Researchers Say Car Ownership Will Halve As Autonomous Cars Hit the Market

It’s long been suggested that the dawn of autonomous cars will help reduce the number of privately-owned cars on the road, caused in part by the rise of car-sharing services in busy megacities, Internet-connected taxi services like Über, and a growing disinterest among cash-strapped millennials for private car ownership.

Even without autonomous driving capabilities, these same factors are already stating to reduce the number of cars on the roads in some of our larger cities, as car ownership no-longer becomes a mandatory part of the journey from adolescence into adulthood. For those who have grown up with cars being part of their life and aren’t keen on the idea of sharing their cars with strangers however, car ownership still continues to be the norm for the majority of American homes, with 42 percent of all american homes owning two cars and 26.5 percent owning more than three.

Homes with more than two cars could soon find they need just one thanks to autonomous cars.

Homes with more than two cars could soon find they need just one thanks to autonomous cars.

Yet a new research study from the University of Michigan Transport Research Institute suggests that the dawn of autonomous vehicles will not just reduce the number of privately-owned cars on the road among millennials.

It will reduce the numbers of privately owned cars for everyone, even those who don’t want to use car sharing or cabs, since autonomous cars will enable more families to own just one car.

Looking at existing data collected on car usage patterns in American households, researchers at UMTRI noticed that in many homes with more than one adult working out of the house, there were very few moments in the day when both cars were actually being driven.

For example, in a typical nuclear family with two adults and two children, one parent would head off to work early in the morning, leaving the other to carry out childcare duties before driving to their place of work. In the afternoon, the parent who went to work early would pick up the children and run errands on the way home, leaving the one who did the morning school run the opportunity to work late and head home in the evening.

Will autonomous cars actually change our usage patterns? Or increase road traffic?

Will autonomous cars actually change our usage patterns? Or increase road traffic?

While both cars are away from home all day, most likely in a parking lot, driving patterns aren’t identical. Given that most Americans commute less than twenty miles to and from work, it gave the researchers an interesting proposition: what if a self-driving car could take one spouse to work, then return home on its own for the next morning commute?

Astonishingly, the data collected by UMTRI suggests that the majority of households where two cars are currently needed to carry out the daily driving duties would be able to survive with just one if an automated car with a ‘return to home’ feature replaced both vehicles.

Only fifteen percent would need to continue owning two cars, while those households who currently rely on three or more cars would fall to just two percent.

At no point either would those families need to rely on non-owned vehicles, such as car pools or ride sharing services.

Of course, there are some negative side-effects to this prediction. In a future where car ownership ceases and all autonomous vehicles are hired and powered by electricity, vehicles wouldn’t be required to return to base after a drop-off. Instead, they would simply move to the next pickup point, perhaps calling at a charging station along the way to replenish their battery pack.

One possible scenario would see one family car return back home after taking one family member to work to carry out a 'second' morning commute

One possible scenario would see one family car return back home after taking one family member to work to carry out a ‘second’ morning commute

In a world where autonomous cars are still owned by individuals and would carry out ‘return to base’ activities, additional strain would be put on the morning commute as unoccupied autonomous vehicles retrace their steps for the next family commute.

That could increase, rather than decrease overall miles travelled by one car and actually increase rather than decrease congestion.

It seems then that the best solution may be for a happy medium between both situations, where families own one car rather than two, but allow their car’s return trip to form part of a local car share scheme or autonomous taxi service when they’re not using it.

How do you envisage car ownership will change as autonomous vehicles enter the marketplace? Do you think we’ll stop owning our own cars, or will we cling to the ideals of decades of social convention which expects us all to own our own transportation?

Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.

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  • I think the reduction of ownership is overstated.nnnIf you look at a couple with two cars. If they both work 9-5, they need transportation at exactly the same time. Sure the cars are idle 90+% of the time. Rush hour occurs at the same time each day because that’s when we need to go to or return from work!! For couples/families where the family members work different hours/shifts I can see the advantage of owning just one car, but they are in the minority.nnnSome demographics may adopt cars *more* as a result of automation. For elderly individuals where disability or deteriorating eyesight may mean they have to give up driving, an autonomous car gives the elderly ‘driver’ second wind and allows them to go where they want when they want without relying on someone else. While they could use an autonomous car pool, they may still be attached to car ownership after a lifetime of it.nnnIn fact any person who is prevented from driving due to disability may now be able to take advantage of self driving cars and buy one to be more independant.nnnFor the millennial demographic where car ownership is already declining, I agree automation will accelerate that trend.

  • Thusoski

    🙂 Car ownership will continue to decline, partly due to current factors. More than the number of cars privately owned, it the private ownership of vehicles that will undergo paradigm shift. Why would you need a car to return back home after dropping your kids at school? That would be a wasted trip.
    Without private ownership of vehicles but rather a subscription service to car use (much like today’s taxi, or rentals), these autonomous cars would not need to go back to base, but rather fulfill transport needs of travelers in the most optimal manner. While some ownership may continue as a novelty (and maybe with more restriction on driving), car travel would change and has to change to form part of the overall country’s transport infrastructure. When these finally come to fruition (particularly Level 4 AV), we may be so far ahead that few people would need to leave their houses to go to work… which may mean companies will no longer need to rent such huge spaces in CBDs. another disruption coming up…