Congestion is a growing problem in towns, cities and on motorways the world over as the number of cars continues to increase. Two, currently separate but potentially converging developments, namely seriously smart driverless cars and shared ownership schemes, could reduce car ownership and congestion, while still ensuring – even extending –mobility and independence.

What is changing?

Cars are becoming increasingly intelligent and connected. Self drive cars, possibly even self drive trucks, could be here sooner than we think.  Google has already successfully had a ‘driverless’ car drive 190,000 miles round California – although a driver was there just in case. Audi has recently shown its version of a driverless car which enabled shared road/ pedestrian space by using high levels of inbuilt intelligence in cars as well as road surfaces.

Shared ownership is also developing in different ways. A peer to peer model, represented by RelayRides and Getaround, uses smart phone type technology to provide controlled access to individually owned cars. In both instances car owners and potential users register and the company organises insurance, checks etc and takes a fee: there are relatively low upfront costs. Zipcar and the new Paris based electric vehicle scheme, Les Bluecars, among others, take the owned infrastructure route of buying the cars and then providing access to users, thus requiring high investment costs.

Why is this important?

These two developments could soon combine to address the problems of congestion, car accident fatalities, mobility and air pollution – among others.

Congestion has direct and indirect financial, health and accident related costs. It is estimated to cost business in the UK alone, over £20 billion per year. A study of 78 American small, medium and large cities put the total costs of congestion in those cities alone at $97.7 billion per year. More efficient use of roads and fewer vehicles could both help reduce the impacts.

Shared ownership could reduce car numbers. Gartner, a technology research company, estimates that within 4 years, 10% of US households may be using a shared car option. We may decide we can survive with one car per household or even one per extended family or group of friends/ neighbours. With ca. 250 million cars on the road in the USA, even a 1% reduction in the numbers owned would be significant.

But driverless cars could radically alter how we use our cars, as well as how many we own.  Traffic density could increase as cars are ‘platooned’, i.e. grouped together on the roads to reduce space between them as well as drag and therefore fuel consumption – leaving drivers free to make the most of the journey time.

Self drive cars would be programmable; once one journey is complete, rather than being parked, they could be sent off to do the next one – whether the school run or to pick up the shopping. Instead of paying to have our cars sitting doing nothing most of the time, they may be used 30%, 40% even perhaps 90% of the time. Reduced need for parking spaces could free up valuable land in cities and towns for more productive uses.

Roads may be safer. Each year sees a total of nearly 34,000 deaths on American roads, some 38,000 on European roads and car crashes are the main cause of death among young people – mainly as a result of driver error. Driverless cars may reduce accident numbers.

Loss of mobility is a significant issue for older people. Driverless cars could extend mobility safely, providing continued access to the community and independence thus reducing isolation and the likely on-costs of mental health and other problems. Shared or reduced costs from shared ownership would probably also increase the appeal.

In the short term, shared ownership is likely to have the greater impact. Longer term, we could see peer to peer shared ownership of driverless cars rise rapidly. There are however many hurdles still to overcome such as responsibility in case of accident, design and who is ‘capable’ of being in charge of a driverless car. But the opportunities are there.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.