Peter Franklin has just earnt a place on the list of people I follow on Twitter, after the piece he’s just written on automated electronic cars for ConservativeHome. Like Mr Franklin, I am rabidly enthusiastic about the potential for automated vehicles. Indeed, it was my letter on this subject to BA’s Business Life magazine that has just pleasantly and unexpectedly won me an iPad.
Automated vehicles are undoubtedly the transformative technology of the coming decade, and possibly the century (think of the roll-out time, if nothing else). Autocar is not going to seem such a silly magazine title any more, just as a lot of the magazine’s raison d’etre fades away.
I have to say that I don’t think that the method of propelling these vehicles is as clear-cut as Mr Franklin suggests. Petrol (and diesel) may persist through hybrid models for some time. Indeed, in remoter regions, it is quite plausible that battery technology will not develop quickly enough to make electric vehicles attractive in my lifetime. Even the Tesla’s top-end range of 465km would get a bit stressful if you were touring Yellowstone, or taking a road trip across Australia. This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to go electric: it’s just that the installed infrastructure base and the energy density that fossil fuels gives battery tech a high hurdle outside heavily- and modestly-populated regions.
The wholly-“taxi” model that Mr Franklin suggests also strikes me as a little off. Yes, it would be awesomely efficient. But, as a commenter highlights under the article, people like their stuff. Sometimes it’s useful to be able to “travel heavy”, with your roofbox, mountain bike, two kids, dog, and assorted paraphernalia. This means you need a lockable car sitting empty in a picnic spot car park, at least for some trips. This is why some people still own cars in London, even when Zipcar and the like are very convenient. So the taxi model (which, in reality, will in short order become the Uber-model) will be important, but it will also coexist with significant private ownership. There is very likely to be an overlap: if I own a big car for automated roadtrips during weekends but go overseas for a fortnight, I could lend my behemoth out while I’m gone.
So, the big question I asked last year remains: what’s the investment angle? I still think it’s too early to big winners among the car companies. I think the entire industry will benefit from this shift in the short and medium term. Only those that do nothing to adapt will fail, and the failure will not happen quickly, as there will always be petrol-heads. The obvious winners? Uber, for sure. It has become the dominant global transport arrangement platform, and this is a Google-like industry. But it’s still private, and I’m not a Chinese billionaire. Road hauliers? Smart meter providers? Power station operators? Others?