Have you ever wondered what the word automobile means? When translated into Korean/Japanese/Chinese, it is written (自動車 – self-moving-wagon). The translation is quite literal, where auto became 自動(self-moving) and mobile became 車(wagon). In some ways, it is a mistranslation, or perhaps an anachronism. To dig deeper in the the origin of the word automobile, we find that it was not exclusively for wheeled vehicles the way we now understand. It was a more general way of expressing self-movable. This makes plenty more sense if you consider the context of when automobiles became commercially available in the first half of the 19th century. The choice of expression was to distinguish the engine-driven vehicle from the horse-drawn carriages. Whether it was an internal combustion engine or a steam engine, it appeared to be self-driven. In other words, automobile was a term used to differentiate a particular means of locomotion distinguished from the horse-mobile. Interestingly enough, about a century later, technological advancements are finally doing the name justice. We are now at the cusp of an age of self-driving-cars. Again, to differentiate from the former means of locomotion, we are calling these autonomous cars.
Conceptually, the term is used interchangeably with the expression connected cars. ‘Connected to what?’, you might ask. Frankly, all things in this world. Connected cars are connected to other cars, people, and even roads, bridges and overpasses, road signs, and even the houses we live in. This may sound strange and otherworldly, but the concept of connected cars is in fact a lot closer than we think. Maybe even as old as automobiles. The automobile had begun replacing the horse-carriage as a means of transport in the 19th century. As the automobile removed many constraints in physical distance and time, remote areas began to be developed and valuable supplies could be delivered to where they were desired and needed the most. Nations exchanged more, and people could drive around to experience new locations, makes new acquaintances, eat new foods, experience foreign culture, and nature. Modern civilization made leaps and bounds not in small party due to the significantly expanded lifestyle of modern people, thanks to the automobile(among other means of transport) which connected different spaces.
The future of cars will no longer require a human operator to drive, or to connect spaces; it will be part of what a car does, and that future is closer than we think. In fact, leading global automakers are publicly stating the age of autonomous cars will dawn by 2020-2022. Market research and analysis agencies are putting forth similar forecasts. UK-based market research agency IHS estimated an annual sales of autonomous cars of 50,000 in 2021, a million in 2025, then 33 million in 2040. Take these forecasts with a pinch of salt. Considering the annual sales of 80-90 million new cars are sold every year around the world, the generous forecast for 7 years later is only 10% of the total. To be more specific, the real auto-mobile will most likely be released into the high-end luxury segment before gradually making it down the premium ladder to the consumer market.
Nonetheless, around the time automakers started showing up in earnest at consumer electronics shows like CES, automobile related technologies began evolving at breakneck speeds. For example, FCA(Forward Collision-Avoidance Assist) and LKA (Lane Keep Assist) are near-autonomous features that had been widely implemented on popular models like the Kia K3 or the KONA. Such advanced technologies applied to mini and compact passenger cars are a testimony to just how close it is to standard implementation. This is one reason the autonomous car is not a vaporous future but something tangible in the present.
If a car doesn’t need a human operator to drive, turn, and stop, then what is the driver for? If it is just about not having to drive, then what makes it any different to say, subways or a bus? Does this mean there is no longer a need to own a car? After 130 years after human beings first encountered the combustion engine-powered cars, we once again stand before another novelty, unsure of what to do without having to pull the door latch, start the ignition, and grip the steering wheel. Of course this is no reason to admonish the age of autonomous cars, as the only way to truly avoid them would be to become a hermit in the mountains.
The PC gradually pushed out the typewriter, the GPS on the dashboard did away with the roadmaps in glove compartments and seat pockets, and the mobile phones that made it unnecessary for us to remember combinations of numbers, perhaps we should be welcoming this change; looking forward to what new things it may bring. Furthermore, there are forces at play far beyond our will.Some automakers even foresaw what was happening and began launching shared-car businesses for the autonomous era.
If the privately owned vehicle becomes public commodity, and the automobile industry becomes fully engaged in supplying public cars, the convenience of driving will be available to formerly those who were not able, such as the elderly, children, and disabled people. Furthermore, imagine the impact on urban environment. Once down-town streets are filled with autonomous cars, distinguishing between pedestrian walks and driveways become more ambiguous. The cars will be aware of surrounding objects and obstacles, share data, and move autonomously. While privately owned cars are not being used over certain hours, it can be shared with someone who does use it in those hours. The car can be more useful and not be parked like unused furniture. This will certainly reduce frustrations from finding space for, or paying for parking. As the car is capable of driving away on its own, your city might even create a parking facility out of the busier areas. This will free up even greater space, allowing room for parks, greeneries, and other convenience facilities where cars used to take up space. Large streets in downtown Seoul such as Gangnam-daero, Teheran-ro, Sejong-ro, would all become sprawling grass fields sprinkled with sports and performance facilities, with food trucks and various pop-up stores. What more could you ask of urban life?
Not all automobiles in the age of autonomous cars will function as public goods. Automakers that have weathered changing times and industry conditions, planning and developing, manufacturing and selling cars for more than a century, are considering various means to maintain relevance. Seeking a way less taken by either vehicle-ownership and the concept of car-sharing, the automakers have been working toward a subscription-based service model. Traditionally, the word subscription conjures images of magazines and newspapers, something that is received at regular intervals, so the concept may be a little confusing. Yet at the same time, we are already accessing diverse contents besides magazines and newspapers, on a subscription-based service. The most commonly used subscription-based service is music-streaming, and recently we saw this model expand into movies and shows like those provided via Netflix. The key ideas are similar to the car subscription, as operated by some car brands and shared-economy start-ups. Subscriber pays a monthly or annual fee, and the service provider delivers a certain service for that period.
Leasing and rentals, car sharing are similarly categorized goods and services, but automobile subscription periods will be 1 month to maximum 1 year, a relatively short period. Once the contract is signed, traditional leases, rentals, or sharing limits the user to a single vehicle over the contracted term, but subscription service can add different automobiles, allow a set number of different cars, or available types. Access to different models of cars to best fit a lifestyle can be extremely attractive, but it does come with a price tag as high as vehicle-ownership in the present. As such, the concept is being “test-run” and employed in high-end luxury brackets with super cars.
Neither complete ownership nor completely shared ownership will disappear. Rather, as autonomous vehicles become closer to public goods in nature, the concept of automobile ownership may become more valuable than it is today. As key technologies of autonomous era, namely connectedness and AI, AR will provide ever safer, richer, and thrilling and satisfying driving experiences. This is not just speculation. Many ‘old guards’ of driving pleasure have been claiming for years that autonomous technologies will make possible even greater exhileration in the driver’s seat. AI can recognize and analyze the driver’s driving patterns and provide timely guidance and cues to the most optimized times and points for acceleration and turns, essentially allowing the human driver to perform far beyond normal capabilities. Imagine an augmented-reality graphic, much like a HUD, pop up on the windscreen, reading “full brake in 3…2…1.. now”. Doesn’t that just sound exhilarating?
Even once autonomous driving technologies fully mature and become standard, people will continue to seek ownership. This is not only because the AI-powered capabilities will make driving that much more enjoyable and rewarding. We will continue to seek ways of ownership, even after our hands let go of the wheel and we feel comfortable feeling so. This is because the end goal of autonomous driving, unmanned driving, shared cars, and subscription-based cars, all of which describe future mobility, all converge on the idea of ‘personalized experience’. In other words, ‘my own driving experience’ is the most important topic for future drivers. If you had the option of looking at scenes photographed yesterday, or watching the European Champions league scheduled for tonight, or the next episode of your favorite show coming tomorrow, and you could watch it all in your car on the way to somewhere, why would you not? Would you not jump into the seat behind the dashboard display, well contoured to the interior and presenting video at clear and natural colors, the convenient and intuitive UI, and the excellent audio without the cacophony of the road outside, with great style and amazing philosophy of design? After all, being able to secure time for yourself is more precious than gold. This too, is a future not far away. We are seeing this it in our smartphones, notebook computers, and even in trivial accessories like earphones and pouches, where we are willing to pay large sums to seek out and secure my own style.