Wear: Robot electric rent-a-cars and zero-car garages? It could happen


Highlights

The city of Austin is studying a possible future of autonomous, electric cars displacing vehicle ownership.

The Austin City Council asked its staff to study the emerging technology and Austin’s place in it.

Allow me to dance along that fine line between skepticism and cynicism.

The Austin City Council last week passed a resolution that — after an exhausting 22 “whereas’es” about our fair city, autonomous vehicles and electric cars — essentially ordered the city staff to think hard about the subject, write a plan and then hire someone to think full-time about automated and electric vehicles.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, at a news conference held Thursday in the wake of the resolution becoming city policy, said the six-page document asked for the answer to “one of history’s biggest what-ifs.” That being, she went on to say, what if we went from a culture of individual car ownership to one of transportation more or less exclusively being a product we buy from others? Driverless, electric transportation.

That is most definitely a huge what-if. I’m unfamiliar with the recorded history of what-ifs, however, so I’ll reserve judgment on its standing.

Mayor Steve Adler was next up, telling us that Austin had already become the “Kitty Hawk” of autonomous vehicles in August 2015 when a Google car took the first spin ever in real traffic without a driver behind the wheel. Austin, he said, “should be to automated vehicles what Detroit was to the last century of automakers.”

Later, I pondered that Kitty Hawk descriptor. Orville and Wilbur Wright made those first successful flights in December 1903 over a deserted beach, a controlled setting more akin to Google and its California test track runs. The Austin maiden trip, I suppose, would be comparable to that point a bit later when the Wrights or their competitors first flew a rickety craft over someone’s rooftop. At that point it went from science to serious.

I asked the council members about the Detroit comparison. Are they envisioning Austin as a manufacturing center for autonomous vehicles? Well, no, not necessarily, they said. But Austin could be a place where the software and perhaps component parts are produced for auto plants already on the ground in San Antonio and Dallas. Speaking of what-ifs.

But if all this brow-furrowing produces nothing more in the short run than, as the resolution dubs it, a “chief officer of EV/AV transportation services,” that wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing.

I remember when I first got here in the mid-1990s that Austin had created a “bicycle coordinator” position. There might even have been a pedestrian coordinator as well, or perhaps one person took on both roles. Anyway, DJs Sammy Allred and Bob Cole on KVET radio, in particular, had a lot of fun with what they regarded as an odious waste of taxpayer money.

But look around two decades later, and Austin has a lot more sidewalks, bike lanes and off-street trails. Reasonable people can differ on the policy merits of that. But what is undeniable is that the city having someone to focus on getting that done got much done.

Of course, it was done with city money on city-controlled right of way. In contrast, whatever happens with autonomous and electric vehicles, and commodifying them into driverless taxi services, will have to come mostly from the private sector. But government at least can nudge that development along and perhaps steer it in various ways. And Austin’s hope is to guide that service, and that market, Austin’s way.

And, while they’re at it, turn city-owned Austin Energy into the more or less the exclusive provider of transportation fuel in a large swath of Central Texas. The resolution notes that “leading cities and nations” have adopted goals of having nothing but electric-powered vehicles by 2030. It goes on to note, decorously, that “a high degree of electrification will have significant impact on fiscal opportunities for Austin Energy.”

Chew on that one for a second. Especially if you own a significant number of ExxonMobil shares. We’re talking 13 years from now. Ka-ching.

Anyway, perhaps the greater question is cultural, which both the resolution and the elected officials addressed to some degree. The not-so-distant future they’re envisioning would be one in which not only is the car the one doing the driving rather than a human, but the human doing the owning of the car isn’t you. And a time in which transportation, which will always carry a significant cost, is bought in small chunks rather than being put on retainer.

People, in other words, would buy miles rather than Mazdas. And that raises all sorts of questions, and fears, about cost and loss of individual control.

I just got back from a short trip to the Los Angeles area, specifically the large polygon between Los Angeles International Airport, Santa Monica, Burbank and downtown Los Angeles. The visit was sort of a scouting trip for my daughter as she prepares to graduate from college, and the five days were packed with appointments in every direction.

We rented a car rather than what would have been the ruinously expensive option in this case of ride-hailing, given the distances and traffic congestion. It cost me less than $40 a day.

Sure, in this potential future that Austin leaders are envisioning, I suppose a person could rent a driverless car on a per-day basis rather on a per-trip basis. And that might work when you’re on a vacation or business trip. But what about full-time residents? How many trips to and from school, to and from work, to soccer practice, to the grocery store or to wherever would it take before the cost is way beyond what it takes to own a car now?

I’ve seen estimates that the average cost of owning a car, taking into account payments, repairs, gas and insurance, can easily exceed $8,500 a year. But that’s just $23 a day, or about three short trips on a ride-hailing vehicle.

So either these robot rent-a-cars are going to have to be much cheaper (and they could be, somewhat, given the lack of a driver, although the added cost of equipping cars with that whiz-bang technology should work against that), or people are going to have to travel many fewer miles. That person living in Kyle or Round Rock better find a job, education and recreation close to home. Or just shrink their lives in other ways.

As I said, culture change.

Anyone who has been around for a decent amount of time, or read history, knows better than to write off any sort of technological innovation, or the capacity of people to adopt and adapt. So what Kitchen and Adler were talking about last week could very well happen, and happen sooner than seems possible at this point.

So taking a good look at it, and hiring someone to focus on it, might not be wacky. It could be wise.



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