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What if the car of the future isn't a car at all?

Navneet Alang

The future of the car is the car. Or, it's a better car. No, wait, it's a car that isn't really a car.

Sorry, if I sound confused, that's because I am. This week, Cruise, the autonomous driving startup acquired by General Motors, announced its Origin, a self-driving vehicle that purports to be what comes next after the car. The Origin looks a bit like a large metal box on wheels. It lacks pedals, a steering wheel, a trunk, or even an engine, and has doors that slide open to reveal an interior with two facing bench seats. It is intended to act as a shuttle service that drives itself. Call the Origin with an app, get to where you're going, and never own a car again. That's the idea, anyway.

But the Origin is symptom of a larger problem in how we think about the future of transportation. At best, self-driving technology is not ready. At worst, it is the wrong solution for changing how people get around.

That is not to say there aren't things to like about the Origin, or Cruise. For one, the company resists referring to it as a car. That's a start at least: it suggests that the company isn't merely aiming to modestly evolve the car as we know it. It instead hopes to create something entirely new.

And in that sense, the Origin shows some promise. For one, it is not made to be sold to consumers. It is, rather, designed from the ground up to be part of a so-called "ride-sharing" service. By making the car modular and upgradeable — that is, making the drivetrain, sensors, and computing replaceable — Cruise believes it can bring down the exorbitant unit costs of self-driving cars, which can be upwards of $300,000 per vehicle. That kind of economic sustainability is conspicuously missing from its competitors' talking points, which famously lose billions of dollars.

But Cruise and other self-driving companies that trumpet themselves as the future of how we get to point A to point B face some serious problems, some technical, some more philosophical.

Firstly, autonomous driving doesn't actually seem to be ready for the reality of messy, complicated streets that are teeming with humans. Most experts now agree that full self-driving tech is far from ready — and in fact, may never be ready. That is a stark contrast from the claims from some companies that insist it's already here. Yes it's true, the company Waymo has put autonomous vehicles with no safety driver into service. But its pilot project is taking place in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, an almost ideal test location, with wide streets, low traffic, and minimal pedestrian or cyclist presence.

Further, self-driving cars face another problem of their own making: Their various sensors and safety technology is actually making human-driven cars a safer than their autonomous brethren. As just one example, automatic emergency braking has already reduced rear-end collisions by 50 percent, and the National Transportation Safety Board believes this figure will eventually rise to 80 percent. It seems that predictive or avoidant technology, combined with the knowledge of a human driver, is a better solution to the problem of collisions and injury than cars that just drive themselves.

Perhaps the broader technical issue is that cars are only one part of the shift to autonomous vehicles. This shift actually requires systemic solutions — that is, sensors and markers built into the road system, dedicated loading zones, lanes and sections of highways dedicated to self-driving cars, just to name a few. For self-driving to truly work, we also need an interlinked network that includes cars and roads, not just cars themselves.

Those are all technical issues — problems of implementation or efficacy. Perhaps the actual problem with self-driving tech is that it simply can't be the primary focus for the future of transportation in cities.

Look at the interior of the Origin. Despite being the supposed future of the car, it is still a two- or three-ton vehicle that houses, at max, four or five people. You might share a ride with some fellow Origin riders, but it is vastly less efficient than a bus or a tram or a train. Similarly, the plans for a ride-hailing app and service seem less appealing when you consider companies like Uber and Lyft themselves admit they actually make traffic worse. If the aim is to revolutionize transport, a tiny number of people in a vehicle that still takes up significant room on the road doesn't exactly feel like the future.

Put more plainly, Cruise's plans are indicative of the problem with self-driving startups: They assume that smarter cars are the solution to our transportation problems, when in fact, a vastly more promising solution comes in the form of fewer cars, more public transit, and more walkable, accessible cities. Yes, cars will still be an important part of the transportation network, especially for the elderly or those with mobility issues. But as it stands, Cruise's vision of the future is a replica of past mistakes.

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