In a utopian world, as my colleague Brian Fung writes, driverless cars would make everything more efficient. You'd never have to waste time looking for parking. Cities, in fact, could get rid of it. Vehicles that today sit empty most of their lives could be put to maximum use instead, transporting one passenger after another.
This ideal scenario, though, assumes some kind of all-knowing central dispatcher: a company, or service, that would distribute cars to serve the most people the most effectively, with an omniscient eye on the entire network. And, as more companies dive into this space — General Motors and Lyft announced an eye-popping new partnership Monday — it's tempting to think we're witnessing the start of an epic battle for the coming autonomous monopoly.
Who will get there first, winner-take-all? General Motors working with the ride-hailing startup Lyft? Or Ford, as it's rumored, teaming with Google? Toyota? Or Uber, which seems to think it doesn't need a traditional automaker ally at all?
"Uber, their whole goal is to minimize the time from request to pickup, and to do that means you have to have a lot of vehicles," says Dave King, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University. "And if they're the monopolists, maybe it’s close to being efficient. But they’re not going to be the monopolists."
None of these companies will, he predicts.
That's because autonomous cars will require the same market segmentation we already have today (whether consumers want to own these vehicles or share them or use some hybrid service in between).
"If you think the rich people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan are going to get into just a lowly old car, I don’t see that happening," King says. They'll want the Audi of autonomous cars, while you may gladly hitch a ride in the Kia equivalent. And even if I'm not truly driving a sports car myself, I may want to ride in something that feels sporty.
"The idea that everybody wants the same experience for personal travel is strange to me, because nobody’s ever wanted that," King says. "We don’t buy the same bicycle, we don’t buy the same model of car. Some people like the bus, some people like the train."
In the autonomous future, there may be a GM/Lyft fleet (the young, friendly brand), and a Ford/Google fleet (the utilitarian one), and a Toyota fleet ("dull and consistent," King suggests), and a BMW fleet (for luxury!), and an Uber one (for the shortest, most ruthless wait time mathematically possible).
The race is still on to create this future. But that doesn't mean the winner will dominate your vehicle options. This picture of the future does mean that, rather than one maximally efficient shared autonomous network in your town, there may be many networks occupying the same streets. Uber will shuttle its cars around to serve its customers. GM and Lyft will do the same. Ditto, Toyota.
"For every firm to be profit-maximizing in going after their market in their own way," King predicts, "is going to lead to a tremendous oversupply of vehicles on our streets—way more so than we have now."
That's the opposite of what many optimists are predicting: that in a world where we more efficiently use cars, we'll need fewer of them.