In a self-driving future, we may not even want to own cars

Passengers of the future may well view vehicles as just another form of public transportation

Personal transportation is on the cusp of its greatest transformation since the advent of the internal combustion engine.

With the rise of self-driving vehicles, ride-sharing, traffic congestion and environmental regulation, we may not even own cars in the future, much less drive them.

A glimpse of the coming revolution can be seen in the models debuting this week at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Hidden under their hoods and dashboards are sensors that take the first steps toward autonomous driving. Already, cars can park themselves, slam on the brakes to avoid crashes and adjust steering to stay centered in a lane.

But the disruption will go well beyond who is — or isn't — at the controls. For a century, cars have been symbols of freedom and status. Passengers of the future may well view vehicles as just another form of public transportation, to be purchased by the trip or in a subscription.

Buying sexy, fast cars for garages could evolve into buying seat-miles in appliance-like pods, piloted by robots, parked in public stalls.

"There will come a time when driving the car is like riding the horse," said futurist Peter Schwartz. "Some people will still like to do it, but most of us won't."

In the shorter term, look for companies such as Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Uber to compete with car dealers, taxi companies and even automakers. Dealers, now the intermediaries between manufacturers and drivers, may find their business model squeezed.

Automakers, too, will find themselves fending off digital disruption. Google is already building a fleet of experimental self-driving cars.

Schwartz believes that California may dedicate lanes to autonomous vehicles within 10 years.

This transformation will change how designers style and equip cars, said Harald Belker, a former Mercedes-Benz designer who now creates vehicles for science fiction movies — including "Minority Report," "Total Recall" and "Oblivion" — and Anki, a high-tech toy car company.

"You can have a two-seater where the passengers face each other," Belker said.

Gasoline may give way to hydrogen, batteries or both — or some as-yet-unimagined power source.

Certainly, there are skeptics.

"You have to be careful about one of those predictions for the future that we will all be wrong about," said Beau Boeckmann, president of Galpin Motors of North Hills, which owns the nation's largest Ford dealership and other large auto franchises.

The automobile, Boeckmann said, is among the "few mechanical objects that people fall in love with."

He believes there will always be people who want to own a car and drive it — though they are likely to take advantage of autopilot in heavy traffic and other situations.

James Lentz, chief executive of Toyota's North American operations, also questions a future of autonomous transport pods.

"You will still have people who have the passion for driving the cars and feeling the road," Lentz said. "There may be times when they want the cars to drive them, but they won't be buying autonomous-only cars."

People still will want to own vehicles for various needs, he said. They might live in a rural area and travel long distances daily. They might have a big family to haul around. They might own a business that requires transporting supplies.

In the short term, autonomous driving and communications functions will improve safety, Lentz said. Longer term, automation will act "more as a co-pilot" than a chauffeur, he said, allowing the current generation of baby boomers to drive well into their 90s, longer than previous generations.

Skeptics, however, should consider the cynicism that greeted the horseless carriage more than a century ago, said Adam Jonas, an auto analyst with Morgan Stanley Research.

Then, he said, skeptics asked: "Why would any rational person want to replace the assuredness of that hot horse body trustily pulling your comfortable carriage with an unreliable, oil-spurting heap of gears, belts and chains?"

Jonas envisions the growth of "powerful mega-fleets that manage tens of millions of vehicles" — most likely self-driving that will be rented on demand.

In the process, automakers and auto dealers could face dramatic consolidation, said Geoff Wardle, executive director, Graduate Transportation Systems and Design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

"Already there are too many car companies in the world," he said. "This all puts even more pressure on the existing companies."

The rapid application of computing power to transportation will open the industry to new entrants.

"We would be very surprised if technology firms like Google and Amazon or ride-sharing firms like Uber, Lyft and Hailo were not designing or manufacturing, either in-house or via contract manufacturing, unique vehicles over the next engineering cycle," Jonas said.

Automakers that survive will shift most of their business to create transit companies, or to selling their vehicles to those who do.

"Selling us trips will be where the profits are — not making cars," Wardle said.

Car companies are just starting to wrestle with that prospect.

"New mobility, car sharing, ride sharing, what does that mean for us? We are thinking through that," said Mark Fields, Ford's chief executive, at a recent investor conference. "We are thinking like a car and truck company, but we are also thinking like a mobility company."

Toyota is hedging its bets too, especially in markets with dense cities and suburbs.

One vision of Toyota's future is playing out in Grenoble, France, where residents can rent from a fleet of 70 pod-like Toyota i-Road and Coms electric cars for short city trips. The i-Roads have three wheels and two seats. The Coms have four wheels but fit just one passenger.

"It is a sharing program like what you see in Portland with bicycles," Lentz said.

Drivers can check out and return the cars at various charging points. Through a subscription, they pay the equivalent of $3.75 for 30 minutes. Because the vehicles are so small, its easy to build out their parking and charging infrastructure, the automaker said.

In the U.S., Toyota is offering a membership service to buyers of its small Scion branded cars. Some buyers in Phoenix, Miami and Northern California are part of a pilot program that allows them to borrow a Toyota truck, van or hybrid for 10 days in their first year of ownership.

"You will have a combination of private vehicles, car-sharing services and public transportation all working in concert," Lentz said.

Currently, most cars sit idle, requiring storage, at least 22 hours a day.

"What else do we buy for so much money and then not use it?" asked Wardle.

Meanwhile, increasing regulations both in the U.S. and globally are forcing automakers to trade performance for greater fuel economy and fewer emissions. As automakers adopt, its going to be harder to find a car that satisfies your inner Mario Andretti.

Cars will slowly, steadily take over more of the driving, Schwartz said.

"You surrender a little control in stages," he said. "You don't have to make one big leap."

Over time, the emotional link between car and driver — the underpinning of car ownership — will continue to erode.

"The robot will take over," Wardle said. "In the end, people will think, Why am I even bothering to drive at all?"

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

Twitter:latimesjerry

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