When Google's self-driving program spin-off, Waymo, began offering to let Phoenix-area families try out its vehicle service last month, it touched off what a new study is calling "a historic revolution in transportation."
While the number of Americans using all forms of ride-sharing — autonomous or otherwise — is currently quite small, RethinkX, an independent think tank that looks at the impact of new technology, says it will grow rapidly. By 2030, it predicts in its new report, 95 percent of the miles traveled in the U.S. will be in self-driving, shared electric vehicles.
That's a far more rapid transition than others have been predicting. A recent report by the Boston Consulting Group delivered a shock to many by forecasting 25 percent of U.S. miles would be driven in shared, driverless, electric vehicles by 2030. But "it's time to adjust our thinking," said Tony Seba, a co-author of the RethinkX study, "Rethinking Transportation 2020-2030: The Disruption of Transportation and the Collapse of the ICE Vehicle and Oil Industries."
"We are on the cusp of one of the fastest, deepest, most consequential disruptions of transportation in history," said Seba, RethinkX co-founder. "But there is nothing magical about it. This is driven by the economics."
As the Electric Car Rises, Car Ownership Dies
Apparently, a lot of folks agree on the economic transformation reshaping the auto industry. There has been explosive growth in investments in alternative powertrain technology, as well as autonomous and fully driverless vehicle systems. And over the last couple of years, Uber and Lyft have become Wall Street darlings, while new ride- and car-sharing competitors are rapidly popping up.
Traditional automotive manufacturers are struggling to retain their dominance, but it isn't easy. Tesla may have hit a speedbump this week when it reported its first-quarter earnings — but investors have given it a market capitalization larger than either General Motors or Ford. And a slew of new players are entering the battery-car segment, such as Faraday Future and Lucid.
Related: Don't Call the Lucid a Tesla Killer
In the autonomous vehicle space, Samsung just received a permit to test its technology on public roads in South Korea, and Apple and even Amazon are looking at their options, though Waymo has a huge lead having clocked over 2 million miles of testing its self-driving vehicles on public roads over the last eight years.
As for Uber and Lyft, they dominate ride-sharing, though they still represent only a small share of the miles Americans travel. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has predicted that will change with the arrival of fully driverless vehicles that would slash the cost of using his service. Lyft, meanwhile, has anticipated that individual vehicle ownership will all but vanish in urban centers in the coming decade.
The RethinkX study suggests the two companies are on the right track and, if anything, may not be ambitious enough.
While the 95 percent forecast is likely to be challenged, even established automakers are becoming comfortable with the idea that the transportation world is in that "historic revolution."
Race to the Finish Line
Ford CEO Mark Fields now refers to the century-old firm as a "mobility company," rather than an automotive manufacturer. Ford is investing in a variety of alternative transportation ventures, and a recent study by Navigant Research actually put it in the lead, declaring Ford's autonomous vehicle program the industry's most advanced. The maker last year declared it will have its first fully driverless vehicle in production in 2021 — and it will target sharing services and delivery fleets, rather than individual buyers.
Daimler AG is targeting the same date for its first driverless vehicles and it has formed a partnership with Uber that could give those new models a ready market.
General Motors is considered another leader in autonomous research. It recently launched the world's first mainstream, long-range EV, the Chevrolet Bolt. And it has tied up with Lyft while this week announcing it is expanding its own car-sharing service, Maven.
Other traditional automakers hoping to ride the tsunami of change including Nissan, the world's largest seller of electric vehicles; plus Volkswagen and Toyota.
Whether they will be able to fend off the new entrants, such as Waymo, Apple, and Samsung, is far from certain — though at least some of these tech firms expect to partner with existing manufacturers rather than build cars themselves.
For the Phoenix project, Waymo will take delivery and modify 500 new Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans — on top of 100 it ordered last year.
The RethinkX study doesn't necessarily predict who will come out on top, but what it underscores is the fact that who drives and what they drive — or ride — in is set to dramatically change in barely a dozen more years.