5 june 2014, more of driving less

Suddenly, driverless cars have crossed from nerdland to the mainstream, as every manufacturer inches their way there, and google, whose cars have nearly clocked up a million miles, have a go at serious disruption. They may well succeed: whereas humans are lousy drivers, machines will soon be perfect ones, and ageing enthusiasts apart (yes, I do have a record player), why would anyone choose to grip a wheel and stressfully stare at road for an hour when you can do whatever you do in any room in your house ? Experts guesses are now clustering around 2020 as the moment a competitive market has critical mass and all our kids want one. An intriguing question, to which the answer is probably yes, is whether this technical innovation may also create a cultural one in owneship, with the long-trailed take-off of the shared ownership (or collaborative consumerism, see 23 december 2010 model becoming the norm for autonomous vehicles (the posh name). They are likely for a good generation to be second cars, and fulfil in part the role of taxi (upending that business model totally, never mind uber, and probably revolutionising public transport too), car firms are anyway struggling to get increasing numbers of us to part with harder-earned cash for a major asset that loses a quarter of its value in a day and 90% in five years, and why buy something you use 3% of the time when you can just pay for the time you use it ? Most of the problems are already not technical but regulatory (normal cars on the road, liability, insurance), and quite soon governments will catch on that there is an easier route to getting ten times more traffic on the roads than building new ones. It all adds up to a societal and business disruptor rather like the mass-produced car was to a world of horses and carriages.