The Death of Car Ownership?

Commenting on a post on Daring Fireball where John Gruber asserted that design will matter even with self driving cars, Brian Fagioli on Twitter argued that:

self driving cars will lead to death of car ownership. Outward appearance won’t matter. Just comfort and amenities.

John responded with the following update to his original post.

If you disagree — if you think the outward appearance of a self-driving car doesn’t matter, only the comfort and amenities of the interior — I think you’re being shortsighted. If all self-driving cars are ungainly-looking, they’ll still sell. Uber is already buying ungainly-looking self-driving cars. But what happens when a company starts selling good-looking self-driving cars? Cars are status symbols — even cars you don’t own. What else explains the existence of black town cars? A lot of people used to argue that the exterior design of personal computers didn’t matter, either — only the functionality. No one argues that anymore.

Looking at airlines and hotels, I can’t see people investing the same amount of status into cars they don’t actually own. Sure first class is way better than coach and people enjoy the status of being in first class, but I don’t think anyone is tying their ego to a slightly wider pleathor seat. Also black town cars are only nice compared to Taxis, which is a pretty low bar.

That said, I will challenge Brian’s other assumption – that car ownership will die. Sure it might decline, but so long as there are suburbs, there will be rush hour commuters. I don’t see rush hour easily being taken over by autonomous Uber-like services for two reasons:

  1. It will be difficult to justify a enough cars necessary to support the just 1-3 hours relevant to commuters.
  2. Uber and their ilk want to get rid of the human element so who’s going to clean these cars, and who or what decides when cars should be cleaned? Folks may be willing to risk the occasional gross experience to get home safely or go to the airport, but I doubt they would be willing to take that risk twice daily.

My prediction is commuters will buy or lease cars even after they become autonomous, and just like now the cars they buy will continue to be not just a status symbol, but also an intimate reflection of their personality and taste.

And who knows, if autonomous cars makes commuting suck less, even more people might move out to the burbs and we could see an increase of car ownership.