With 2b AHEAD you explore the mobility of the future. What will change most decisively by 2030?
The bottom line is that mobility will be almost free. By 2025, there will be self-driving cars, and by 2030 the cost of a taxi will approach zero. When we talk about free mobility, what we futurologists mean is the range achieved by self-driving cars, either within a city or between cities, such as from Berlin to Cologne. We do not mean flying, which is also becoming cheaper, though not without its costs.
Why will taxi rides be free? What will cover the costs of e.g. 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 – selfdriving taxi fleets in urban areas operated by car manufactures, rental car companies, airlines, public transport operators, and other large companies. The maths is quite simple: rapidly increasing supply with constant demand drives prices down. Money is then made following the Google model. The main product is free, but while the customer sits in my car, I can present them with individualised offers, from ads to films to shoes and groceries.
In California, cars without a steering wheel are already allowed on public streets. You differentiate between the German and American views of selfdriving cars. What’s the difference?
I spend a lot of time with carmakers, 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. But if you see a car as a moving space for passengers, 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.
You say taxis and conventional public transport will disappear, and that national rail companies like Deutsche Bahn will also come under pressure. Who are the winners in this mobility of the future?
The average person, of course, specifically in three ways. First, we all will have more money if mobility is cheaper and maybe free someday. Second, self-driving cars will cause far fewer accidents than human-driven cars. Currently, 3,300 people die from cars 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. The likelihood that you will eventually die in a car accident will fall dramatically. The third thing people get is time, which is not yet so well appreciated. 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. If you sum that over the year, that’s a whole month. Selfdriving cars give you time back and you do not even have to pay for it. I think that’s the biggest win for self-driving cars.
So, there won ́t be any cars with steering wheels left by 2030?
There will still be a small luxury market for people to actually buy cars with a steering wheel. But they probably cannot be driven on any street, as they would represent a traffic hazard. Rather, they will be driven on the weekend at race tracks or on closed serpentine roads. Put simply, a Porsche sportscar, with its steering wheel and rapid acceleration, won’t change. It will persist as a luxury product that many people cannot afford. It’s like when you drive vintage cars nowadays. Cars with steering wheels are slowly but surely becoming those vintage cars.
In your study on future mobility, it says people will get from A to B by ordering self-driving taxis via mobile app. Are customers open to this even after the data scandals at Facebook and other companies?
You 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 won’t do that, because they will participate as soon as they can openly weigh the costs and benefits – I gain mobility in exchange for some data. After all, people use Facebook and Google, even though everyone knows that their data is being evaluated. The only problem with all these data scandals is that people supposedly did not know what was happening with their data. Presumably, they all agreed to, but did not read, the terms and conditions.
Recently, there was the first fatal accident involving a self-driving car. A pedestrian was struck and killed, but someone was behind the wheel. Someday a self-driving car without a driver will get in an accident. Who is to blame then?
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. Now, they are called electronic persons. The car is legally culpable in criminal cases. You can sue your car, and it can be sentenced to perhaps be reprogrammed or decommissioned. That sounds a bit strange from today’s point of view. But in 2030, self-driving cars and other decision-making computers will no longer be completely preprogrammed. 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 in which they learn 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. They have 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 would not work if it does not conform to our technology. For civil cases, manufacturers like Volvo are already buying insurance policies for this scenario. If someone dies in an accident, the insurance can cover the manufacturer’s compensation to their family members.
How do you communicate with people who consider this smart technology, which is learning more and more, as terrifying?
Honestly, I do not think people find it terrifying, because they will benefit. The companies that I work with and that develop these innovations are totally oriented towards customer benefits. 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 the big automakers say they will be in serial production from 2021. To sceptics I say, no one will be forced to do anything. You can keep doing everything the same, it will just get really expensive.
How vulnerable will this smart technology be to hacking?
As vulnerable as perhaps today’s energy grid is. If someone managed to paralyse the global energy system, we would really have a problem, but nobody has because the security measures are too big. 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. Also, only computer scientists can then fix cars, but that is probably already the case with most modern cars.
By 2040, there will be ten billion people on the planet. If everyone is travelling for free by self-driving taxi, does this mean there will still be lots of cars on city roads causing traffic congestion?
Yes, road traffic remains. I have read studies saying traffic will decrease significantly. In my opinion, that’s not correct. I think there will be just as many cars on the streets, but what will decrease are 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. Cities can eliminate almost all the downtown parking areas, and you could build houses or parks or do other interesting things.
What will municipalities do without the income from parking tickets?
Not one of them has considered this. They indeed lose revenue from parking and traffic fees. If you bought a self-driving car and went 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 it won’t exist. In my new book, I suggest cities each set up their own cryptocurrency, for example, the ‘Berlin Coin’, which can then be used worldwide. Between the coins, there is competition that makes money.
Can progress solve every problem?
Yes, progress can eventually solve any problem, but by the time one is solved, two new ones have arisen. 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 it’s quite likely that problems like hunger, access to drinking water, energy, possibly even violence and wars will be solved or minimised in our children’s lifetime, if not in ours. As humanity’s past problems are solved, new ones arise. What will humanity do when computers become smarter than the average person? How do we behave when we have generated another species that makes better decisions?
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 into the future. Go back five decades and no one was talking about smartphones or self-driving cars.