How owning a car might soon become as old-fashioned as owning a horse

Experts disagree on how long the journey will take – but not much about where we’re going

Andrew Griffin
Friday 19 August 2016 10:31 BST

I drive to a party, park outside the bar, and leave my car there. I never return to it, and someone else gets in it and drives off. This is the future.

Technology is coming for people’s cars, allowing people to borrow them temporarily and drop them off where they want. Car ownership is becoming less and less popular, and in its place is coming cars that are able to drive themselves and carry their passengers around.

It’s a vision of how technology is killing the very idea of owning a car, while having more people than ever driving around in them. But it’s a vision that not everyone expects to happen.

Since roughly the year 2000, car ownership has been plunging. That might seem to make sense, but it is the opposite of everything that happened for most of the 20th century – when more cars were put on the road, more people owned them, more people got driving licenses and there was more traffic.

That’s even more pronounced among young people, who are driving far less than they have since cars became widely used. There’s still some debate about why that’s happening – whether it’s because young people are poorer and so find it harder to drive, or if they don’t have the compulsion to in the first place – but it is leading to a huge change in the mindset of those young people.

Into that marketplace have rushed a huge amount of companies, each of them boasting innovative tech and huge valuations. (Uber, for instance, is more valuable than all of the teams in the NFL combined.) But perhaps more of a threat to car ownership than Uber – which is essentially just taxis, powered by an app – is car sharing apps. Those companies – Zip Car and DriveNow being the most famous – leave cars parked around that their users can then get into and drive off in.

DriveNow is a partnership between BMW, which provides the cars, and Sixt, which brings the understanding of how to rent them to people. It was launched in 2011 – making its way to London in 2014 – and now has 4,000 cars serving over 650,000 people.

And that business is gradually getting rid of cars. In London, 10 per cent of DriveNow’s users say that they have sold their car because of the service; another 19 per cent say that they have deferred purchase of a new car.

And of those people that get rid of their cars, they find themselves driving less and avoiding traffic more.

It’s easy to imagine where these trends point: with the introduction of autonomous cars, those vehicles won’t actually need drivers, and could theoretically come to your door. Both Uber and DriveNow appear to be going to that same destination, even if it’s by different routes – Uber has been ordering autonomous vehicles and working on maps so that eventually its drivers might be left redundant.

It’s that same trend that’s led Ford to announce that it’s making its own autonomous vehicles – without pedals or a steering wheel – that will serve as the centre of a ride-sharing or -hailing business in the future.

Uber protests in Chile

“The next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile, and we see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” said Mark Fields, Ford president and CEO. “We’re dedicated to putting on the road an autonomous vehicle that can improve safety and solve social and environmental challenges for millions of people – not just those who can afford luxury vehicles.”

But Scott Le Vine, an expert in driving technologies from Imperial College London, says the future – while intriguing – isn’t actually imminent.

“The basic technologies for autonomous driving are nowhere near where we think they are,” he said.

And Joseph Seal-Driver from DriveNow agrees that car ownership is changing – not disappearing entirely.

“I don’t really buy the premise that people don’t or won’t buy cars any more,” he says. Rural environments for instance will stay mostly the same until automated cars come in, he said, and at the moment it’s as much about getting ready for that future as asking for it to arrive now.

Makers still need to grapple with a range of problems – including how exactly those cars will deal with pedestrians, and who will be liable if they don’t do so safely.

Not all of those problems are technological, and many of them relate to the much harder problems of city planning and managing people. Those could be solved easily – but expensively, and by essentially getting rid of pedestrians and making every road into a motorway.

For DriveNow, for instance, the real barrier to rolling out further isn’t technological or grand, but the practicalities and bureaucracy required to make it happen. DriveNow is available in some parts of North and North East London for the moment – because it is having to work with councils to get the agreements that allow the cars to be parked on the road.

All of those problems come because the technology is really just secondary to the central question of transport: how do people travel and where do they want to travel to? That’s the sort of work being done by Andrew Everett from Transport Systems Catapult, which studies how those new forms of transport can be introduced.

Much of that focus is on the idea of Mobility As A Service – rather than cars being something you own and sometimes choose to get into and travel around in, they’ll become something that you pay to borrow for a while.

In that future, users pay a monthly fee to buy access to cars or other forms of transport. It will be something like how phone users pay for a number of calls or texts – only it’ll be a number of miles on the bus, or minutes in the car.

And it is happening already. Trials are taking place around the world, and include systems that allow people to pay for their borrowed cars in the same way that they do their buses and trains.

But once again the problem is more practical than grand or technological. The main issue is data, says Mr Everett, but it is complicated and trudging work: compiling information about where people want to travel, where they are travelling now, how much they’re willing to pay and how much discount they’ll take if that journey is impeded somehow.

From there, experts hope that they can grow the systems across the country by gradually encouraging people to use it. Just as with autonomous cars – which are slowly and quietly being introduced to the point that people might not even realise their cars are driving themselves, like a lobster boiling in a pot – people might find that they unwittingly move towards not owning their own cars and borrowing them instead.

That will start in cities and among young people, for instance. Then as the services and people adapt it’ll grow: out to old people, and into the suburbs and then onto the country.

That will still be a long time from now – in the next ten years, in the most optimistic projections, and far longer according to some other experts. But we’re getting there – even if we’re not driving.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in