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The popularity of ride-sharing apps, combined with mobile technology that makes it easier to connect virtually, has led to an interesting trend: Fewer young people are getting driver’s licenses. According to a University of Michigan study, a record-low 71.5 percent of high school seniors had a license in 2015.
If you can order a self-driving car on demand to get you to the work or to the store, why would you want to buy a car? After all, it’s estimated that cars are parked and unused 95 percent of the time. Doesn’t it make more sense to share a car than to commit to car loans and insurance payments?
“I get asked all the time if autonomous vehicles will signal the end of car ownership,” Evans says. “But car ownership is already a thing of the past in many countries. It’s just not replaced by autonomous vehicles, but [instead] by public transportation.”
Still, there were more than 17 million vehicles sold in the U.S. last year. Owning a car, truck or SUV remains a big part of our identity. Talay notes that Americans change their cars about every four years. “But if autonomous vehicles become the norm,” he says, “we will need far fewer cars on the road.”
Which is why automakers like GM, Ford and Toyota are getting in on the ride-sharing action. “They need to get into the ride-hailing business, which will be a lot more profitable,” says Talay, who also predicts that tech companies like Google and Apple will join forces with traditional automakers rather than try to build their own vehicles from the ground up.
Talay points out that 150 years ago, when steam-engine cars first rumbled on the scene, few thought they could replace horse-drawn carriages. Now you only see carriages at royal weddings and in places like New York’s Central Park. A century from now, will human-driven cars be relegated to a similar novelty existence?
"I believe they will coexist,” Talay says. “Some people will still drive cars, especially in rural areas and harsh climates. And some people will keep buying traditional cars anyway, just like some people still ride horses.”
Two UML alumni with a vested interest in the future of cars are John ’90 and Karen ’90 Manelas, who met at the university while earning their degrees in electrical engineering. In 2004, they both quit their corporate jobs to start their own car repair and service shop, Auto Care Plus. The business has grown to six locations across New Hampshire and Maine, and this fall, they’re opening a seventh in Derry, N.H., that will cater primarily to hybrid and electric vehicles.
“They’re building out the charging infrastructure pretty heavily in Europe, and it’s coming this way, too. I definitely see a big shift happening in the next 15 years,” says John Manelas, a self-described “motorhead” who used to build his own muscle cars while growing up in Lowell. He says one of his biggest challenges is finding mechanics who are up to speed with the computer components in new vehicles: “The technology seems to change every minute. It takes a certain mindset to work on cars today.”
Self-driving cars will only make things more complex with their wireless communications, cameras and lidar systems, creating entirely new avenues for services and products that few people have imagined.
"There are companies working on air fresheners for autonomous vehicles to try to keep people from getting carsick,” Manelas says. “That’s another challenge: People on their phone or laptop getting nauseous while their car drives them.”