piloted by a human driver—on the way out? If so, what will happen to the cars we know and love, the ones with tail fins and side mounts and spinner noses and high wings and turbos that sound like weed whackers and carburetors that are scented with petroleum perfume? Is there any room for antique technology on the gleaming, spit-shined, android-chauffeured highways of our dreams?

Plenty of people think so, but as Jerry Reed, the Alabama Wild Man, once sang, “If you’re one of the millions who own one of them gas-drinking, piston-clinking, air-polluting, smoke-belching four-wheeled buggies from Detroit City, then pay attention,” because we’re about to sing your song, son.

Nobody can deny that the times they are a-changin’. World Bank economist Wolfgang Fengler predicts that new transportation technologies will replace today’s cars much the way computers made typewriters suddenly obsolete in the 1980s. He boldly predicts that “anybody buying a new conventional car in 2018, with the intention of keeping it for the next 15 years, will have done so for the very last time.”

A Chrysler Pacifica operated by Google’s Waymo.
A Chrysler Pacifica operated by Google’s Waymo. Waymo

Many carmakers seem to agree. Volvo has announced it will stop building conventional gasoline or diesel-powered cars next year. Most major car companies are involved in partnerships to develop autonomous vehicles (AVs). None of them wants to fall behind automotive newcomers such as Tesla, Google, Uber, and a burgeoning slew of competitors from China—who are already road-testing self-driving prototypes. In a sober keynote delivered just before the Detroit show, Ford’s Jim Hackett, installed last year as president and CEO in part because of his forward outlook on technology and his friendly ties to Silicon Valley, lamented the congestion and pollution that conventional automobiles cause. “By enabling one kind of freedom, we restricted another,” he said. He described Ford’s new business model as one focused less on selling cars to individual buyers and more on developing “mobility systems.”

Electric and autonomous advocates paint a rosy picture of how those systems might work. Fewer people will own their own cars, according to these avowed futurists. Instead, they’ll rely on shared fleets of vehicles. Passengers will hail rides using phone apps, as with Uber or Lyft, or rent cars for a few hours, as with Zipcar today. The result, we’re told, will be cleaner air, safer streets, less congestion, and lower energy consumption. Eventually, even our infrastructure will change, if all goes to plan. Technology allowing vehicle-to-vehicle communications will enable cars to behave in new, highly coordinated ways. We’ll have special autonomous-only lanes on highways where self-driving cars can zip along in tight caravans, speeding up or slowing down as one. Stoplights and stop signs will become unnecessary; cars approaching intersections will follow established protocols to determine which goes first. Some autonomous visionaries advocate keeping nonautonomous cars out of dense urban areas altogether. Auto writer and Cannonball Run record holder Alex Roy says, “I’d be shocked if you’d be allowed to bring a human-driven vehicle into lower Manhattan in 30 years.”

What does all this mean for people who actually like to drive? Will owners of conventional cars become second-class citizens on the road? Will driving a vintage Camaro someday earn you the kind of dirty looks you’d get lighting a cigarette in a vegan restaurant today? Will there even be gas stations?

It turns out there’s one group the auto utopians haven’t consulted about these plans: actual drivers. Roger Lanctot, an automotive analyst with the firm Strategy Analytics, points out that, despite all the buzz, electric vehicle sales so far remain modest. Yes, Tesla’s sleek electric cars have their passionate devotees, and China’s government, which oversees the world’s largest car market, is pushing electrification hard. But EVs still make up less than one percent of total U.S. car sales and less than three percent even in out-there California. There’s a good reason for that: Batteries remain expensive, and, for now at least, fuel is not. “Recouping the added cost of those batteries is a multidecade proposition,” Lanctot says. The same goes for autonomous cars. The technology needed to allow hands-off driving in almost all conditions (a capability known as Level 4 autonomy) is extremely complex and expensive. There’s no indication that ordinary car buyers are clamoring to spend a fortune for vehicles that do a job most of us think we do pretty well on our own.

There’s also no indication that government at the federal or state levels, both of which are short of cash, will have the resources any time soon to build the infrastructure necessary to realize all the benefits of autonomous driving. This is why autonomous and electric advocates are so gung ho about ride sharing. The best way to justify the costs of electric power and autonomous tech is to make sure the vehicle is used more intensively than the typical family car, which spends most of its day parked. “The key to efficiency is putting more than one person in the vehicle at a time,” says Levi Tillemann, a former U.S. Department of Energy official and author of The Great Race: The Global Quest for the Car of the Future. He envisions fleets of self-driving vans quietly whisking commuters from their doorsteps to nearby light-rail stations in America’s “global suburbs.”

Such fleets would certainly save energy. The major car companies are betting they will also make money. That’s why Ford and GM are exploring car-sharing and ride-hailing services. They’re hoping for the day when they don’t simply sell cars to private owners who then drive them whenever they like. The carmakers want to get paid every time people ride in one of their vehicles. As Ford executive vice president Jim Farley recently put it, “Any time you’re not carrying goods or people in this business, you’re not making money.”

GM’s Maven offers car-sharing services in 11 cities as of mid-2018.
GM’s Maven offers car-sharing services in 11 cities as of mid-2018. GM

The giant tech companies are making a similar calculation. “All talk about self-driving cars is really about how they can monetize the time we spend in our vehicles,” says Roy. The more connected our cars become, the more data will flow through tech company platforms. “You start to think of the car as a computer on wheels,” McKinsey & Company partner Asutosh Padhi recently said. Adds Lanctot: “Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple—they all know there’s a pot of gold there.” The less we have to focus on driving, the thinking goes, the more attention we can give to our devices—and to the ads the data giants will constantly send us: “Half off on chili dogs! Tell your car to take this exit!”

Do you notice a theme here? It turns out that the biggest push for EVs and autonomous vehicles isn’t coming from car buyers. It’s from government agencies, city planners, and tech behemoths that hope Americans will voluntarily give up their century-long habit of owning and driving their own cars. And that’s why many of the changes advocated by the auto utopians will take a lot longer than people think. Or, indeed, they might not happen at all.

“We are still many years away from realizing a fully autonomous future,” tech investor Ajay Chopra wrote recently. The technical obstacles remain daunting, for one thing. During GM’s tests of autonomous vehicles in California last year, the company’s cars were involved in 22 fender benders. Not every crash was necessarily the AV’s “fault” (human drivers have a tendency to plow into the rears of autonomous vehicles that stop more quickly than expected), and those numbers will likely improve as the technology matures. But the present rate of roughly one accident every 6000 miles would mean every autonomous vehicle on the road could be expected to crash several times a year.

Right now, almost all tests of “self-driving” cars and trucks include humans behind the wheel ready to take control in emergencies. Unless performance improves dramatically, we’re likely to see humans remain in the driver’s seats of autonomous ride-sharing vehicles for some years. Truly driverless ride-share fleets will likely launch first in controlled settings such as military bases, university campuses, and corporate parks.

“There’s a lot of loose talk going around about ride sharing,” says Nicole Gelinas, a transportation expert and senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. Even assuming they can work the bugs out, she says, “it’s debatable that most commuters want to give up that time by themselves in their own car and ride with a bunch of strangers.”

More likely, shared-ride fleets and privately owned vehicles will coexist for decades. Shared autonomous vehicles could help reduce congestion in dense cities such as New York and San Francisco. But most people in sprawling cities such as Houston or Phoenix, not to mention suburbs and rural areas, will continue to own cars, even if they sometimes take advantage of new transportation options.

So if Americans aren’t going to shift en masse to traveling in shared electric vehicles, what does that mean for the supposed demise of the internal-combustion engine? It appears that rumors of its death have been slightly exaggerated. In a recent report, MIT professor John B. Heywood—who literally wrote the book on the topic, Internal Combustion Engine Fundamentals—predicted that by the year 2050, 60 percent of light-duty vehicles will still use combustion engines. Only 15 percent of vehicles will run on electric power alone. And in an annual forecast produced by the multinational fuel giant BP for fuel demand and production over the next few decades, the expectation is that gasoline will remain the dominant transportation fuel through at least 2050, barring unexpected regulatory changes.

So, yes, there will still be gas stations for the foreseeable future. And, no, this doesn’t mean we’ll stop making progress reducing energy consumption and pollution. Tomorrow’s engines (along with tomorrow’s stationary power plants, which consume even more hydrocarbons) will be significantly more efficient, and many will include some form of hybrid technology, but nobody is going to look at you funny when you pull into a filling station to gas up your old Camaro. Unless, of course, you’re still wearing plaid bell-bottoms.

Audi’s Traffic Light Information system link cars and infrastructure.
Audi’s Traffic Light Information system link cars and infrastructure. Audi

And what about autonomous-vehicle infrastructure? When will we see those high-speed, AV-only lanes? Intersections without stoplights? Gelinas advocates a first-do-no-harm approach. “Just as with the first generation of automobiles, there’s a risk cities will be pushed into revamping their infrastructure before they really understand the new technology,” she says.

In any event, the technical challenges involved will be massive. Researchers and regulators haven’t even sorted out what protocols these vehicles will use to talk to one another. “Some people think we’ll be able to turn our roads into something like slot-car tracks, with cars zipping around in invisible grooves,” Lanctot says. “Those people are smoking crack.” Stoplights and stop signs aren’t going anywhere, he says. Which means owners of proudly nonautonomous vintage cars can proceed through intersections for several decades to come without worrying they’ll be T-boned by a speeding robot car.

Still, for today’s car lovers, there might be some things to like about electric and autonomous vehicles. “The car culture in America is pretty entrenched,” says Jamie Hyneman, one of the hosts of the former MythBusters cable show. “But then put a good ol’ boy in a Tesla, and watch his eyes bug out when you punch it.” Hyneman looks forward to a day when digitally enabled cars will zoom down dedicated interstate lanes at ridiculously high speeds. That’s going to take a while, but more modest levels of autonomy, including collision avoidance systems, will help traffic move faster by reducing fender benders. Research shows that when even a small percentage of drivers use adaptive cruise control, it reduces the “rubber-band effect” that slows down traffic. Having smarter cars on the road means a smoother drive for everyone—even those driving conventional cars. “Personally, I don’t care so much about having a car drive me autonomously to get takeout or go to work,” Hyneman says, “but I don’t like sitting in stop-and-go traffic.”

The Flying Car, as envisioned in 1994 here, has yet to arrive after decades of predictions.
Popular Mechanics

Auto utopians tend to overlook this basic fact of human nature: Just because a technical innovation is feasible doesn’t mean most people will find it desirable. In 1950, Popular Mechanics published an article predicting what life would be like in 50 years. Many of the predictions panned out, but some of the ones that didn’t overestimated the desire for change. For example, they predicted that people in the future would no longer bother to cook—they’d just thaw out blocks of food synthesized from sawdust. Granted, some chain restaurants today seem to serve exactly that, but walk through any suburb in America on a summer evening, and you’ll smell people grilling real meat over hot coals just like their primeval ancestors did. Efficiency isn’t everything.

Older, proven technologies tend to hang around. Even though the automobile effectively replaced the horse, such sea changes are uncommon in human history. Instead, we tend to graft new technology onto old systems, much the same way we’ve laid freeways over old two-lane highways, which in turn were laid over old farm roads, pioneer trails, and indigenous people’s paths. Technologies don’t flash on and off; they smear across time, blending together and evolving as needs dictate.

“People are hungry for that sense of authenticity,” notes Alex Roy. People still ride bicycles, or hunt with bows and arrows, or knit scarves, not because those things are practical, but because they’re meaningful.

Perhaps no other technology is as beloved—or as fundamental to American culture—as the automobile. “The romance isn’t gone,” Lanctot says. “People are still crazy about their cars.” When and if electric and robot cars become the most common vehicles on our roads, there will still be room for conventional vehicles—including vintage ones. Even Tillemann, an advocate for a greener, ride-sharing future, recognizes the appeal. “I ride a motorcycle, so I understand the joys of an internal-combustion engine,” he says. “Some people will still want to maintain that Mustang in the driveway.”

But what about drivers? In an age of robotic, hyperaware vehicles, will people still trust humans to make decisions behind the wheel? Actually, as cars surround drivers with more and more autonomous systems, there’s a danger that people’s basic driving skills will decline. The best antidote to that problem might be to get behind the wheel of a classic, purely mechanical automobile once in a while. “People who own vintage cars are generally more responsible,” Roy says. “They respect the act of driving.” Rather than being seen as throwbacks resisting change, perhaps people who love old cars—who know how to fix them and drive them well—will be seen as keepers of a certain technological flame.

The freedom to drive is deeply embedded in the American DNA. New technologies will offer new options for transportation. But they won’t replace the thrill of getting behind the wheel of a beautiful machine and putting the pedal down.

Cars will always be cool. After all, one of the most popular exhibits at the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit wasn’t an electric car, or a self-driving people mover, or even a futuristic pizza pod. It was the original fastback Mustang GT that Steve McQueen drove in the movie Bullitt. Rust spots and all.

The article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe to our magazine and join the club. 

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