Automobile ownership, especially in the USA, is sacrosanct. We don’t want to give up the freedom provided by owning our own car(s). Right?

Maybe not, as I came to realize when I attended a panel event about the future of transportation put on by the City of Boulder (Colorado) recently. The speakers opened my eyes to a not-distant future when I wouldn’t need or want to own a car, because I would be able to save a lot of money and reduce hassle by utilizing convenient alternatives – and at the same time be part of reducing traffic and vehicle air pollution.

Having gotten my driver’s license and purchased my first car in the 1970s, I’ve struggled at the thought of ever giving up my private automobile, short of old age degrading my driving ability at some point. I’ve viewed the advances in autonomous vehicles (AVs), a.k.a. driverless cars, as promising for when I may lose my catlike behind-the-wheel reflexes (kidding) when I reach my 80s. But that was too simplistic a view.

Here’s what’s more likely to play out in the years ahead if you live in an urban area, according to this panel’s experts.

Fleets of on-demand cars available 24/7

To hear representatives of ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft tell it, we’re not that far from having rides available whenever we need to get somewhere, at a reasonable cost. You want to go to the grocery store: Use a phone app to request a ride, and wait only a few minutes at most for a car or shuttle to show up. Your kids or grandchildren need to get to school, or go to the amusement park: Request (or schedule a regular) ride for them, knowing that it’s safe.

As the years go by and more people give up their owned cars, fleets of ride-hailing vehicles will grow to meet demand. Shorter term, such rides will feature human drivers, but in a few years we can expect more driverless vehicle rides. The key takeaway is that a probable scenario for our future is that these fleets of cars will at some point outnumber privately-owned and -driven cars on urban roads.

Rideshare carpooling is inevitable, and necessary

Of course, a fleet of ride-hailing service cars each carrying only one or two people is problematic. The “nightmare” scenario of such vehicles merely replacing private cars on the road solves nothing, and traffic congestion and air pollution probably will worsen, not improve. The solution is simple enough: more ridesharing, a.k.a. carpooling, offered by ride-hailing services.

Uber and Lyft already are experimenting to offer ride sharing as an option. On your UberPool ride to Whole Foods, say, the driver may stop along the way to pick up other shoppers who are requesting the same thing, or heading somewhere nearby. Uber’s algorithm matches requested rides and timing, so delays in getting to your destination should be minimal. (Lyft has a slightly different take on ride pooling with its Lyft Line service.)

From the personal standpoint, you’ll probably be happy with ride pooling since it will be cheaper; when you want a private ride, that will be available but will cost more. From the societal perspective, increased ridesharing is a necessity for the future. Most urban areas already are choking with traffic, and often parking is scarce and expensive. Those are problems that must be solved, and the ride-hailing companies understand that they must design their services to be part of the solution.

No private car + reasonably priced ride hailing

Here’s the probable scenario that will save you a lot of money. When fleets of ride-hailing and ridesharing cars for hire are sufficient to get you where you want to go, whenever you want to, you can get rid of your owned or leased private car. Goodbye monthly car loan or lease payment. Farewell auto insurance and license plate annual fees. Adieu gas stations and auto repair shops. So long parking fees (and tickets!). AAA says that the average price of owning and operating a car in the USA is around $8,500 a year, or $708 a month.

How much will it cost to instead use ride-hailing services and mass transit instead of your car? Most likely, Uber, Lyft, or other car-fleet services of the future (which may include reinvented taxi companies) will offer monthly “subscriptions.” Rather than pay for each ride individually, it will make more sense for most people to pay a monthly fee for a plan that includes a set number of miles. If you regularly commute to work and don’t take a bus or train, your fee will be higher than if you work from home. The Lyft representative at the Boulder event tossed out the figure $300 a month as an estimate. Even if you’re a commuter and travel a lot of miles in a typical month, let’s say that’s $500 a month for rides; you’re still saving money over private car ownership.

Pave the parking lots and put up a paradise

This scenario for the future of urban areas suggests a profound improvement in city life. With most people getting around via ride-hailing services and forms of mass transit, there’s less need for parking lots and garages. For an urban area like central Denver or Houston, for example, it’s estimated that real estate taken up by parking lots and garages occupies 10-25% of the land, especially in and around city centers. We can expect some of that land to be converted to other uses in the years ahead, such as more housing, parks, and new businesses. (Investors might want to avoid parking-lot companies in the years ahead.)

This suggests that for people who continue to drive private cars, finding parking will be more difficult and expensive in congested urban areas. That’s less a bug than a feature, since higher costs will encourage more use of ride-hailing and mass-transit alternatives. Ride-hailing fleet cars will be on the move, mostly, not sitting in parking lots. They will, however, need temporary staging areas. At that Boulder event, Uber and Lyft representatives urged municipalities to think about creating things like special lanes for their vehicles to pick up and drop off people, as a way to avoid traffic jams. (Many cities already have some such areas for taxis, of course.)

I’ve seen the future and it’s electric

Today, an Uber or Lyft (or taxi) ride is most likely to be in a gas-powered car with a human driver. That’s going to change profoundly in the coming years, both as electric cars become more commonplace and as driverless vehicles hit the roads in greater numbers. Indeed, the ride-hailing companies are planning for a future where they’ll have fleets of electric autonomous vehicles ferrying people around. “Shared autonomous vehicles is where we need to go,” said Dave Britton, an Uber general manager based in Denver.

There are multiple advantages to electric autonomous ride-hailing cars. First, there’s reduction in air pollution. There’s improved safety over human-operated automobiles. As AVs become more sophisticated, they’ll be able to “talk” to each other, which supports more throughput on roads; i.e., smart AVs can travel closer together than would be safe with human drivers, getting people to their destinations faster because of fewer traffic jams. Driverless cars, when accepted by the public as truly safer, might give parents more peace of mind about transporting their children, vs. the unknown of an Uber/Lyft driver who you can’t be certain isn’t a predator.

Owning one car, not two

Clearly many households own two or more cars. Even in a coming era of ubiquitous and convenient ride-hailing, many people won’t want to give up private automobile ownership entirely. What about vacations where ride hailing isn’t practical, for instance? Yes, you could in the future rely on ride-hailing services and mass transit for around town, then rent a car for a vacation trip. You should still save money over owning and maintaining a car. But the alternative is simply to reduce the number of owned cars in your household.

This resonates for me. I live in a two-car household and can easily envision getting rid of one when ride hailing as described above is reality. But I doubt I’d ever part with car number two, which is a 4-wheel drive Land Rover that I like to take off road in Colorado and Utah (something car rental companies won’t allow me to do). Still, even getting rid of one car should save a bunch of money. Especially as people age – after retirement it’s common to have smaller incomes than before – going partly car-less will be a positive trend.

More levels of transit ahead

A theme that permeated the Boulder panel discussion was integration with mass transit. While much of the attention is on ride-hailing services operating passenger cars, a fledgling development is the small autonomous electric shuttle, as demonstrated by France-based EasyMile. The company’s EZ10 shuttles hold up to 12 riders and can be set up on smaller routes not served by mass transit, such as office business parks and college campuses.

Lauren Isaac, EasyMile’s director of business initiatives who is based at the company’s North American headquarters in Denver, painted an optimistic scenario of EasyMile shuttles picking you up at your apartment building, say, and delivering you to a bus or train station for your commute. This could be really convenient in avoiding the commuter having a long walk to transit – or having to drive a private car to the station.

The key point is that emerging forms of transportation can complement and supplement the existing. Any one transportation innovation will not solve our mobility problems.

Our driverless future awaits

Yes, driving your own car is awfully convenient and long has been. That’s why it’s so difficult to get people to drive less and use alternatives. But getting around is more and more of a hassle and driving less enjoyable. Some of the emerging alternatives discussed here should make it more acceptable to give up your private car in the not-so-distant future. For those of us over 50, especially, this is going to be great!


Top photo credit: Fotolia