Technology Might Kill The Idea Of Car Ownership -- And That's A Good Thing

There's a brighter future ahead if we're willing to embrace it.

09/28/2015 08:59 am ET | Updated Sep 28, 2015

The American dream used to mean a good job, house in the suburbs and two-car garage.  But for kids born in the 21st century, a very different reality awaits: More people will live in big cities, vehicles will drive themselves and car-sharing, not car-ownership, will be the norm.

If everything goes according to plan, anyway.

A new report released Monday by the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment declares that transportation is at a tipping point. "Megacities" such as London, Shanghai and New York City are already glutted with automobiles, but car ownership could double worldwide by 2030 if something doesn't change. And something has to change: Cars already contribute an enormous amount of pollution to our atmosphere, and that pollution is a factor in millions of early deaths every single year. Forget the American dream: Solving this problem is a global imperative. 

Thankfully, we're en route.

Mitchell Funk/Getty Images
A new report released Monday declares that transportation is at a tipping point.

"If you already have congestion and pollution, that's not going to get better if we continue to move in the same way," Stefan Knupfer, a senior partner at McKinsey, told The Huffington Post in a recent interview. "The good thing is, a lot of new technology trends are coming in."

Knupfer describes a basic problem: In the next couple of decades, many more people worldwide will enter the middle class, those people will want to buy cars and those cars will make cities more congested and polluted. In his mind, the solutions stem from four major pillars: car-sharing, autonomous driving, electrification and in-vehicle connectivity. Summed up, technology will make it less necessary to own a car because it'll be easier to get hooked up with someone else's ride (think Uber and Zipcar), and new vehicles will be "smarter" and less damaging to the environment. 

Cars already represent a lot of dead weight on this planet. They spend the vast majority of their time parked uselessly. The idea is to have fewer cars on the road and ones that are more efficient -- imagine a hybrid bus that can access real-time travel data to avoid traffic and pick up passengers on demand. What if you could own a car but have the ability to "Airbnb" it to a trusted stranger while you're at work? What if taxis were replaced by self-driving cars that could buzz around to anyone who needed them?

A table from McKinsey's new report illustrates some of the ways traditional models could be upended by new technology. 

Of course, none of this means anything if the options aren't appealing to the average person. Some people will simply want to purchase and own cars. They're status symbols. But McKinsey's new urban mobility report illustrates how these advances might cost the average person less than financing a new or used vehicle of their own.

The firm used data from the U.S. National Household Travel Survey "to calculate the time and costs associated with walking, bicycling, driving, public transit, e-hailing, and car sharing, based on annual miles traveled." Then, it estimated how much money an individual would spend traveling around San Francisco every year. 

Take a look:


This is a little complicated but, bottom-line, the graph shows that a person in San Francisco traveling 5,000 miles each year would spend thousands of dollars less on transportation if they used alternate means -- any of those described above -- rather than driving a privately owned car, as long as they're willing to spend 30 percent more time traveling. (An individual who wouldn't accept spending more time in transit -- a "0 percent time premium" -- would still save money compared to financing a new car, though they'd spend slightly more than if they bought a used car for $15,000.)

What's really interesting is that red line. That represents the estimated cost to a person traveling around San Francisco who has access to driverless vehicles. Obviously these numbers are theoretical, but no matter the amount traveled -- 10,000 or 5,000 miles -- autonomous cars are predicted to drastically reduce the cost to the consumer annually in McKinsey's analysis.

Of course, McKinsey is careful to note that widespread adoption of driverless cars is still a ways off. 

"In aviation, for example, many planes could theoretically be operated without a pilot," the report reads. "The universal preference, however, has been to require pilots, so that human judgment is available. For similar reasons, and also because of legal issues related to liability, this might be the case with autonomous cars."

And other quirks could pop up when driverless cars hit the road. It's almost silly to say, but self-driving cars will only take up fewer resources if we use them responsibly.

"All of this can go in the wrong direction. If you have a car that drives itself, it can drive around instead of finding a parking space. It can shop while you work. That wouldn't be great," Knupfer told HuffPost.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press
A prototype of Google's self-driving car.

In any case, a lot has to happen before these solutions can be implemented in a world-changing way. City dwellers can barely agree on bike lanes, let alone an entire system of robotic public transport vehicles specifically designed to upend the status quo. But much of this is happening organically.

"Cities have the opportunity to build something like this, but the reality is more that they emerge in large cities more than there being city planning and a process," Knupfer told HuffPost.

Think about it: No one planned for Uber, but here it is. Whether we continue to embrace changes like this -- changes that could make life better on this planet -- is up to us.

This article has been updated to include a link to McKinsey's report.


Damon Beres covers consumer technology, video games and the many ways humans interact with their devices. He is based in New York. You can contact him at or on Twitter: @dlberes.


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