How the Google car could boost electric-car sales

By Felix Salmon
October 12, 2010
Google's driverless car is one of those technologies which makes me feel old, in a bad way: I would dearly love to have been able to grow up with this technology.

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Google’s driverless car is one of those technologies which makes me feel old, in a bad way: I would dearly love to have been able to grow up with this technology. And I can’t wait for it to arrive: I’m not a very good driver, and I’m sure that taking a Google car would be much safer for both me and for other road users.

It could also cause a radical change in the economics of cars, making it much less attractive to buy them, and much more attractive to buy into something much closer to the NetJets model. Doron Levin has a keen insight:

Cars that don’t need drivers also may not need private owners – since they could be summoned remotely and returned once their journey is complete. Why take on a lease if you can purchase a subscription to a car instead? Car owners who never want to spend a saturday under the hood or in the waiting room of a mechanic’s shop again might quickly adapt to a car subscription model.

My guess is that in the first instance, at least, driverless cars are still going to require a driver sitting behind the wheel, much as airplanes on autopilot still require a pilot at the controls. So sending a driverless car back to its depot at night will be non-trivial. But eventually we’ll get there, and you’ll be able to rent a truck when you need a truck, or a zippy sportscar when you’re so inclined, or a big family wagon only when you need it.

One of the big problems with cars right now is that families buy the biggest car they’re ever likely to need. The family car might just be used to drive a single person to work and back most of the time, but because it might used for a family camping holiday once every year or two, the family ends up buying something huge, and the expense of that work commute rises substantially as a result.

Similarly, one of the big reasons why people are wary of electric cars is that every so often they want to take long car journeys which can’t be managed on a single charge. Up until now, the only solution to that problem is either to have a second, gasoline-based, car, or else to have a nationwide network of recharging stations which in any case are likely to take far too long to recharge the battery.

Car subscriptions would be a much better solution. You use an electric car most of the time, and then when you need something with greater range, you just swap it out for one of those instead.

So bring on the self-driving car! It could be exactly what we need to get most of us driving electric.

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