Self-drive, the catalyst for monumental transformation

I read a US newsletter at the weekend that looked at change resulting from self-driving electric cars, but not just about the vehicles themselves. In this commentary, I take the possibilities further.

My conclusion: Change is not going to happen overnight, but it will be rapid, it will change how you regard your personal convenience and it will wring fundamental changes in property use, and therefore in property ownership, tenancy, value, design.

While you work through the questions & issues below, keep in mind that common use of land-based self-driving electric vehicles might become historic almost before it becomes common.

First, the questions:

Will you own a car – or, in families, multiple cars?

Will you expect to drive to work, as you do now?

Where will you park?

Who will provide that parking?

How do you shop? Mostly, weekly at the supermarket?

Do you use your car for lazy storage?

Do you use storage, music up loud, door-to-door as your excuses for an aversion to public transport?

How might pricing of vehicle ownership, journeys & parking change, and how might public transport be transformed?

Why own for minimal use when you can summons a vehicle at will, to take you door-to-door if necessary?

Now go through some answers:

While you might maintain that you need your car, most decisions of that nature have never really been yours to make.

The people who created mass production of cars were able to do so based on pricing low enough for widespread ownership. But think back to New Zealand’s brief era of carless days, when your vehicle had to be off the road for a stipulated one day/week, which roughly coincided with the start of mass importing of second-hand cars from Japan. Suddenly, from the inconvenience of having to travel by public transport occasionally, New Zealand was awash with cheap cars. You could go where you wanted, whenever you wanted.

Except, it’s reached the point that you can’t quite go whenever you want, because congestion has reached such a level that your journey becomes much slower. In response you look at passengers passing you in the bus lane and ponder joining them, or you drive to work in the dark.

In Auckland, if you cross the harbour bridge in peak traffic, you can see maybe 10 people near you – one per vehicle, all forced by congestion to travel slowly.

Parking made harder

The era of Uber is upon us – and the suggestion is that the Uber will lose its driver too. Pricing will dictate whether you travel as a solitary occupant in a car, or multiple. Either way, you will be taken from your door to your ultimate destination, or perhaps to a conveyance which carries more people.

Your own car will sit in its garage, and soon you will figure you don’t need it. One reason will be that you can order up a vehicle to suit your travel purpose – if you have more luggage, a bigger vehicle; travelling to the supermarket you don’t need space, but travelling home you do. Or perhaps you do all that shopping onscreen, without going anywhere.

You may see those possibilities as pure & unlikely conjecture until you consider the next point: the decision won’t be yours.

The next stage in your decision on how to get to a fixed place of work will occur when your employer, or the building owner, decides you don’t need a parking space because self-drives & public transport eliminate the need. Parked cars which do nothing but sit, waiting for you to come back in 8 hours, are a very large expense. The building owner will convert that parking space to other uses, especially if it becomes harder to fill every space.

Then, the road maintenance equation

It occurs to you that your journey could be much faster because there’s less competition on the road… Except, who pays for that road’s existence & maintenance? The motorist, the local council & the Government do – the motorist via taxes & levies, the council via rates & perhaps fuel taxes & targeted rates, the Government via those taxes & levies.

If there are fewer users, or use is far more efficient courtesy of the self-drive & decline of private ownership, government & council will pursue ways to lower their costs. And when they discover less road surface is needed, or they can get away with providing less, they will reduce maintenance. Much like Auckland Council’s decision not to mow the berm outside your house anymore, authorities will see the way clear to trim road surfaces based on saving money – 4 lanes back to 2 and, within suburbs, 2 back to a single lane.

This can happen because there will be fewer parked cars, and eventually none, the self-drives will be able to negotiate a single lane, and.. well, you’ll have even more berm to mow. The road surface that remains will be a coarser, cheaper product next time it’s laid, the maintained suburban road surface can be shrunk, and arterials – even motorways – probably can too.

You’ll turn your garage over to storage, or another bedroom, or a games room or home office.

The city end of the equation

Your decision on how to travel will be driven by external imperatives – council maintenance costs, shifts in tax spending, reduced provision of parking. Many of the parking lots around the inner city have existed because of property development downturns. The bungy site on Victoria St, right in the heart of the city, is vacant because the 1987 property & sharemarket crashes killed development plans, and more recent plans there have been more grandiose than real.

Feeding on to Victoria St East, the exit from the council’s Victoria St parking building is briefly on to High St – which is a popular nominee as one of the streets for a council project to trial more car-free areas. The council’s Downtown parking building has been considered for a number of years as a high value development proposition. Changes such as those would be dramatic, but no longer whimsical once self-drive vehicles start to appear.

Now to city occupants, and then to fringe centres

Offices & apartments without parking provided will become the norm, and those old basement parking floors will lose that value. Owners will look to new uses in old buildings and design parking out of new buildings. In the old buildings that will be an interesting exercise, because in many of them the ceilings will be too low. It will take ingenuity to find economic solutions.

For the individual, you’ve lost your parking floor in the office building, and all the other parking floors & parking buildings are being converted. You will be forced to seek other travel options – bus & train for distance or, as we’re starting to see, bike or scooter for shorter journeys.

But not everybody works in a central city office or shop. Suburban work centres are likely to face the same pressures for change, and industrial precincts might too. Think, as a property owner, what you can do with the space occupied by 30 or 50 employees’ cars. Tenants, especially in outlying areas, pay low rent for parking. Building them out will provide a better return.

Other consequences

If you accept that these kinds of change are not just on their way sometime, but more likely imminent – perhaps within a decade – you can turn your mind to other consequences.

Fewer cars, fewer motor mechanics, a whole sector of insurance becomes redundant. Car sale yards & car loans will be history. Tradies will become lords of the road, but their costs will also rise through higher contributions for upkeep. Delivery vans will have a bigger role.

Just the change from oil to electric is a revolution in itself. The oil industry has held sway for a century, but its decline will be swift if battery-operated travel can prove efficient, practical & cheap. That will ring in momentous change in international affairs, in economic relationships, in degrees of political power. Revolutions in self-drive & public transport will force local change.

Real or unreal? We don’t know yet. What we do know is that if change like this is catapaulted into our lives, it pays to start thinking of options early.

Attribution: Comment.

, , , ,

2 Responses to Self-drive, the catalyst for monumental transformation

  1. Bob Dey Monday 17 December 2018 at 9.16am #

    Here’s an opportunity to go into the Christmas break thinking about your future in practical terms.
    You may fundamentally disagree with my conclusion – in which case, reasons would be helpful.
    Or you may advance consequences I haven’t mentioned – fire them through.

  2. John Polkinghorne Tuesday 18 December 2018 at 9.01am #

    Hi Bob, happy Christmas… I’d just note that electric cars and driverless cars are often conflated, whereas in reality they are largely separate technologies and (purport to) solve different issues.

    Electric cars are held up as being a way for us to reduce emissions, so that we can all keep driving and not worry about climate change. Of course, in themselves they don’t do anything to help congestion or get us from A to B in a different way.

    Driverless cars could have more influence on the shape of our cities and our lifestyles, as you suggest. But they don’t do anything to reduce emissions.

    There are a lot of articles that portray ‘driverless electric vehicles’ as being a fait accompli, but there are large uncertainties in how fast each of these two technologies will be taken up.