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Three Reasons Autonomous Car Ownership is a Long Way off

Two years ago, many hoped that 2020 would see the emergence of robotaxies, autonomous cars, and a new era of clean transportation. During 2019 cracks started appearing in that dream when major automobile companies suggested they had underestimated the difficulty self-driving posed. And, of course, 2020 has started out with a world-wide pandemic that has rocked economies and industries around the world, including the transportation industry. The Covid-19 pandemic presents two challenges for autonomous car ownership: economic loss and aversion to ridesharing. [1, 2]

The first challenge is technical, as Philippe Crist of the International Transport Forum commented to Jim Motavalli of The New York Times: “The real challenge has been to make automated vehicles that consistently equal or surpass the driving performance of an average safe driver in all conditions and in all situations.” Presumably this technical challenge can be met, but it will take longer than hoped. 

The second challenge is economic. The Covid-19 pandemic has pummeled the world’s financial system. This impacts automobile manufacturers and consumers. The companies producing cars have less capital to invest, and consumers have less money to purchase. With estimates that self-driving will add a cost of between 5k and 20k to a car this presents a significant barrier. 

The third challenge is behavioral. Ridesharing, whether that is in a taxi, a robotaxi, or a short-term car rental like Zipcar, all have something in common. You don’t know who else has been in the vehicle. With people’s minds focused on social distancing and hygiene they are expected to avoid ridesharing and even public transport. This means that companies like Uber, Tesla, and Lyft may struggle even more to convince customers to use autonomous taxi services. 


Personal comment

It may be longer until fully self-driving cars are a common sight on our roads. As the likelihood of companies or individuals owning fully autonomous cars is pushed back due to the reasons mentioned above the form of ownership becomes harder to predict. There are many options: carsharing, a la Zipcar, robotaxi fleets like Uber, or mixed ownership like some imagine Tesla will pioneer, or traditional private ownership. Regardless, we may not need full self-driving to begin to reap some of the environmental, social, and economic benefits people expect them to bring. It may be that private or corporate ownership of autonomous cars will have to wait, but that may not be such a bad thing. Only time, and one’s measurement of success, will tell. 


Written by Joshua Bronson, RISE.



1. 2019-07-17 Despite High Hopes, Self-Driving Cars Are ‘Way in the Future’

2. 2020-05-29 Who Will Own the Cars That Drive Themselves