Are autonomous cars part of the solution for income equality?

Rod Drury
Rod Drury
Oct 4, 2016 · 3 min read

The shift to driverless cars could be one of the biggest steps to positively influence income equality we’ve seen in generations. Most cars are used less than 5% of the time.

Car ownership is making less sense to an increasing number of people. Vehicles spend more time sitting in driveways, carparks, or on the side of roads, unused for most of the time. The thought of insurance, using fossil fuels, or paying for car parking just doesn’t add up for many young people — especially as the convenience of Uber and Zipcar suit the new asset-lite lifestylers in the hippest cities of the world.

But broader than the streets of San Francisco or New York, autonomous vehicles that could be summoned at any time may be a game changer for low-income families. Surveys we’ve seen put the cost of car ownership at as high as $100-$250 per week, a significant percentage of take home income. Often a car is a family’s largest asset — certainly, the largest that is depreciating. Car payments can be the biggest monthly outflow for a family, competing with rent, mortgage repayments, and food.

Outside the big cities, cars are a key part of lifestyle, and for people to give cars up, even for their own good, the costs of an autonomous car will have to be a fraction of what we expect to pay for taxis now.

The leaders of the world’s largest automobile factories are imagining a world where car ownership drops significantly, transferring significant chunks of their R&D to build autonomous fleets. In this future world, carparks downtown might eventually free up again, making space available to deal with accommodation shortages in cities currently contending with skyrocketing rents.

The opportunities to restructure the transport model away from the convention of private motor vehicle ownership takes on a much larger social imperative than just renewables and emissions. This could be a step change that frees up money in households to genuinely creates better living standards.

The step-change this technology could bring to the world shouldn’t be underestimated.

It will change when we work. Traveling via autonomous vehicle means many can build the commute into their day — we already see it in a very early form with the Google buses traveling from San Francisco to Mountain View, albeit their not autonomous vehicles, yet. These sorts of advancements change where people can live. People can choose to reside further away from work and be productive as they commute.

It will change who we can hire. Widening the potential talent pool, this will also further push the need for upskilling. Jobs will change — drivers will go the way of the toll worker, meaning a proper education is more important now than ever before. But driverless cars and the advancement of automation isn’t about what jobs will disappear; it’s about the new opportunities that will be created.

All of this will also change the type of infrastructure governments need to invest in. Instead of building more roads we can leverage existing corridors, releasing funding for schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure. It’s a tech development which shifts the way we run cities.

Government policy for electric vehicle strategy has been looked at primarily through energy and renewables, and safety lenses. Once these issues are resolved, the bigger opportunity is the social impact, something that gives government a reason to fast-track autonomous cars and the related infrastructure investments and redistributions.

Removing the necessity of car ownership from our next generation of citizens could be the largest net income increase for many of the world’s lower income families, and may be the most significant positive impact on technological innovation.

Rod Drury

Written by

Rod Drury

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