Utopia or robot car hell?
31 December, 2015
As New York baseball legend, Yogi Berra quipped: "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."
That doesn't stop us from at least thinking about what might happen. As an investor, it is important to consider future possibilities. While a lot of investing mistakes are made thinking you can predict the future with absolute certainty, as many are made by not being aware of what might happen.
One vision of the future sees a fleet of electric, driverless cars silently creeping their way around our streets, picking up their human cargo and depositing us at work, the beach or with friends before comfortably returning us home. All the while we can doze in the back seat.
Utopia or robot hell? I am not sure but some smart minds have been thinking about what it might mean for us. While this vision may seem far-fetched, most of the pieces to make it real are with us now. Google has automated cars cruising the streets of San Francisco and they even mostly work! Tesla has built beautiful electric vehicles and Uber has shown how a well-designed app can run a cost-effective car sharing platform.
The remaining barriers are cost and legislation. According to a report from investment bank Barclays, it costs upwards of NZ$75,000 to add smart sensors and driving automation software to a car.
We know over time the software will get smarter and costs will eventually fall — the way the price of computers has fallen shows how that will work.
For now, let's pretend 25 years have passed. Electric, automated cars are with us and they're legal. What will transportation look like? Barclays has been pondering this exact issue. They start by making the point the average car in the United States is used for only 56 minutes a day.
Given that, for most of us, our car is our second biggest asset, this seems a massive waste of resources.
It raises the notion of resource sharing. Barclays point out a few ways this could be done.
Over 55 per cent of families in the US own two or more cars. However, based on a University of Michigan Survey, 83.7 per cent of these multi-car households have no overlapping trips over the course of the day.
So instead of owning two cars, a family could own one "robot"car. Mum or Dad could be whisked off to work then home zips the car to take the kids to school. You save a lot of money on a second car that hardly ever gets used.
This principle applies not just to families but to the entire car fleet. This would amount to the "uberisation" of transport. Armed with your cell phone you could dial up a robotaxi and not bother owning a car.
That is not great news for New Zealand's taxi drivers but taking out the cost of the human driver would potentially make the shared "uber" style robotransport model more cost-effective than owning a car. Barclays believe each one of these shared, autonomous vehicles could displace up to nine traditional vehicles.
Great news for most of us; transport costs will fall and we will be liberated from having to buy expensive cars that spend most of their time gathering dust.
Of course, good news for you and I is not good news for everyone. Barclays estimate the number vehicles in use may fall by 60 per cent. So you wouldn't want to be a car manufacturer or, even worse, a taxi driver.
Personally I like the idea of the journey home each night being a little more relaxing.