Will Self-driving Cars Kill the Luxury Car, and Car Ownership Itself?

As driverless cars gain increasing acceptance among the public, what social values, industries, and activities will be displaced, or even made as obsolete as car ownership itself?

Dreams of the driverless car are primarily focused on how the robotic technology will usher in a new era of safe, seamless transportation. Less discussed is what social values, industries, and activities will be displaced or made obsolete.


Consider luxury. The luxury car of 2016 looks very different than it did ten years ago. Today, luxury in the automobile is defined more by software than horsepower. What I mean specifically is the introduction of advanced driver assistance systems in high-tech, high style and high priced vehicles — tools like adaptive cruise control, collision avoidance, lane change, turning, and parking assistance. These sorts of technologies contain the promise of making driving safer than it’s ever been. But because they come at a significant price, automakers feel more at ease lumping them in with a bevy of luxury features rather than implementing them into — and raising the cost of — their entry-level models.

In and of themselves, the current crop of driver assistance technologies may not seem overwhelmingly exciting. A warning beep from the console that tells you when you’re about to back into a light pole is plenty useful, sure, but mundane in its usefulness. Yet these sorts of tools are the baby steps, so to speak, toward more comprehensive autonomous vehicle technologies (i.e. self-driving cars), and toward social acceptance of such technologies. They are both a way for developers to refine the technology and for consumers to grow used to the idea of a computer taking over the act of driving.

The irony is that these “luxury” technologies may be the beginning of the end of the luxury vehicle itself -- and the end of personal vehicle ownership altogether.

When the brightest-eyed autonomous vehicle advocates talk about self-driving cars transforming society as we know it, what they’re imagining, first and foremost, is the death of car ownership.

Here’s their vision: with self-driving cars on the roads en masse (and a smartphone in everyone’s pocket), a person simply orders a car to her door, rather than keeping one in her driveway. Parking becomes obsolete, allowing for a transformation of the design of urban spaces. The number of cars on the road massively decreases, reducing, if not eliminating, vehicle congestion and pollution. Automotive transport becomes a public utility, paid for monthly, as one pays an electric bill. Taken together, our society’s very notion of what the car is fundamentally changes.

One small part of this revolution may well be the end of the luxury vehicle. If automotive transport becomes a basic utility a la electricity, water or cable, it grows difficult to imagine people paying a premium for it. On the other hand, ride-hailing services — essentially the prototypes of the futurist vision described above — already offer luxury options like Uber Black and Lyft Premier. The question is whether our association of the automobile with status will disappear if cars no longer belong to anyone or offer the option (and for some, the joy) of personal control.

The automotive industry cannot be keen on this idea. The end of vehicle ownership would severely reduce the number of car sales in the U.S., luxury or otherwise, and shrink the automotive manufacturing sector. Vehicle sales, in part, rely on the inherent inefficiency of having your second largest purchased asset parked waiting to fulfill your next mobility desire. Shared car services keep the fleet moving and relieve individuals from the need to make an investment in parked steel and polymer. Yet automakers are pushing toward autonomous cars even as the industry likely has no desire to move toward a world with fewer personal vehicles. Perhaps they hope that the latter revolution will not accompany the former technological leap; perhaps they choose not to look that far into the very distant, very hazy future; or perhaps they simply accept that such a disruption, if it comes, will be inevitable. At any rate, though, the industry will not be destroyed by the self-driving car. It will be merely reinvented from manufacturing giants and automobile sales distributors to technology manufacturers, software distributors and mobility service providers.

The auto industry is one thing. But what about everybody else? Who might other winners and losers be in a world where the car is not king, but merely an on-demand pawn?

Consider the wide ranging number of industries that make up the automobile eco-system that will be transformed or made into a historic artifact: car dealers, insurance, car parts and repair, gas stations, state revenues from driver licensing (see my piece on from drivers to riders license) and sales taxes – even the local high school car wash fund raiser. Certainly many of these industries will continue to exist, perhaps even prosper, but in a radically different form.

The autonomous vehicle is coming. For now, most people are asking how it will change transportation – from a social and economic perspective – that is the most obvious of the many questions to be asked. 

--

MIT AgeLab’s Adam Felts Contributed to this article.

Photo Credit: Getty Images/Randall Levensaler

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.