A future driven by apps
The next time your friend uses an app to catch a ride, you'll likely hear them drop an app name in the process. When you hear that app name being used as a verb, it's a testament to the impact apps like Uber, Lyft and others have made over the last few years. These apps—along with the likes of Didi Chuxing in China and Ola in India—have changed transportation all over the world.
“The ability to have a car show up shortly after you press a button in an app is getting people to rethink car ownership and it's already upended much of the taxi industry,” says Marlon Boarnet, the chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis at the University of Southern California.
“We have real revolutions in transportation within reach, and what kicked this all off was apps,” Boarnet said. “The location-aware technology that makes ride-sharing apps possible today will lead to self-driving vehicles in the future, and this will help the push toward electric vehicles replacing gas powered cars.”
While ride-sharing apps, self-driving cars, and electric cars are three very different technologies, they each provide solutions to a global set of challenges tied to transportation.
“Traffic jams, high gas prices, pollution, the annoyance of finding a cab, the expenses that come with car ownership... If your city or town has a lot of cars in it, you basically have the same complaints,” Boarnet said. “This is why it was such a big deal when apps came along that let you call a car any time you want, wherever you are.”
Now some of the companies behind popular ride-hailing apps like Uber are competing and collaborating with major tech companies and automakers to bring self-driving car technology to the masses.
“When self-driving cars arrive, it'll make even less sense to own your own car,” Boarnet continued. If, as experts forecast, these technological advances result in significantly reduced car ownership, the way cities are built could change too.
“We own cars so that we can have them any time we need them,” Boarnet said. “That's why we build parking spaces and lots that let us keep our cars nearby as we move around day to day.” If we don't need to own cars, fewer cars will be parked or on the road.
“Fewer cars on the road will give us majorly positive impacts for the environment and a lot less traffic congestion,” Boarnet said. “Fewer cars just sitting around, parked and not being used means city planners will have to rethink things like street design, parking lots - how cities are shaped.” Without the need for so many car parks, it opens the possibilities of creating more housing, parks and shared public spaces.
While time will tell if this future actually plays out, other apps are already driving this vision of the future forward. Apps like Addison Lee have a loyalty points scheme to unlock special offers and discounts to frequent users. Whereas Cuvva allows you to get temporary insurance on a car by the hour, making it very convenient. Rentalcars.com helps you discover the cheapest car option available to you while BlaBlaCar and Zipcar UK are making it even easier to carpool.
These apps are yet one more factor for those contemplating ditching car ownership completely, and they're helping us get comfortable with the idea of cars as something we share rather than something we own.
With tens of millions of riders served monthly across the existing ride-hailing and ride-sharing apps, is a new future all but guaranteed?
“Apps, self-driving cars, electric cars—these breakthroughs build on one another,” Boarnet said. “It could all end up being as big for society as the development of the automobile was in the late 1800s, when we moved from walking and horse-drawn carriages to gas-powered cars.”