It’s the year 2029. You’ve just finished having dinner and drinks at a downtown restaurant and it’s time to go home. Lined up outside are several fully autonomous cars that you can select for your ride through a smartphone app. One is a Nissan, another a Ford, another the driverless successor to today’s Uber. Their prices are similar.
Which one of those driverless taxis do you choose and why? Do the brands matter? Does one offer different in-ride features than another? Does one have a better app? Would you rather be seen as a passenger in one instead of another?
If the future of personal "mobility" really does rely heavily on autonomous car sharing, the answers to these questions can determine which companies will be successful — and perhaps, even which current car companies survive.
To get an idea of what those autonomous car sharing customer preferences might be, consider the electric scooters that have been sweeping the country this year (and occasionally terrorizing it). There are a number of scooter choices and although they accomplish a similar goal, there are key differences that could result in a person riding a Bird versus a Lime, for instance.
Of course, if there’s only one that’s close to you, you really don’t have a choice — having accounts with multiple companies is, therefore, a good idea. However, Lime is betting that the quality and design of the scooter itself will make a difference if you do have a choice. Whereas Bird, Skip and others utilize an electric scooter that anyone could purchase for personal use, Lime engineers designed the distinct Lime-S scooter so that it would ride more smoothly and be more robust. You may also have noticed that Lime’s scooters are a bit taller and offer different hand controls, which provide a different riding experience that users may find offers improved control or comfort.
Then there’s the matter of design, as the Lime-S scooter’s white standing board and lime-green elements are more eye-catching and arguably more stylish than the rather plain Bird that’s black with subtle red elements.
If pricing is equal, and indeed it largely is between the two scooter companies, why wouldn’t you choose a product that’s more stylish?
For Nissan’s vice president of design, Alfonso Albaiso, this is the sort of thinking that leads him to believe that the future of autonomous cars won’t be nondescript transport pods indistinguishable from one another.
"To make a car with vanilla character … unacceptable," Albaiso said during a Nissan-sponsored conference on the future of cities and transportation. An autonomous car, even one used for ride sharing rather than personal purchase must still be "representative of the company. That is still strong."
In other words, you’ll still want to be seen in the better-looking thing even if you don’t actually own it.
"We’re still going to make differentiated vehicles," said Rachel Nguyen, the director of Nissan’s Future Lab, a think tank of sorts that studies the future of personal transportation. "I think if you left it to data companies you would get more utilitarian-type vehicles. But I think (car companies) think about the on-board experience and the external design. There’s emotion involved. So I think people could start to choose which service they use based on the vehicle they’ll be riding in. Right now (with Uber or Lyft) you don’t have a choice, but that might happen in the future."
Plus, given the advancements in LED exterior lighting, you’d possibly be able to customize your autonomous car during your ride. Nissan designer Daniel Jimenez compares future cars to video game avatars in that way. If you like red accenting or a particular graphic, perhaps the ride sharing app will remember those preferences and automatically change the appearance of your autonomous taxi to match. Such customization could certainly be a reason someone would choose one service over another.
Yet, Lime scooters can teach us something else about the future of autonomous cars. Excessive speeding, use in pedestrian areas and sidewalks cluttered with unused scooters are just some of the reasons citizens and municipalities have created a backlash against them. Some cities, such as Memphis, Tennessee, and Austin, Texas, have ordered their removal.
To date, Lime has tried to be diligent in meeting these concerns and has begun adding operational guidelines for the scooters depending on the city they’re located. As its scooters are equipped with a GPS tracker, the company can utilize so-called "geofencing" to know when a scooter has entered an area off-limits due to local restrictions. It can tell that you’re riding on a sidewalk and cut power, or prevent you from parking it in a particular area. Such limitations could just as easily be applied to autonomous car sharing services based on the input of various government entities — say, to prevent unused autonomous taxis from clogging city streets.
Then there’s the matter of winter. In cities such as Minneapolis, Minnesota, Lime has collected its scooters as temperatures and therefore ridership plummet. No one wants to ride an electric scooter in frigid rain or snow — or at least they shouldn’t — and it could mean that autonomous car sharing will become more popular during the winter despite (presumably) being more expensive to use than an electric scooter. Perhaps that means using autonomous car sharing for the entire journey or just completing "the last mile" from a public transit station, but either way, it means that usage could definitely depend upon the season. It could also mean a further worsening of congestion at times and in conditions that can least afford it.
In that way, at least, perhaps the autonomous future won’t be bright. Plus, like the problems experienced this year with electric scooters indicate, disruption and teething problems are bound to happen. But as their use continues, Lime and other scooter companies should certainly provide further previews of our autonomous car future.