Horses, cars, and fleets

Elon Musk is having trouble ramping Tesla’s mass market Model 3 into production, and speculators of all sorts have an opinion about how rapidly cars will shift from internal combustion to electric. Bob Lutz’s opinion is worth probably more than most—he’s a former vice chairman and head of product at General Motors, and worked at Ford, Chrysler, BMW, and others. He writes:

For hundreds of years, the horse was the prime mover of humans and for the past 120 years it has been the automobile. Now we are approaching the end of the line for the automobile because travel will be in standardized modules.

The end state will be the fully autonomous module with no capability for the driver to exercise command. You will call for it, it will arrive at your location, you’ll get in, input your destination and go to the freeway. On the freeway, it will merge seamlessly into a stream of other modules traveling at 120, 150 mph. The speed doesn’t matter. You have a blending of rail-type with individual transportation. Then, as you approach your exit, your module will enter deceleration lanes, exit and go to your final destination. You will be billed for the transportation. You will enter your credit card number or your thumbprint or whatever it will be then. The module will take off and go to its collection point, ready for the next person to call.

Most of these standardized modules will be purchased and owned by the Ubers and Lyfts and God knows what other companies that will enter the transportation business in the future. A minority of individuals may elect to have personalized modules sitting at home so they can leave their vacation stuff and the kids’ soccer gear in them. They’ll still want that convenience. The vehicles, however, will no longer be driven by humans because in 15 to 20 years — at the latest — human-driven vehicles will be legislated off the highways.

The tipping point will come when 20 to 30 percent of vehicles are fully autonomous.  … there will be a transition period. Everyone will have five years to get their car off the road or sell it for scrap or trade it on a module. …

The era of the human-driven automobile, its repair facilities, its dealerships, the media surrounding it — all will be gone in 20 years.

Another way to think of this is the continuing democratization of travel generally, but freedom of movement specifically. When one can safely send their kid 1,000 miles away in an autonomous fleet vehicle for relatively little compared to flight—and direct from point to point—you’ve created an incredibly liberating set of social conditions where ties to specific physical place is likely to be even further reduced from what it is today.