With driverless cars becoming a reality for everyday commuters in the near future, a question for transportation businesses arises around the impact that the autonomous car may have on commuter choices. With autonomous cars, there is a clear benefit of being able to get dropped off door-to-door, whereas public or train transportation does not offer the same personal space or convenience. So, what does this mean for public and train transportation?
Today, commuters often have a few choices for traveling, and many simply choose between car and commuter train based on factors ranging from what they need to accomplish in the commuting time, price, convenience, and availability. In the future, the decision could also be made based on the experience.
Currently, commuting in a car can be high-stress. Your senses and physical body must be focused on driving and are unusable for other purposes. However, with autonomous cars, the car could become a productive and pleasant personal space. This has the potential to radically re-shape commuting, particularly if parking and traffic logistics are solved in parallel with the popularization of the autonomous car.
Once we have been unshackled from the task of manual driving, the car will take on a new role in our lives. Unlike trains or buses, the autonomous car has a few tempting and unique selling points:
- It’s your personal space
- It’s more private
- It can take you all the way to your destination
- It arrives and leaves based on your schedule, not the train operator’s
As the autonomous car becomes an increasingly attractive proposition for those commuters that can afford them, train operators do not need to become the “downmarket” transportation. Instead, train operators need to find their own niche and unique offering. Socializing is likely to be one of them.
Train operators will have to compete on experience when the autonomous car allows people access to convenience, privacy, and productivity. The train experience can be focused on socializing, networking, and fun. For the professional, it could take the form of LinkedIn (professional networking) meets Disney Theme Parks (the ultimate entertainment experience). Meanwhile, autonomous car services will complete by optimizing for experiences focused on productivity, telepresence meetings, and communication.
Around the world, cultural preferences will also play a role in the battle between car vs. train. For example, in Nordic countries, people tend to be more reserved and keep to themselves (in an empty train car, people tend to sit down as far away from each other as possible). In these areas, people will be more likely to pay a premium to be in their own space – the autonomously driven car. However, in more social cultures such as Southern Europe, many may opt for the fun and engaging train commute – even if it means sticking to the train’s timetable rather than your own.
Another factor is the sheer cost of a car: the cost of gas, insurance, parking, and garage space are likely to still be high. Even with the convenience and allure of an autonomous car, it could be a burden rather than a status object. Depending on passenger and entertainment needs, the car’s utility also changes (commuting alone vs. making a weekend trip with the family).
What we can expect in the transportation industry is a growing service industry catered to meeting the differing transport needs of people, by cars. Instead of a personal car, we will see increased flexibility to lease from customized car fleets and share rides where appropriate. We may have cars brought to our doorstep through new services that look like Über meets Zipcar, or carpools that bring together people with a willing car owner or driver, like TaskRabbit meets RideShare.
So while the question for the transportation industry may be a few years out, it is important – and will become critical – for transportation businesses to begin thinking about what new service models can arise to meet people’s various transportation need and how they will differentiate in a driverless world.