Purpose-Built Automobiles: The Possibilities are Endless

When I last wrote about Cars as a Service, I was focused on its affordability (which I determined to be possible but not yet). As I was writing, I thought of a few scenarios that would be more difficult using a service than owning my own car, but I realized that most of the difficulties I’d thought of were simply short-term disadvantages with the opportunity to become tremendous benefits. The reason is that cars right now have to be all things to all people. Well, not quite. But even trying to be most things to some people is a pain.

I guess that’s kind-of what I was picturing.

Take minivans. They’re unabashedly built for and marketed to parents, yet think of how many of their features are adaptibility. The automakers don’t know if their buyers are going to be 6'2" or 5'1" tall, if they’ll have two toddlers or three teenagers. Furthermore, even one owner has different needs, depending on whether s/he’s driving a carpool of five kids or hauling one kid and a lot of skis. Seats that can be collapsed or rearranged easily is one of the primary selling points of current minivans.

Yet in the world of cars as a service, none of that is necessary. You can have highly specific automobiles that are still affordable, because they don’t have to be sold to an individual person. Few people would want a car with, say, built-in ski storage all the time, but in a city of 200,000 people, there’d be plenty of demand. I was going to say, “maybe not in Florida,” but in fact, you could take such cars to northern climates during ski season and then have them drive themselves to southern climes where and when the demand for waterski-holders goes up.

This kind of thinking outside the box really excited me, so here are a few more ideas for car companies to innovate when they only have to make sure there’s a market somewhere in the world for a specific kind of car.

Car Seats

Almost the first thing I thought about when wishing away my car ownership was the difficulty of moving children’s car seats from one vehicle to another. I almost groaned out loud. Even the easiest to install car seats have at least two attachment points that often involve climbing around the trunk and/or backseat of the car, and I have never installed a car seat without feeling frustrated. The thought of having to do it every time I needed to take my kids somewhere was almost enough to make me give up my theoretical car service.

Until I realized I was thinking about it completely backwards! My app would already have my kids’ information (age at least, possibly even height and weight). Then I just mark which of my regular passengers will be coming with me and the service selects a car with the appropriate seats. Sitting rear-facing is demonstrably much safer, but it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable for both kids and parents when you have to retrofit a rear-facing car seat onto a bench seat designed for forward-facing adults.

Only safer.

Yet if you had a car with child-sized seats built in, complete with five-point harness, your kids would be just as comfortable and five times safer. (Yes, FIVE.) Also, think how much fun you (or maybe your parents — please tell me I’m not that old) had teasing the people behind your family’s car from the backwards-facing seat in that old station wagon. Couple that with the much lower incidence of car crashes in autonomously driven vehicles and your kids have never been better off.

Come to that, what does it even mean to have a front or back seat in a car when there’s no driver? People riding together might want to face each other, as in a train car, or simply have “only a backseat” for extra legroom.

Mobility-Impaired Passengers

While we’re on the topic of minivans, another reason people buy vans or SUVs is that they’re higher off the ground and easier to get in and out of. If you are caring for (or even just riding with) someone who has a disability, is elderly, or is otherwise mobility-impaired, you’ll also benefit from the ability of car services to have highly specific options.

Currently, you might have to buy a van and then pay to convert it to take a wheelchair, or else rely on a transportation service that’s less efficient than driving yourself (due to lower supply because of lower demand). When all transportation becomes a service, markets will demand highly efficient service and good value. It will be easy to order vehicles that are the right height to get in and out of, have built-in stairs or other mobility aids, accommodate wheelchairs, and/or have plenty of head- and legroom.

Parking Lots

Driving around my neighborhood reveals how much room humans have allocated for parking and how inefficiently it’s used. I mentioned garages and driveways in my last article, but you can add parking lots and street parking to that list.

I know people who walk nearly a mile after parking to get to their job’s building.

Shopping centers are dominated by parking lots because they need a large number of customers in order to make a profit, and if those customers find it inconvenient to shop there (e.g., because it’s hard to find a parking spot), they won’t come. Workplaces and churches are similarly beholden to providing plenty of parking, which then goes unused for long stretches of time.

Car services will need a few parking lots in which to put some cars during lower-demand hours (such as overnight), but these can be far removed from population centers, making them cheaper and less unsightly. Parking lots where you live and work and shop and worship can pretty much disappear. Cities can reclaim whole lanes of traffic and huge areas of land for other uses, instead just optimizing for traffic flow of pickups and drop-offs. Car-averse cities like Seattle might even befriend cars again if they have zero emissions and no need to be parked.

Shoppers’ arrival times are likely to be spread throughout a day, but I predict whole new disciplines of science trying to figure out the best way to manage car-service traffic to big events with fixed start times, such as theater shows or football games. Temporary lanes? Multi-lane drop-offs like bank drive-throughs? Car-service price incentives to ride bus-sized vehicles? Many people take transit to such events anyway, but imagine how much more convenient it would be when you’re dropped off at the front door, and how much more fun it would be to ride transit when you know everyone in the vehicle is going to the same event. (Sorry, that’s my extrovert showing.)

Shopping

Speaking of shopping centers, maybe they disappear altogether. In an article about why Amazon’s ongoing destruction of retail as we know it might be unstoppable, the author offers some hope for retail at the end. Perhaps going to a store will become as passé as driving a car. Instead, he suggests, cars designed as showcases will rove the cities, waiting for someone to order up their wares.

Think about why we shop online: we can do it from the comfort of our couches and PJs, anytime day or night, without being limited by the stock a single store can keep on-hand. A few lucky cities can now use Amazon’s near-instant (for a fee) PrimeNow delivery on certain items, but what if shopping itself was delivery? Wouldn’t that be even more convenient, gratifying us even more instantly?

You need a pair of jeans, you order up the Macy’s Store, specifying whether you would like a fit consultant to come with it. (How’s that for a job? The death of retail apparently won’t mean the loss of every retail job; after all, someone still has to refold everything you tried on, whether it’s at the warehouse or in the van.) I can picture the fleet of red Target vans roaming the city, along with my other yuppie fantasy, the Barista Truck. Maybe they even come as a matched set.

Why am I not surprised that this already exists? Now it just needs a catchy jingle to play off-key as it drives around.

The Possibilities are Endless

Every time I came up with an objection to cars as a service, I realized a way that it could actually make my life even better. Much has been made of the change to society that autonomous cars will bring, eliminating many jobs that are currently quite common. But when we embrace the possibilities of technology, then we can let our imaginations run free to create new wealth and better lives in its place.