The Real Reason Cars Will Continue To Be King

Title photo by Campbell Boulanger on Unsplash

Autonomous vehciles are understood to be the future of modern transportation, but there are many levels of thought on this issue.  For starters, there is a controversy over whether driverless cars should be individually owned just like automobiles today, or whether they should be owned by companies, city governments or organizations, doing away with concept of “my car.”

Many urbanists see the future of transit as a healthy blend of rail, bus, bike, and autonomous, owner-less vehicles that will simply show up when you want, like Uber or Lyft.   Many believe that the future may not feature any cars at all, that autonomous cars will eventually become autonomous transit in general.

The disconnect I see here is one of psychology and less about transit practicality.  The automobile moves us about our surroundings and gives us a personal, comfortable, independent solution to nearly any “A-to-B” situation.  With the rise of autonomous vehicles, the belief of many experts is that this can be fulfilled without the need for automobile ownership.

The problem with this model is that it doesn’t take into consideration our psychological “connection” to owning a car.  The truth is, our cars are not just a way of privately moving about, they are a way in which we define ourselves, express ourselves and show our worth.

Believing that our country will simply accept the idea of ownerless autonomous vehicles is like accepting that everyone wants to live in exactly the same house.  Worse, imagine if you lived in a different house every day?

The truth is, people see their cars as an extension of who they are, just like a home.  Whether you crave luxury, power, the ability to haul a goods or travel off-road… maybe you like speed and precision, technology or you just want to show off how much money you have, most people believe, whether they want to admit it or not, that a vehicle is an expression of who they are or where they are in life.  Are you a college student with a rusty ’99 Honda Civic, or are you a mid-20s Volkwagen Jetta owner?  Then comes the SUV/sedan life.  Why has Buick worked so hard to shed the notion that they are not just for older people?  Because for decades that’s exactly how people saw them, as an expression of retired luxury.

I once gave a Best Man speech about how my friend’s transition through life could be expressed in the cars he drove.  It worked, people loved it.

What does all this mean?  It means that cars, or at least the individual ownership and personalization of them, are not going away.  For most people, to give up the idea of a car is about so much more than giving up convenient transportation.  It’s about giving up an expression of themselves and their state in life.  From my experience, people will claw and spit and thrash and swing fists before giving up any important piece of self-definition, even if the alternative might be cheaper and more practical.  People love to tell the world what they have, what they do, what they want and who they are.  To assume that people will give up one of this country’s most iconic pieces of self-expression and the illusion of personal freedom is, in my opinion, ignorant of the existing addiction.

Autonomous vehicles are the future, but I do not believe they will be utilized any differently than cars are now.  They will be bigger than they need to be, more powerful than they need to be, more luxurious than they need to be, just like cars of today.  The only difference is, you’ll be able to text legally while going to work.

I would love to see a world in which we didn’t need to own cars, but for most of this country, this possibility was rejected a long time ago for the aforementioned reasons.  This is why we must continue to advocate for stronger transit, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.  Cars are not going away, so the importance of these other elements of urban mobility are becoming more important than ever with regard to the health of our cities.