Digital and IT

Will Transportation be Free in 2030?

  • Sven Gábor Jánszky
  • October 29, 2020

No steering wheel, free transportation, and no more car parks. Sven Gábor Jánszky has a clear vision for the future of mobility . The futurologist and trend researcher predicts that the way we interact with cars and transportation overall will change dramatically in the near future.

The think tank you founded made predictions about the future of transportation. What changes do you think we will we see in 2030?
The bottom line prediction for the future of transport is that it will be almost free (this does not include flying). By 2025, there will be self-driving cars, and by 2030 the cost of a taxi will approach zero. When we talk about the future of mobility, what we futurologists mean by free transportation is the range achieved by self-driving cars, either within a city or between cities, such as from Berlin to Cologne.

Why are taxi rides predicted to be free in the future of transport? What will cover the costs of things like fuel and maintenance?
Statistically, cars spend 96% of their time parked. Just imagine that car manufacturers continue to produce as many cars as today, but those cars drive themselves and do not park. Self-driving taxi fleets in urban areas will be operated by car manufacturers, rental car companies, airlines, public transport operators, and other large companies. The future of mobility predicts that supply will increase rapidly, and constant demand will drive prices down. Money will then be made following the Google model. The main product will be free, but while the customer sits in the car, I can present them with individualized offers, from luxury goods to films to groceries.

You think that Germans and Americans have different views on self-driving cars. What’s the difference?
I spend a lot of time with car makers and there is a huge but simple difference. The Germans think a car is for the driver, whereas the Americans think a car is for the passenger. If you’re building a car for the driver, then you get a contemporary German car–somewhat fast and comfortable, with of course a steering wheel and all the controls within the driver’s reach. If you see a car as a moving space for passengers [like the Americans], then this doesn’t make any sense. You do not need a steering wheel or a driver’s seat, because the person sitting there does not want to look ahead. That’s a waste of time. They want to sleep, have a dinner for two, play with their children, or work. Accordingly, the interior must adapt to the customer’s needs.

3,300 people die in car accidents every year in Germany. Human error is the cause of 92% of these accidents, with 8% due to technical defects.

You say taxis and conventional public transport will disappear, and that national rail companies like Deutsche Bahn will also come under pressure. Who will be the big winners?
The average person will be the winner in three ways. First, we all will have more money if mobility is cheaper or free in the future.

Second, self-driving cars will cause far fewer accidents than human-driven cars. Currently, 3,300 people die in car accidents every year in Germany. Human error is the cause of 92% of these accidents, with 8% due to technical defects. Technical failures will of course also occur in self-driving cars, so they will still be involved in accidents. But the other 92% of accidents disappear. So another prediction for the future of mobility is that the likelihood that you will eventually die in a car accident will fall dramatically.

The third thing people get is time. I think about it like this—I have a job where I drive an average of two hours a day. That means I spend a twelfth of my day sitting in the car, where I mindlessly look ahead with a steering wheel in my hands. In one year I spend about 30 full days driving. Self-driving cars give you back time and you do not even have to pay for it. I think that’s the biggest win for self-driving cars.

Does the future of transport have room for cars with steering wheels?
There will be a small luxury market for people to actually buy cars with a steering wheel. But, they probably can’t be driven on any street, as this would represent a traffic hazard. Rather, they will be driven on race tracks or on closed roads. Put simply, a Porsche sports car with its steering wheel and rapid acceleration won’t change. It will persist as a luxury product that many people cannot afford.

In your study on the future of mobility, you say that people will get from A to B by ordering self-driving taxis with a mobile app. Are customers open to this even after data scandals at Facebook and other companies?
You can decide for yourself if you want to disclose your data. Of course, you can also use a self-driving taxi without sharing your data, then it just costs money. But most people will not do that because they will decide that the cost benefit outweighs privacy concerns. After all, people use Facebook and Google even though everyone knows that their data is being evaluated. These data scandals occurred because people supposedly did not know how their data was being used. Presumably, they all agreed to share it, but were unaware because they did not read the terms and conditions.

In 2019 a self-driving Uber car hit and killed a pedestrian even though someone was behind the wheel. Someday a self-driving car without a driver will get in an accident. Who is to blame in this scenario?
If we are talking about 2030, then the car. My institute is quite sure that sooner or later there will be a new kind of liable person in our legal system called electronic persons. The car is legally culpable in criminal cases. You can sue your car, and it can be sentenced to be reprogrammed or decommissioned. That sounds a bit strange from today’s point of view but in the future of transport, self-driving cars and other decision-making computers will no longer be completely pre-programmed. Instead, they will start with a basic structure, a neural network similar to a human brain, and then be sent off into the world.

Cars start in beginner mode by observing other cars, internally simulating various decisions a million times and only then performing actions. When a car has been learning for say five years, no one knows what the car knows, not the manufacturer, not the owner and certainly not the passenger. You cannot blame them for the car’s decisions anymore. That is why there has been a very intense debate over the last year in the European Parliament on whether to incorporate the electronic person into the legal system. The Parliament decided to ask the European Commission to lay the groundwork for this. Of course, this is not the final verdict, but in our view, there is no getting around it. Because the legal system will not work if it does not keep up with new technology.

Manufacturers like Volvo are already buying insurance policies for their cars so that if someone dies in an accident, insurance will cover ensuing costs.

How do you deal with people who think smart technology is terrifying?
Honestly, I do not think people will find it terrifying, because they will benefit from it. The companies that I work with and that develop these innovations are totally customer oriented. However, I also meet people who are surprised by what I say, but I am not just making stuff up. We are talking about self-driving cars right now, because they already exist. They are in the testing phase and might be in serial production by 2021. To sceptics I say, no one will be forced to do anything. You can keep doing everything the same without smart technology, it will just get really expensive.

Only a very adept computer scientist would be able to steal your car [in the future]. 

How vulnerable will this smart technology be to hacking?
As vulnerable as perhaps today’s energy grid is. If someone managed to paralyze the global energy system, we would really have a problem, but nobody has because the security measures are too complex. The number of daily hacker attacks on German banks is really crazy, thousands of attempts daily, but they are blocked by security systems. A self-driving fleet will be well protected.

Then only computer scientists can steal cars?
Exactly. Only a very adept computer scientist would be able to steal your car.

 By 2040, there will be 10 billion people on the planet. If everyone is traveling for free, won’t there be more traffic?
Yes, traffic will still exist. I have read studies saying traffic will decrease significantly in the future, but in my opinion, that is not correct. I think there will be just as many cars on the streets, but less cars in parking lots. The only reason to park a car nowadays is if the driver is unavailable. It makes no sense to park a self-driving car. It can keep driving. This means cities can eliminate almost all downtown parking areas and build more houses, parks, restaurants, etc.

Will municipalities lose income from parking tickets?
Yes, they will lose revenue without parking and traffic fees. If you buy a self-driving car and go shopping, you wouldn’t pay €20 to park it. Rather, you would tell the car to drive around and be back in an hour. On the other hand, many cities spend a lot of money on public transportation, which is usually a loss-making business. They won’t have to do that anymore, because public transportation will not exist.

I think that cities should establish their own cryptocurrency (e.g. Berlin Coin) which can then be used worldwide. The coins could make up for any lost income.

Can progress solve every problem?
Yes, progress can solve any problem. From a futurist perspective, we have never been so close to solving some of the supposedly intractable issues facing humanity–namely through technology and artificial intelligence. I think that problems like hunger, access to drinking water and energy, and possibly even violence and wars will be solved or minimized in our children’s lifetime, if not in ours.

However, as humanity’s past problems are solved, new ones will arise. What will humanity do when computers become smarter than the average person? How will we behave if we create a new species that makes better decisions than us?

Then we are all obsolete.
No, not at all. We futurologists are certain–and we’re not talking about 2030, but rather about 2070 –that people will let this technology into their bodies. This is quite strange from today’s point of view, but we are talking about 50 years in the future. Go back five decades and no one was talking about smartphones or self-driving cars.

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