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Driverless cars could cut auto sales in half

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(Read caption) A woman poses for photographers beside a prototype driverless car called a LUTZ (Low-carbon Urban Transport Zone) Pathfinder Pod during a launch event for the media near the O2 Arena in London, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015.

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America's auto market is booming right now, but a study from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute suggests that today's sky-high sales figures could plummet in the next decade, as autonomous cars start hitting the streets.

To reach that conclusion, UMTRI's Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak analyzed data from the U.S. National Household Travel Survey (PDF). The survey looked at transportation habits of 150,147 households across the U.S., including when each member of each household started and ended daily trips.

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What UMTRI found was "a general lack of 'trip overlap' between drivers within a majority of households based on vehicle sharing. In other words, families rarely use more than one vehicle at a time." So, for example, a mom might make a trip to the doctor's office in her car, while a son might travel to a shopping mall in his car, but they're not typically traveling at the same time. If they were able to share one vehicle, they could make both trips in the same car without inconveniencing one another.

The reason most families aren't able to share, of course, is that their cars are often parked in very different locations when their trips take place. But if they were to own an autonomous car -- one that could drive itself to a new destination -- the mother and son described above could easily share a vehicle. With regard to the U.S. National Household Travel Survey, Schoettle and Sivak found that sharing would've been possible in about 84 percent of all household trips.

What's more, after crunching numbers, the two researchers determined that autonomous cars could cut demand for new vehicles by up to 43 percent. That would reduce the number of cars in the average U.S. household from 2.1 to 1.2 vehicles.

However, they also noted that because of all the sharing, American households could see:

"[a] 75-percent increase in individual vehicle usage—from 11,661 to 20,406 annual miles per vehicle (this increase in mileage does not include additional miles that would be generated during each "return-to-home" trip)."

As a result, cars might wear out faster (though they'd probably have far fewer collisions), which could ease the drop in demand.

OUR TAKE 

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Cars are expensive propositions. Beyond the cost of buying them, there are many costs of ownership, including fuel, maintenance, insurance, and such. Autonomous technology will no doubt make new cars more expensive, but we hope that some of that expense can be mitigated by reducing our need for each family to own small fleets of them.

Today's cars can also be inconvenient. Like land line telephones and cable TV (before Tivo), cars often force us to alter our daily routines and make up for their built-in limitations. Many of us eagerly await the arrival of smarter cars that can drive themselves, making our hectic schedules a bit less harried. 


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