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Your driving sucks, let go of your ego and let the car drive

ICG technology manager and super commuter Zephyr Brown drove a Hyundai Kona electric vehicle on his 850km weekly commute from Matakana down to Mount Albert, Auckland. In part four of a series, he looks at a possible future with Autonomous Electric Vehicles. 

  • Read Zephyr's previous columns in this series, 'Could EVs be the key to super commuting? Here's how I found driving the Hyundai Kona EV for a weekhere, 'Are you worried about range anxiety in an EV? Here's why it’s all in the mindhere, and 'Making the switch to EV: You might as well face it, you’re addicted to gas'  here.

“Tell ‘em ‘e’s dreamin’” – Darryl Kerrigan, The Castle 1997

As I’ve mentioned previously, I think people are bad drivers.

I can’t wait until level 3, 4 & 5 autonomous vehicles take over on our motorways and in our cities.

I imagine many will react negatively to those two sentences.

They think that their driving is great and it’s the other idiots on the roads that are at fault. They say the problem is just the BAD drivers, rather than the other GOOD drivers. The fact is we’re all bad drivers. I drive very conservatively and I’m a bad driver. I don’t know how you drive, but I hazard to guess that compared to a decent level 2 or 3 autonomous system you suck as much as I do on the motorway.

Individually, on an open road, with no other cars around us we would probably be fine drivers. But mixed in with 20,000 others in daily traffic we are collectively awful. It’s not your fault, it’s not their fault, it’s all of us together.

People are erratic and often switch lanes, self-driving cars do not. If you reduce the lane switching you remove the traffic compressions from the sudden braking that occurs after the switch. You stop nose to tail accidents and the associated traffic jams.

People txt, talk on phones (without handsfree), read maps, change the radio station, shout at kids in the back seat, shout at Hosking on the radio, drop cigarettes, do their make-up, have a shave, spill coffee, forget to blow on pies and burn themselves while driving with their knees. Autonomous vehicles, on the other hand, do none of that. They just concentrate on the road and the vehicles around them, always looking for pedestrians and cyclists - 100% of the time.

People speed and drive badly, self-driving cars don’t. Stop the poor overtaking and speeding and you save lives. Autonomous cars, even at level 2, will save lots of lives in NZ every year and traffic will be much better.

Many people say, “we have a car culture”, “people are addicted to cars”, that “they love driving”. My response is “Really, why do we spend so much time complaining about traffic if we love driving so much?”. Not only do we complain about traffic, we complain about gas prices, service costs, and insurance.

Maybe it’s because people like to have something to complain about that they like the car so much.

People do not love the daily commute. There are far more productive things we can do than being stuck in a car for two hours of our waking day. If you’re in business in Auckland, you (or some of your staff and collegues) probably have to spend large chunks of work life sitting in traffic. In Auckland, you can spend 2 hours getting to and from a ½ hr meeting or job. There is nothing to love about that. People might like a Sunday drive, but most of the time the traffic on the weekend is worse than the weekdays. Yes, I have a very Auckland-centric view and that is a city or urban perspective, but that’s where most people live. If we want to solve the big issues of emissions and traffic we need to start with the easy stuff, and that is in the cities.

We have built our cities around accomodating the car. It’s estimated that 1/3 – 1/2 of all the land in our cities is taken up on roads, driveways, gargages, parking and servicing cars. It’s incredible that we waste so much space (and money) on something that mostly gets used 2-3 hrs a day. 

New house builders spend tens of thousands of dollars to build a garage to house their car. Probably more on the garage than on the car, does that sound sane? Sure, it’s an investment!

It’s not just private investment either, the government spend $5.2 billion of our tax money on transport. It’s fourth on the national budget after the Grey Power kick backs, Education and Health budgets.

We spend far too much money on cars and gas, and there are far more important things we could spend that money on. We just accept that this is the way it is, like we have no other choice. However, there is another choice and I think someone else will make that choice for us. It won’t be altruism, they will do it for survival.

Vehicle manufacturers have a long term plan to stay alive, and increase their profits.

Audi is bring out a Level 3 autonomous driving system next year, but others are bypassing Level 2 and Level 3 systems and going straight to Level 4. If they achieve that soon the petrol problem might dissappear.

Some people say that Level 4/5 vehicles will add to the traffic problem. They think that people will own their own autonomous vehicle. It will drop them off and pick them up, making two trips instead of one.

I don’t believe that’s how the vehicle manfacturers see it in the long term. I think they see a subscription model were they run thousands of automated taxis. It’ll be EV Uber, direct from the manufacturer. You subscribe to their service, they don’t sell you cars. A taxi picks up kids for school runs, drops you off to work (or more likely the new AV Bus Hub), and then goes and picks up others. Teens don’t own cars, they subscribe, no more teenage deaths from inexperienced drivers. If you’re well off you could subscribe to Audi’s, BMW’s or Tesla’s service. Regular punters could subscribe to Ford, Toyota, Waymo (Google), or whoever is left standing.

Subscribing to a car sharing service will cost a 10th of owning a vehicle and be 100% reliable. No low income families buying old used cars that break down and blow their budget, so they can’t afford food this week. No need to pay for parking. No need for that big garage. No need for giant car parks at shopping malls. No two or three cars per household – far fewer cars on the road. Also, the cars will last a LONG time. EV’s require far less maintenance and it’ll be in the manufacturers’ interest to build vehicles that last as long as possible. They will not be changing models every three years, just gradually improving the stock. The car makers will (eventually) save billions and have a captive market. The change over to autonomous vehicles will be fast (within a couple of decades once it starts), and immense.

A guy called Tony Seba has been pushing this narrative for a while and belives it will occur by 2030.

Unlike his horse and cart comparison, there wasn’t trillion dollar Horse and Cart (& Hay) industries fighting the move to Automobiles. However, the more recent comparisions for disruptions in other industries do stand up well. Look at photography (film to digital), music (physical media to streaming), video (physical to streaming), PC’s (home desktops to mobiles/tablets) and phone (faxes/homelines/deskphones/feature phones to smartphones) and retail (bricks and mortar to online). The iphone was introduced in 2007, eleven years later smartphones have killed off numerous industries directly, and the apps on them are killing off many more. Apple is the richest company in the world, a long way from being saved by Microsoft in 1997. No car manufacturer wants to be the next Kodak, Blockbuster, Compaq, Nokia, Blackberry or Sears. They know how that plays out. They are investing heavily in research and development into AEV’s because the first company to get approval for it will be the next Apple, the rest will be a Nokia or Blackberry.

There’s also the case that we (everyone on the planet) actually need to make the change, as highlighted again by the IPCC report on Climate Change. A revolution in transport would be a giant step forward for reducing our carbon footprint. Won’t someone think of the children?

Cheap renewable energy + AEVs will bring affordably sustainable energy and mobility to large parts of the world that have none at present. It will be a game changer, doing for energy security what Norman Borlaugs first green revolution in the 60’s did for food security. It might not save a billion lives, but it will make life a lot easier and connect a lot of communities. We will slowly be raising the population through Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.

It can’t happen in NZ!

Well, actually it already is.  Christchurch Airport is running AV shuttle trails already. Christchurch also has had EV car sharing since Feb from Yoogo. Yoogo recently started in Auckland CBD and Wellington has the Mevo service. A report from KPMG earlier this year ranks NZ quite well in terms of readiness. As mentioned in my earlier artcle, NZ is very suitable for EV’s, even the Ministry of Transport says so.

But I love my car.

I think, once you’re not the driver of the vehicle you are in, you don’t have the same attachment to it. You don’t attach your self image to the brand of your taxi (unless you’re an MP in a government limo), like you do with a car you own. I really don’t care what model my taxi is. I just want it large enough for the number of people travelling with me, clean, and with a driver who isn’t crazy - but maybe that’s just me.

How will I tow my boat, go off-road, take the kids camping?

It is amazing how often these come up as a reason not to convert to an EV. Like everyone in NZ has a boat and goes fishing every weekend. Most of the people I know with boats might use them once a month – a little more over summer, but a lot less over winter. Regardless, I’m talking about commuting – going to work, doing the shopping, doing the school or sport run, etc. Many NZ households have two or three cars. If AEV’s take over, the average number of cars per (urban) household will probably drop to around 0.5. You’ll still have one if you really need to tow something.

There will be a few that might also keep a classic V8 (or two) in the garage, but they’ll find that the costs for running them sky rocket. Insurance companies will want to charge a lot to cover “manual” drivers in old “unsafe” cars, and gas stations will become as hard to find as an EV charger is now. With all the money you save by not owning a car you could just join a car club with a fleet of high end classics and book one of those out for the weekend drive. Think your Haydon Paddon, Brendon Hartley or Shane Van Gisbergen? Then use the money you save to get a proper Targa or Track car and race properly – not on suburban streets and state highways. Why drive a 4x4 in the city anyway? Consider joining a proper 4x4 club. Hire an electric RV to go camping once or twice a year, you will still save money.

People vote with their wallets and this will save them a lot of money; we will see how much they love their car then.

It’s not all roses, though. Governments love a petrol tax, and they make up a significant revenue stream that will need to be replaced. We’ll also need to figure out how to fund roads. Charging separate RUCs is expensive and cumbersome. Maybe there will be an app to track the charges; I’m sure the multi nationals running the AEV taxis would love to pay their fair share. We will be saving money in health costs but there will still be a lot of infrastructure change to pay for. There will also be lot of ICE vehicles to be recycled. If we can’t recycle a plastic milk bottle, how are we going to recycle our 4 million ICE cars? Maybe we will have a use for that old smelter after all.

There will be a lot of people out of work when AEVs arrive. There are a lot of people  that won’t be needed; drivers (freight/couriers/buses, etc), car dealers, mechanics, garages, carpark attendants, car washes, parts’ retailers, large sections of the oil and mining industry. Lots of car brands will be dead and so will all their suppliers. AEVs will make couriers dirt cheap, which will increase the move to online retail. If it costs next to nothing to get it delivered or picked up for exchange/return, then there is no downside for the consumer. Amazon and online retailers will really push into the market share of bricks and mortar retailers. Mass loss of jobs has happened in the past, argriculture and manufacturing as examples. New jobs in new industries have emerged to replace them. This one might be harder and require a societal change.

Lastly, I’m not sure that the property market will be ready for a extra third of city space suddenly being freed up. Many people like to believe the property market can’t crash. They are lying, have no experience, or very short memories.

Rurally people we will still probably need to own vehicles. They might have Hydrogen EVs, BEVs or PHEVs, but in the cities and large towns the era of car ownership will largely be over.

Imagine a city with 70% less vehicles. No air pollution from ICE vehicles, greatly reduced noise pollution, too. Take back the car parks and streets for pedestrians, bikes, and Lime Scooters.

No need to move the Cortina, Camira, or Torana to get to the Commodore.

“How’s the serenity?.... So much serenity.” – Darryl Kerrigan, The Castle 1997

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