Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Is Driving Becoming “Passengering”?
by Ilia Gorelov

In-vehicle infotainment systems, autonomous vehicles, and Uber: What do these all have in common? They’re technologies and trends that are converging, slowly turning driving into “passengering”. What’s “passengering”? Well, it’s being a passenger: going from point A to point B, but not piloting yourself. We’re all slowly becoming passengers.


There are three elements contributing to this trend:
  1. The human need to remain “connected”, now being facilitated by our vehicles and making driving an inconvenience
  2. Our vehicles’ increasing ability to take over basic driver inputs like braking and steering, diminishing the role of the driver
  3. The rapid growth of on-demand taxi and ride-sharing services from providers like Uber which are providing increasingly cost-effective substitutes for driving
Let’s explore #1. People, with the help of technology, are slowly overcoming a challenge that has existed since the dawn of civilization: boredom (Link Here). We increasingly feel the need to remain connected and consume information. Waiting for a ride? Check your Facebook. On a boring conference call? Read your email. On a bad date? Tweet about it while he/she is in the bathroom. Multi-tasking has taken on a whole new meaning. Why not multi-task in the car?


Vehicles are becoming cogs in an ever-connected world, linking drivers to their cellphones. In many vehicles, we can now use voice commands to read and respond to emails/text messages, make calls, pull up directions, manage and play music, and get other information like news, weather, or traffic conditions. These features are useful and conveniently accessed through our vehicles – and they’re a safer alternative to using a phone while driving. But what’s the impact on the actual act of driving? Well, it’s almost becoming a secondary function. It’s an inconvenience. Why drive, or be bored, when you can spend this time doing other productive things? What if we didn’t have to drive?


This brings us to point #2. Autonomous cars are slowly becoming a reality. Many new vehicles now come equipped with features that can manage basic driving inputs: adaptive cruise control, radar-based brake assist, and intelligent parking systems, to name a few. Autonomous test cars have already been “piloted” on public roads in the U.S. and Europe. Further, in 2014 the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that it will begin taking steps to enable vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technology for light vehicles. V2V communication can help take today’s autonomous vehicle technology to the next level. Though we’re still years, if not decades, away from a world in which autonomous vehicles rule the road, we’re seeing that slowly but surely, the role of the driver is being diminished. Just take one look at the airline industry to see where we might be heading.


Finally, let’s look at point #3. There’s this new thing called the “sharing economy” in which “regular” people provide services or rent property to other “regular” people. If you’re going on vacation, you no longer have to stay in a hotel – you can rent someone’s apartment on Airbnb. If you don’t have time to run some errands, hire a TaskRabbit to do them for you. Need a ride? Call an Uber. Ride/car sharing is the fastest growing segment of this new economy. There are just so many vehicles on the road and they spend most of their lives parked somewhere.


So what the heck does Uber have to do with driving becoming passengering? Well, for one, services like Uber (UberX, specifically) provide a real, cost-effective alternative to car ownership, especially in urban areas. I own a car in Boston, but frequently use UberX to avoid the inconvenience of getting stuck behind the wheel in traffic, looking for parking, etc. When I look at the blue Uber coverage map of Boston, I begin to question whether utilizing UberX could actually be financially advantageous to owning my own car (after all, coverage extends well beyond Carlisle’s Concord offices). In fact, imagine that blue area expanding out from Uber’s 250+ cities across the world. How far can we really go in an Uber? Could I visit family in New Jersey by simply hopping in various Ubers across the eastern seaboard? Could I go cross-country? Sounds like an interesting idea for a documentary.


So how do these 3 trends tie together? Well, imagine a world in which a fleet of connected, autonomous “Ubers”, immediately available upon request, take you anywhere you want to go. As soon as you get in, your phone and personal preferences are synced with the connected vehicle and you’re alerted to the weather, traffic conditions, breaking news, incoming emails, schedule for the day, etc. You only pay for the time/distance travelled, or maybe you buy a “family travel plan”. Even as a self-proclaimed car guy, this sounds pretty convenient, efficient, and appealing. Maybe passengering isn’t so bad. Maybe I don’t even need to own a car. Well, maybe a Z06 for some weekend fun…


Bottom Line: As vehicles become more connected and autonomous, driving is taking a back-seat (literally) and the role of the driver is diminishing. Further, readily available and cost-effective ride sharing services are providing real substitutes to driving. Combine all of these trends and one day we’ll all be passengers.

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