Car disruption: The big changes coming to how we get around

Published Tuesday, May 23, 2017 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Three disruptive trends are rattling the transportation sector.  Here’s a bit more about them, and how they’ll affect us.

Electrification

The first is the move toward electric vehicles.  Hybrids – vehicles powered by both a battery and an engine, like the Toyota Prius – have been around for some time.  Plug-in hybrids with bigger batteries and small engines are even more efficient, and are growing in popularity.  The Chevy Volt was a pioneer, but now Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and others offer plug-in hybrids.

But the real excitement is in battery electric vehicles, or BEVs.  Tesla’s Model S, the exciting-but-pricey original electric car, has been joined by more affordable models like the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus EV, VW e-Golf and Chevy Bolt, and many others are in development.  BEVs are super-efficient, getting twice the fuel economy of even the best hybrids.  Technology is bringing down prices and pushing up ranges; the Chevy Bolt can go nearly 400 km between charges.  Fast charging stations, like the ones being built right now along the TransCanada Highway in NB, can provide an 80 per cent charge in 30 minutes.

Intelligent cars

Driverless cars may sound eerie, but they are coming – and promise improved efficiency, productivity and safety.  

Efficiency, because their computers communicate with other cars and choose the quickest, least congested route.  Productivity, because less time will be spent commuting and because people who don’t have to drive can do something else, whether work or leisure.

And safety, because over 90 per cent of car crashes are caused by driver-related reasons, and computers don’t get distracted, drink or get road rage.  

Transportation on demand

Perhaps the most disruptive trend is the coming transition from private vehicle ownership to transportation on demand.  

In other words, in the future, it will make little financial sense to own a vehicle; it will be far more cost-effective to just share ownership with a group of neighbours, or subscribe to a service that provides transportation whenever and wherever it’s needed.  Envision a cross between Uber and public transportation.  

Disruption

So what’s the combined impact of these trends?  In a Financial Post story last week, Stanford University economist Tony Seba predicted that no more gas or diesel cars, buses or trucks will be sold anywhere in the world within eight years, and few people will actually own cars.  The decline of the internal combustion engine will have a domino effect on gas stations, repair shops, car dealerships and the oil industry.  People may even have to pay to dispose of their old non-electric vehicles.  

Far-fetched, perhaps – but consider:

  • The city of Helsinki, Finland already has a stated goal of eliminating the need for private car ownership by 2025
  • The town of Innisfil, Ontario last week announced a pilot partnership with Uber to see if the ride-hailing service can function as that community’s public transit system
  • Virtually every major vehicle manufacturer now has a car or ride sharing partnership (IE Toyota with Uber) or division (IE Audi has Audi Unite), implying they certainly understand what’s coming

Three thoughts

So what’s a typical driver to do?

First, start imagining the benefits and savings of transportation on demand so you’ll be ready to embrace it when it comes.  

Second, if you’re going to be in the market for a new vehicle, be sure to consider BEVs and plug-in hybrids.  They’ll save you a bundle on fuel and give you a jumpstart on the future.  

Third, if you’re feeling reluctant about the prospect of giving up traditional vehicles, particularly trucks or SUVs, understand the reality that every advance of the above trends nudges such vehicles a little further in the direction of cassettes and film cameras.

The above trends already have me thinking I’ll be wise to select a clean, green BEV or plug-in hybrid for my next vehicle.  What about you?