I will die before I buy another car. I don’t say that because I am particularly old or sick, but because I am at the front end of one of the next major secular trends in tech. Owning a car will soon be like owning a horse — a quaint hobby, an interesting rarity and a cool thing to take out for a spin on the weekend.
Before you object, let me be clear: I will drive in cars until I die. But the concept of actually purchasing, maintaining, insuring and garaging an automobile in the next few decades?
This could be the most important shift since the Cambrian explosion of the smartphone. Car-sharing continues to increase (Uber and Lyft are set to go public this year), new innovations emerge all the time (Scooters! Vertical-take-off-and-landing vehicles!) and all manner of autonomous technologies are inevitable (Elon Musk, whatever you think of him or the prospects of Tesla, is 100 per cent directionally correct). Private car ownership declined globally last year, and it is a trend that I believe is going to accelerate faster than people think.
Not everyone agrees. After an initial rush of hype and hope, there was a backlash against the idea that autonomous and shared cars would soon take over.
But I am pretty good at this guessing game. In 1998, as one of the first internet-focused reporters for The Wall Street Journal, I wrote a piece titled “I Cut the Cord” about giving up my landline and going all mobile.
That was well before “feature” phones — as the first dumber versions of smartphones were called — and almost a decade before the iPhone. There was not much out there for the general population. Nonetheless, I “snipped my copper umbilical cord” and predicted that everyone else would do the same, and sooner than they thought.
I did not find it easy, as I noted then: “My own all-cellular journey is strewn with technical glitches and innumerable lost connections, pricey millisecond charges that make using a cellphone seem like a bad addiction, and vague worries that perhaps too much cellphone exposure actually does cause brain tumours.”
But it was time. Absent the brain tumours, this was the thought that hit me recently when my clutch died on a hill in San Francisco. After spending my life buying cars, I will never buy another after I sell my last, a manual Ford Fiesta Turbo named Frank.
Since I first started driving I have named my cars: Cecil the Honda Civic, Jeanette the mighty blue Volkswagen Bug, Roger the Volkswagen Rabbit, Jerry the Jeep Wrangler, John the Jeep Cherokee, Alice the Honda Minivan, Sally the Subaru Outback, Abner the Mazda 3, Cindy the Mazda 5 and Frank. Why wouldn’t I name them, since they were an integral part of my life from my teens to my single days to motherhood?
Many people feel this kind of bond with their cars. They represent so many major life moments (prom!) and individual tropes (freedom!) that it is difficult to imagine giving them up.
But it will be easier than you’d think for a number of reasons that are increasing in speed and velocity, if you will excuse the pun.
Consider how swiftly people moved from physical maps to map apps, from snail mail to email, from prime time TV to watching on demand. What had been long-help practices were quickly replaced by digital tools that made things easier, more convenient and simply better. Some of the shifts have been slower to develop, but then accelerated quickly, like what is now occurring in retail with online shopping and quick delivery pioneered by Amazon.com.
Simply put, everything that can be digitised will be digitised.
That is harder to envision with the heavy hunk of metal and fiberglass that is a car, but it is not hard to see the steps. You start using car-sharing services, you don’t use your car as often, you realise as these services proliferate that you actually don’t need to own a car at all.
It’s also a small step towards a more carbon-free life, although my frequent cross-country flights pretty much make me a carbon criminal for life. (My fingers are crossed for not only an electric car, but an electric plane or even carbon-free jet fuel.)
It’s obviously an easier decision if you live near a major metropolitan area, like I do, where the alternatives — cars and then car pools and then bikes and now scooters — are myriad. (Why, by the way, this is a revolution led by private companies instead of public transportation is an important topic for another day.) In other countries, often with denser populations, there are even more ideas bubbling up, from auto-rickshaws and motorbike taxis to new bus services.
Obviously, the biggest change will be the advent of truly autonomous vehicles, which are still years or even decades in the future.
But in the meantime I am going to lean into this future all I can, and will chronicle the efforts over the next year, its costs and its benefits and how I get there. Or not.
Will I walk more? Take more buses or trains? How much will I use short-term car rental services? Will my kids freak out when I decline to be their constant chauffeur? It begins with the offloading of Frank the Fiesta, so I have no excuse to use it at all. Anyone interested in a car with a loose clutch?
–New York Times News Service