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Self-driving cars could cut vehicle ownership in half

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Tony Avelar/AP/File

(Read caption) Google's new self-driving prototype car sits during a demonstration at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. Brian Johnson, an analyst from Barclays predicts, there will be a big drop in vehicle ownership rates and auto sales.

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The world’s top automakers and a handful of tech and supply firms are working hard to develop autonomous car technology, with the goal for most being a car capable of driving without any human intervention whatsoever. One of the leaders in this field is tech giant Google, which this summer plans to start testing on public roads a prototype of its fully autonomous car.

It’s well-documented that the proliferation of self-driving cars could lead to the end the professional driver, but an analyst from Barclays goes further and predicts that the technology could also lead to a massive drop in auto sales. That analyst is Brian Johnson, who in a report entitled Disruptive Mobility, obtained by Bloomberg, said vehicle ownership rates may fall by almost half as households move to having just one car that services the needs of each family member.

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Compounding the issue are companies like Uber, which may end up combining the ride sharing concept with self-driving cars, meaning households could get by without even needing to own a car. Earlier this year it emerged that Uber had hired a whole team of engineers from Carnegie Mellon University's robotics center, most likely to work on an autonomous car. By eliminating the driver, the cost of using a ride-sharing service could drop considerably.

Johnson estimates that when most vehicles are self-driving—he predicts around 2025—new car sales here in the U.S. could drop by 40 percent to around 9.5 million vehicles annually, while the number of cars on American roads could decline by 60 percent to fewer than 100 million. It’s well-known that many drivers see driving as more of a chore than something pleasurable, so it’s clear there’ll be many out there ready to embrace autonomous cars.

Such a transition would likely hurt makers of mainstream autos the most, as the buyers of these products would likely be more willing to ditch the car than those shopping for a luxury auto. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Mercedes-Benz, another leader in the area of autonomous car technology, has already rolled out a luxurious, self-driving car concept.

There’s one other, much more worrying trend, and that’s regular driving being outlawed altogether at some point. It’s not hard to imagine lawmakers, touting the increased safety of autonomous cars eliminating human error, pushing for a ban on cars that still require a driver.