The world today is paying great attention to recent developments in the global automobile market. Other than the race for the perfect engine, car manufacturers are quietly investing their power and strength in two other moves that bare the potential to bring the next car revolution, with far reaching social and environmental implications.
Some of us who were kids during the 80's probably remember David Hasselhoff's famous TV series “Knight Rider”, thanks to his lawful companion coming to his rescue each time – his black sports car.
This motive of an autonomous car is an old desirable dream in the car industry, a challenge that was publicly presented by GM as early as 1939. However this futuristic desire remained a dream, until Google (who else could and would) took the reins announcing its ambitious autonomous car project in 2011. Four years later and a series of leading car manufacturers such as Mercedes, BMW, Nissan, Ford and GM (with an Israeli innovation angle) closed the gap with an impressive lineup of prototypes, performing their duty with remarkable success.
We are not discussing a far future that only our grandchildren will get to enjoy – experts in the field predict that by the end of the present decade autonomous cars will reach serial production. Regulation is not falling behind, and is already defining laws that enable using them on the road. For example the state of Nevada in the US legislated a new act letting experimental use of autonomous car in open roads. Combined with smart systems technology, we can expect to soon giving up our driving license altogether.
If developing an autonomous car is the first part of the puzzle, BMWs' "Project I" emphasizes the second part. At the forefront of the project stands a series of new electric vehicles (EV) models, one of which (I3) is already been marketed in different countries. BMW branded the project as urban, futuristic and sustainable. At the same time, BMW is investing a lot of effort in developing its car sharing subsidiary company "DriveNow" in the US. By doing so, BMW joins other manufacturers such as Ford, Mercedes and Toyota who bought either existing car sharing companies or established their own. The Deepening involvement of these companies and others in the car sharing idea, can be attributed to major service improvements and a wide circle of users which is under a constant global growth. Today, car sharing services are implemented either as 'back to base' service, meaning a car that is picked from one pick up point and brought back to the same point later on; 'one way' service, letting the driver drop the car in any drop off; and the most innovative scheme – 'free flout', where the user can pick up and drop the car in any parking spot available.
Going back to Project I, which in fact is a supplementary step to BMWs' penetration to the car sharing market – marketing EV models, integrated in an urban car-sharing service, bring it one step further in closing the loop with the autonomous car: In the near future, we may find ourselves using shared autonomous electric cars that will be designed using today's car sharing infrastructure. The service supplier will provide us a vehicle that will drive us (safely) to our work, visiting the grocery store or even a vacation in a distant city.
This forecast holds wide potential for environmental impact. Realizing a world where manufacturers provide car sharing services rather than sell individual cars will require them to produce a better, more durable and efficient car, with materials that can be used at the end of the products' life cycle. In addition, multiple users for every vehicle will lead to reduction of the total amount of cars on the road.
Will this novel scenario be good for us? The clear advantages described are overshadowed by a big question mark - at the current stage it is almost impossible to predict how this reality will change our traveling habits, and whether it will actually reduce the volume of kilometers traveled. Furthermore, the advance of technology will create better services in lower costs, which can have a negative effect on our physical activity - instead of walking to the nearest grocery store, with one click on our mobile, we can order a car that will take us there.
Be that as it may, one thing is guaranteed – the future is in sharing, and it is already present.