David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
Lyft cofounder John Zimmer predicts that the private automobile will be dead by 2025 (thanks to Lyft). But he’ll have his work cut out for him.
Quick! Bookmark this page and set a calendar alert for January 1, 2025. Because Lyft cofounder and president John Zimmer is calling it: 2025 is when private car automobile ownership will “all but end” in major American cities.
The prospect of Automotive Judgment Day has been much discussed ever since Google proved that fully autonomous motoring was an achievable goal. Once cars don’t need drivers, it quickly follows that they won’t need owners, either. The rise of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft further primed the car-removal machine, acclimating a small-but-growing segment of the population to the idea of relying on other people’s vehicles to get around.
With rival Uber now testing autonomous Volvos in Pittsburgh, Lyft’s Zimmer is offering a specific timetable for this transformation: Within 5 years, the majority of Lyft rides will be driverless. And less than five years after that, the private car will have been essentially eliminated. “By 2025, owning a car will go the way of the DVD,” Zimmer posted in a Medium piece called “The Third Transportation Revolution.”
Zimmer’s Lyft-centric vision of our post-car future, which he also talks about in an interview with Time, will have urbanites purchasing contracts with various mileage limits, akin to cellphone plans. It’s a subscription model at odds with Tesla boss Elon Musk’s similarly grandiose “Master Plan, Part Deux,” which posits that privately owned but fully autonomous Tesla-made vehicles will form an ad-hoc transportation-for-hire service, roving about on their own to pick up passengers and make money for their owners. Not only would this slave-army of cars allow Tesla to keep selling private automobiles, it would lower the ownership threshold, since cars would be helping to earn their keep while their masters are sleeping or at work.
For the passengers, the only question becomes: Whose robot do you want to climb into? Because, one way or another, they’re coming.
In the course of Lyft’s five-year journey to full autonomy, Zimmer sees a short-term need for more human drivers working alongside their mechanical colleagues: more and more people will be turning to ride-sharing, but initial self-driving services will be limited to low-speed runs under optimal conditions. As the technology improves, these folks will get their walking papers, as this graphic of a five-year phased introduction of autonomy depicts.
Lyft inked a deal with General Motors in January, with the automaker investing $500 million in the ride-hailing service; GM is providing the vehicles for the company’s first self-driving pilot program in Phoenix. Other carmakers like Ford (which last week announced its own intentions to market a self-driving vehicle and field its own service by 2021) are furiously ramping up their own autonomous schemes. The relationship between these automakers and the upstarts that are plotting to disrupt their business model is somewhat philosophically fraught: Though Zimmer opens his post by talking up his childhood love of Hot Wheels, he’s also squarely advocating for a future with no wheels, hot or otherwise.
Ridesharing has already begun to empower many people to live without owning a car. The age of young people with driver’s licenses has been steadily decreasing ever since right around when I was born. In 1983, 92% of 20 to 24-year-olds had driver’s licenses. In 2014 it was just 77%. In 1983, 46% of 16-year-olds had licenses. Today it’s just 24%. All told, a millennial today is 30% less likely to buy a car than someone from the previous generation.
Every year, more and more people are concluding that it is simpler and more affordable to live without a car. And when networked autonomous vehicles come onto the scene, below the cost of car ownership, most city-dwellers will stop using a personal car altogether.
Zimmer, like many a car-free advocate before him, stresses the transformative and salutary effects of this process, from demolishing space-devouring parking lots and urban highways to reclaiming streets for wider sidewalks. “We’ll have the chance to redesign our entire urban fabric,” he writes.
All true enough—but is this grand de-automobilization really coming so swiftly?
Sure, why not? “Within five years,” as many others have observed, is a favored time-frame among tech titans for the making of world-changing-but-plausible predictions: It’s close enough to make a good headline, but far enough in the future that few will call you on it if it doesn’t pan out. Unraveling a century of the American love affair with private automobiles—a relationship that, despite all those unlicensed millennials, managed to move a record 17.5 million cars and light trucks last year—could take a bit longer than the techno-utopians hope. So let’s check back here in 2021 and see if things are on track.