Chris Borroni-Bird is Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. VP of Strategic Development, responsible for automotive technologies. Formerly, Chris headed GM’s Electric Networked Vehicle (EN-V) Program, led Chrysler’s gasoline fuel cell vehicle development, and co-authored “Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century” (MIT Press). The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Qualcomm.
One hundred years into the automobile age, the love affair with the car is nearing an end. Millennials don’t pine for the open road the way their parents and grandparents did. Only about half of them get their license by the time they’re 18, many of those who buy cars are opting for practicality and affordability over flash and speed, and culturally many value sustainability and efficiency over rabid consumerism.
Automakers need to come to grips with the facts: Millennials may never obsess over horsepower, big blocks, and 0-to-60 times the way previous generations did. The good news is that they’re showing automakers the path forward.
Millennials are largely urban dwellers, clustering in places where cars are not the primary means of transportation. In these environments, cars are a service, not a commodity. And, thanks to millennials’ zeal for their smartphones, car-sharing services like ZipCar and ride-sharing apps like Lyft have exploded.
There’s a lesson for automakers here: Old models of car ownership simply don’t jibe with an increasingly urban lifestyle. In cities, parking costs are significant—a spot in New York City, for instance, averages $430 per month. When those expenses are combined with fuel, insurance, and maintenance outlays, it’s no wonder people simply call an Uber for door-to-door service when they need it.
Instead of fighting that on-demand expectation, automakers should steer into the skid. Audi, to its credit, is already testing a premium car-sharing service in Miami and San Francisco, and GM just invested in Lyft. But to stay relevant, automakers need to go several steps further. In the future, people living in urban areas will expect on-demand vehicles to pick them up whenever they want.
That vision is, I think, very attractive on a human level, because it's door-to-door mobility. We don’t have that now. Today, you drive a car, you have to park it somewhere, and then you have to walk back from where you park. Even if you take the bus or the subway, you have to go down steps or walk to the bus station. There’s nothing door-to-door about that.
But in the future, it could be—and it could be very affordable. Instead of taxi fleets full of modified off-the-lot cars, a new breed of autonomous electric vehicles will rule the streets. These vehicles wouldn’t need a range of 300, 100, or even 50 miles, because they'd be operating in cities. The vehicles could be electric, and very affordable—imagine the performance of something similar to a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle but with the passive and active safety of a sophisticated automobile.
Think of these fleets like automated Ubers. All the vehicles are networked, so the fleet operator and the consumer both know where each one is. Or there’s a central control hub, allowing vehicles to be summoned at a moment’s notice and get easily from Point A to Point B without incident. Test fleets are already putting these ideas to task. A group of 16 Chevy EN-Vs (podlike electric networked vehicles) are, for example, currently shuttling people around on a corporate campus in Shanghai.
Of course, autonomy is a big piece of this puzzle. Right now, autonomous driving is making its way steadily into the mainstream. The BMW i3, a compact vehicle designed largely with city driving in mind, easily parks itself. And features like lane guidance and hands-free highway driving are also rolling out.
Reinventing urban surface transit, however, cannot be a patchwork solution. Intelligence, autonomy, compactness, safety, and shared use are all equally important components. These fleets of autonomous vehicles must also connect to what’s around them—the roads, the cyclists, the pedestrians. They will have to be a seamless part of the urban fabric, not a system that sits on top of it the way cabs and cars do now.
This solution is sustainable. It’s efficient. It’s an authentic part of city life. In turn, cities will become cleaner, and precious real estate currently used for parking cars can be repurposed (shall we say “reclaimed”?) as green spaces or provide more housing. It’s just what millennials want—affordable, immediate, and socially responsible—and the automakers that will thrive in this new world are already getting on board.