Self-driving cars are coming, but the manufacturers may not want you to buy them.
Perhaps that sentence made you do a double-take. Probably, like most of us, you haven’t been keeping up to speed on how quickly the world of “autonomous vehicles” (AVs) – the industry name for completely self-driving cars – is developing.
The potential impact of those extends beyond changing what happens on our roads, though, since recent news suggests that car manufacturers are beginning to think about radically changing their business model to address the challenge of Uber and Lyft.
So if you thought it was only taxi drivers who have to worry about losing their jobs, think again.
BMW, for example, has announced that it will launch a range of completely autonomous cars by 2021. That’s just three years away.
It has also said that it will begin operating what they call “ride-hail” vehicles at the same time.
Just let that sink in. BMW is going into the taxi business. Or, if you prefer, it is going into the short term car hire business.
The impact of that on Canterbury could be profound, and you can only hope our council has recognised that. The evidence is that it hasn’t.
Let’s assume for now that whatever BMW is thinking, the other major car manufacturers are also thinking, and that their developments are at more or less the same stage.
So, by about 2021 if you are a car user you will have the option not to buy a new car, but just to call up a manufacturer owned and run AV whenever you need one.
Personally, that’s several hundred quid a month that I now spend on my car lease, maintenance, insurance, petrol and road fund tax that I could put aside and probably mostly save. Although it might leave my current car worthless, of course.
Now think about how that could affect our city. First, obviously, most of these cars will be electric, not petrol. So there’s less pollution, and ultimately no need for petrol stations, but also probably a significant need for additional electrical supply infrastructure.
The cars are rented, so there is no need for car showrooms or sales teams. But the big thing is that once these cars become the norm, there is no requirement for car parking.
Not on-street outside your house, not in our garages and driveways, not in the city centre. And not by the railway station either.
Which is a shame. Because not only does the city council derive quite a lot of its revenue from car parking charges, but it seems determined to borrow £9 million to build its new multi-storey car park by Canterbury West.
This is a project which, all other objections aside, assumes it will take 25 years to pay back the money borrowed.
Yet quite possibly before it is even built the basic calculations that have been made about growing demand for parking could have been undermined by a shift to “ride-hail” car usage.
Now to be fair, we’re speculating about the future. The speed of change is not certain, nor is the public’s appetite to give up car ownership.
After all, we do like to have somewhere to store our sunglasses and umbrellas, and the car is a good place for that.
Things could go drastically wrong with self-driving cars and they might not work or be accepted. But some sort of change is inevitable, and personally I’d back the vision of the car companies and their IT partners over the councillors and their officers.
All of which could leave us with an empty £9 million three-storey carbuncle blighting the city.