Taking in the rosy, optimistic visions of the future touted by many automakers, you might be forgiven for feeling that we’re on the verge of a mobility utopia where commuting is expedient, cheap, and automated, while carbon and nitrogen oxide emissions are a thing of the past, the internal combustion engine replaced with green, efficient electric motors. It’s a view that Ford Motor Company has peddled to at least some degree on numerous occasions over the past few years, through several presentations on a hypothetical “City of Tomorrow” and CEO Jim Hackett’s recent essay inviting us humans to “take back the streets” from the automobile.
It turns out that automakers like Ford might be overselling the plausibility – or at least the timeframe – of their mobility utopia a tad, Autoblog reports. According to Carla Bailo, president of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a projected 3.8 percent of vehicles sold in the year 2030 will have the capacity for Level 4 or 5 autonomy, and more than 90 percent will still have a conventional internal combustion engine. The reason: consumer demand for autonomy and electrification isn’t (and probably won’t be) great enough to drive faster growth of those technologies.
“First you’ve got to address what the consumer demand is,” Bailo says. “You cannot dictate what you think the customer should be buying.”
Of course, those projections likely assume that the traditional individual-car-ownership model will dominate through 2030, and Ford might have rather a simple answer for that: get more consumers to forgo ownership and rely on things like ride-hailing and rideshare services for transportation. But in reality, that’s only a viable option for those who do most or all of their living within a concentrated urban area.
Especially for self-driving technology, there are many other hurdles, Bailo says. For instance, when fully-autonomous vehicles do take to the road en masse, there will still be millions of legacy vehicles left that can’t communicate with them. The average vehicle on US roads in 2016 was 12 years old, Autoblog reports, citing IHS Markit research, and owners can’t be expected – nor demanded – to upgrade suddenly at great expense. That could create all sorts of problems, as Chevrolet’s autonomous vehicle accident data out of San Francisco in 2017 demonstrates (via GMAuthority).
“As long as you have this co-existence of vehicles, it’s going to prove very difficult,” Bailo says.
Even another economic downturn like 2008’s Great Recession could play a role in stunting the growth of autonomy and electrification, as automakers might be forced to tighten their belts and cut back on big investments – like the $11 billion Ford says it’ll put toward new electrified vehicles by 2022.