Is today’s automobile approaching its tipping point?

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There’s enough reason in that argument to give it serious consideration

There will be a tipping point where regulators officially phase out human-driven cars based on their disproportionate contribution to crashes. And it’s likely to happen within the next 15-to-20 years.

Furthermore, the end of the human-driven automobile will spell the demise of most of its supporting infrastructure — dealerships, repair shops, automotive media — all its related support systems except for some specialized operations dealing in nostalgia.

AUTOMOTIVE APOCALYPSE!

That doomsday scenario could be dismissed as the ravings of some far-out, anti-car futurist, and probably would be, except for one thing: they came from the ultimate car guy — Bob Lutz.

Yes, that Bob Lutz. The retired vice-chairman and head of product development for General Motors. The former senior executive at Ford, Chrysler and BMW. The father of the Viper!

Lutz made those pronouncements not just on the pages of an inside-the-industry publication but also on public television (CNBC), which means they’re been widely disseminated. That combination of authority and visibility also means they have to be taken seriously.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that Lutz is right. He’s been known to take extreme positions in the past — he’s a global warming skeptic, for example. But there’s enough reason in his argument to give it serious consideration.

Enough, in fact, to suggest that it’s directionally on target and that the primary points of disagreement may be with details and timeline rather than with the concept.

It’s not a new concept. More than a decade ago, before autonomous cars were anywhere close to feasible, it was the theme of a panel discussion among international automotive experts at the Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto.

That program was labeled, “Is the car dead?” and one of its participants was Peter Horbury, then executive design director for the Americas at Ford, by way of Volvo, now senior vice-president of design at Volvo parent Geely. Horbury traced the history of the automobile’s predecessors.

In their times, and for centuries, the horse and the sailing vessel were the primary modes of transportation on land and water, he explained. Now they’re relegated to being tools for recreational activities. “Is the car headed for the same destiny?” he asked.

It seems highly probable that technology will advance quickly enough to enable Lutz’s predicted timing. But two other important factors are likely to delay it: regulation and human nature

The answer to that question is much clearer now, and it’s an unqualified “yes,” according to Lutz. “Human-driven cars will go the way of horses — they may be kept by the wealthy on ranches and at country clubs as forms of entertainment, but will disappear from highways,” he says.

Few people will own their own cars, he predicts. Instead, ride-service companies like Uber and Lyft or their successors will own (or lease?) most of the “pod-like transporters” that will replace cars as we know them.

If they’re no longer personal possessions that reflect individual personalities and social status, there won’t be the need for the broad range of differentiation among brands that we have now. There may not even be vehicle brands as we know them — perhaps just the brands of the service providers themselves, with the “cars” built to order to their specs.

And if the vehicles are sold primarily as large fleets to those service providers, who will probably have their own maintenance facilities, will there still be a role for dealers on anything like today’s scale? Probably not.

It’s not a hopeful prospect for those significantly invested in the status quo.

But neither is it inevitable — at least on anything close to the short timeline Lutz suggests is possible. (He acknowledges that it could take as much as 25-35 years; others suggest twice that long.)

It seems highly probable that technology will advance quickly enough to enable Lutz’s predicted timing. But two other important factors are likely to delay it: regulation and human nature.

As is already the case, there seems to be an ongoing disconnect between regulation and technology.

In some respects, such as adoption of standards to enable things like vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity, the regulatory environment is lagging the technology. In others, such as the near-universal regulatory push towards electric vehicles, it’s the other way around. At some point, the two will have to get in synch if truly autonomous vehicles are to take over the roads.

The bigger deterrent, however, may be human nature. Both the inherent reluctance to change and the drive for personal freedom and distinction suggest that it will be a long time before people give up their personal conveyances, whatever form they take.

Still, when thinking long-term, we in the business might be well-advised to keep Lutz’s predictions in mind.

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