Lyft's John Zimmer believes autonomous cars will change the world around them by opening up unneeded parking spots for parks and major reductions in private car ownership in cities.
(TNS) — Transportation and cities are about to be revolutionized by autonomous vehicles, which will make private car ownership in cities obsolete in less than a decade, according to John Zimmer, Lyft president and co-founder.
“By 2025, owning a car will go the way of the DVD,” he wrote in an essay published on Medium.
From Tesla’s Elon Musk to Uber’s Travis Kalanick to Ford’s Mark Fields, that’s a view widely shared by executives in the tech and automotive industries.
But Zimmer, who appeared on NBC’s “Today” show on Sunday morning, wants to get the point across that it’s time now to focus on how autonomous cars will change the world around them, with unneeded parking spots freeing up space for parks, pedestrians and new places for people to connect.
“Decisive action must be taken by all of us — business leaders, policymakers, city planners, and citizens — to realize the full potential of this almost unprecedented moment in history,” he wrote in the post.
Zimmer said that autonomous vehicles will account for the majority of Lyft rides in five years. He expects that robot cars will be primarily accessed through ride-hailing networks like Lyft, differing from Musk, who predicts that they will be privately owned. “People will be able to subscribe to transportation services just like they do to entertainment with Netflix or Spotify,” he said in an interview with The Chronicle.
Transportation expert Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of North Carolina who’s associated with Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society, said Zimmer’s timeline for autonomous vehicles aligns with his own and those of many others.
“There won't be just one approach to automated driving,” Smith said in an email. “We could ultimately see everything from networks of robotaxis (for passengers and freight) to individually owned driverless mobile homes. For many reasons, however, the fleet model will be more attractive to most developers and to most consumers, especially those at lower income levels. And because of this likely shift to a service model, the rate of adoption could be much faster than many past automotive technologies.”
Crosstown archrival Uber grabbed headlines last week by launching the nation’s first public tests of robot taxis, offering free rides to selected loyal customers in Pittsburgh. In a clear slap at Uber, Zimmer referred to the recent “folks pushing forward marketing stunts” and focusing attention on what the cars look like inside, rather than how they will transform the world.
Lyft’s own push into the autonomous future is through a partnership with General Motors cemented with a $500 million investment the automaker made in Lyft this year. The two are testing the cars in San Francisco and Phoenix, he said, while declining to give any specifics on the number of test vehicles and when passenger tests would happen.
What will happen to the hundreds of thousands of people who drive for a living? Zimmer’s thoughts are similar to those recently espoused by Kalanick: Initially demand will increase enough that there will still be a need for human-piloted cars alongside the autonomous ones, as well as more sparsely populated areas where autonomous vehicles might not make economic sense. The transition will be less abrupt than some assume, according to Zimmer: About 80 percent of Lyft drivers put in fewer than 15 hours a week and leave driving within a year or two. “At some point we’d stop onboarding new drivers and natural attrition” would deplete the workforce, he said.
“A visionary plan and backing from companies, government, individuals, and other stakeholders” are needed to make autonomous vehicles a widespread reality, said Susan Shaheen, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, while adding that the timing is difficult to predict because so many variables — regulations, technology, cost and public sentiment — are still unknown.
With most private cars sitting unused 95 percent of the time, autonomous cars would increase livability, lower energy consumption, reduce emissions (especially when they’re electrics or hybrids) and drastically increase safety, she said.
Zimmer said opportunities for transformation like this are rare.
“This is sitting right in front of us,” he said. “We can redesign how cities are put together and experienced; that’s really exciting. Part of my motivation ... to start Lyft is the idea that we could end private car ownership and design our cities around people, not cars.”
©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.