Tesla Summon Hints at How the World of Self-Driving Cars Will Work
At this point, self-driving cars are futuristic in the way next Thursday is futuristic: not here yet, but definitely coming.
The government’s pumping billions into the idea, and Tesla Motors, Google, Uber, General Motors, Faraday Future, Baidu, and a long list of companies you would and wouldn’t think of are reserving their slice of the now-inevitable world where cars don’t need humans and can come to us with the press of a button.
The underlying technology—how to make these vehicles actually work—is just the first step into this world. The second step is far trickier: Rethinking the entire car culture we’ve built over the past century. “As cool as the technology is in itself,” says Thilo Koslowski, vice president and automotive practice leader at analysis firm Gartner, “it’s just the means to something more impactful.”
What do you do with your time when you’re on an eight-hour road trip but not driving? Where do these cars go when they’re not being used? Where do parking spaces go? (Audi’s got some ideas on that one.) Do we want an all-Uber world, where we’re stuck paying surge pricing for our morning commute and waiting ten minutes for the nearest driver to find our street? Do we still go to dealerships to buy cars? If not, how do we re-think car ownership? The questions go on and on, and only a few involve how to make the car drive itself.
The standard vision for a world with self-driving cars imagines fleets of vehicles roaming from place to place, anticipating and meeting demand. Nobody knows how we’ll get there, or what happens when we do. “Whenever I’m being asked about who’s a leader of this space,” Koslowski says, “I always show an empty throne.”
This week, a couple of big players started to show their early bids for the crown. Tesla announced Summon, which lets you use your phone to, well, summon your Tesla. (It’s not the most clever name.) The idea is simple: Stand at the end of your driveway and press a button, and your car will open the garage, start up, and meet you. At the end of the day, hop out and let your car put itself to bed—charging and all.
All this is “just a baby step in the direction of Summon,” CEO Elon Musk told reporters after the announcement. “Ultimately, you’ll be able to summon your car from anywhere … the car can physically get to you.” Give it two more years, he said, and “you’ll be able to summon your car from across the country.” After that, it’ll sync with your calendar to ensure your ride is waiting when your meeting ends. Summon sets the stage for a self-driving car network of one: Your Tesla’s there when you need it, and you don’t worry about it the rest of the time.
Ford’s got its own plans. The Detroit giant is looking at ways of bringing you and your friends together in beautiful car-owning harmony. Unlike GM’s Let’s Drive NYC program, or Zipcar, or Car2Go, it’s not interested in renting cars on a per-hour basis (though it’s probably looking at that too). It’s testing a setup called Ford Credit Link that allows you and as many as five buddies to lease a single car. You’d use the companion app to figure out who’s driving when, keep tabs on maintenance, and even make payments.
FordPass is designed for boring old human-driven cars, but you can see how it would make sense once the robots are in charge. Your group’s self-driving car could learn your respective schedules and needs, Summon-style, and act as your group chauffeur. You have a personal ride-sharing network, where the prices never change and you never have to talk to a rando driver or deal with the mess some stranger left behind (unless your buddies are slobs).
By 2020, Koslowski predicts, 10 percent of vehicle owners in mature, urban markets—think San Francisco, think Paris—will replace their car with access to an on-demand fleet. He’s not alone here. “[It’s] obvious to us that there are large groups of customers out there that want to have the convenience and access to a car when they need it, but they don’t want to have the hassle of ownership,” Dan Ammann, president of GM, said last week.
It seems likely that before long, if you don’t want to own a car, you won’t have to. Eventually, your personal car’s replacement will be driven by a robot instead of someone who’ll file a 1099. But even if you do keep the pink slip, you won’t be driving for much longer. You’ll be doing … something else. Nobody really knows exactly what. But there’s a huge upside to figuring that out.
Consider the fact that more than eight percent of American commuters spend more than two hours going to and from work every day. Consider the fact that self-driving cars mean all those people are a captive audience every moment they’re in the car—and that when they don’t have to drive, their attention can be drawn anywhere else. When rational capitalists hears that, their eyes turn to dollar signs.
Speaking of eyes filled with dollar signs, Uber announced this week that it’s opening an API to allow partners to offer people “experiences” during their rides. Uber thinks it can fill your 20-minute ride with a 20-minute playlist, or a news briefing, or a coupon for a nearby McDonald’s, to help you pass the time. Sure, you could continue entertaining yourself with your phone, but there’s money to be made for whoever can tailor your experience both to you and your journey.
These steps by Tesla, Ford, and Uber are nominally aimed at making mobility easier. Tesla owners don’t have to walk all the way to the garage anymore. Ford owners can reserve parking spots and schedule maintenance on their phones. Uber riders don’t have to waste their phone battery to stay entertained in the car. What’s most exciting about these programs, though, is how they position each company to maintain their relevance—and market share—as we inevitably start to surrender the wheel.
“FordPass is about building relationships with customers,” says Elena Ford, the company’s VP of consumer and dealer experience. Why? Because when customers like you, they stick with you. While Ford experiments with ride-sharing and parking-finders and all the ways people might want to own and share a car, it wants to offer people an experience just cool enough that they decide to come along for the ride.
These are all just testing grounds for the future. None of these platforms are finished, and no rules have been set for the self-driving era that is heading toward us and picking up speed, though the federal Department of Transportation and automakers want to start laying some down in the next six months. Car manufacturers are starting to find out what a truly connected ecosystem looks like, when your car knows you and itself well enough to keep both up and running.
No one knows much of anything yet—these are all shots in the dark, spaghetti thrown at the wall. These companies don’t know what they’re doing, only that change is coming and they’d better not get left behind.
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