The giants of the automotive industry are leaping into the personal technology arena to make their cars more attractive to buyers. But is the idea of even owning a car becoming passé?

(Credit: Auto Industry Insider)

Ford, the most iconic of American companies in the most iconic of American industries, recently made headlines by opening a research and development facility in Palo Alto and announcing that it is now a—jargon alert—“personal mobility” company, whatever that phrase means. Ford joins other automakers like General Motors, Volkswagen, BMW, and Renault-Nissan that have also set up labs in Silicon Valley over the years to leverage the region’s excellence in research and engineering.

Though not the first to enter the Valley, Ford’s new emphasis on personal mobility demonstrates a new way of seeing the automobile and its place in the innovation ecosystem. No longer just a horseless carriage designed for the sole purpose of getting you from Point A to Point B, the car is now a technology platform that happens to get you from Point A to Point B.

Hence, integration into the Silicon Valley culture of technology and innovation is more important than ever for automakers like Ford that have ambitions of becoming tech powerhouses in the 21st century. This scene opens up loads of possibilities for the developers and startups that will co-create killer—yet safe—apps for the car. At the same time, the entrance of automotive manufacturing giants into the realm of personal technology signals welcome innovation in a century-old industry, but will the clamor for change disrupt the auto industry itself along the road to creating the car of the future?

(Credit: General Motors)

For now, automakers are working to provide drivers seamless connectivity to their digital devices and lives in the form of integrated “infotainment” systems, as well as offering computer assistance for the task of driving itself. Intel Capital set up its $100 million Connected Car Fund earlier this year in a quest to enable Internet-connected cars that can provide the kind of digital fluency between services and devices that consumers increasingly expect wherever they find themselves.

In addition to offering the ability to stream a favorite iTunes playlist from the cloud or assistance in navigating through traffic, personal mobility could also make driving more efficient and sustainable. As an example, the computing power of the car combined with vehicle-to-vehicle communication can be harnessed to reduce fuel consumption and improve road safety while simultaneously improving the flow of traffic and reducing gridlock.

Expanding this vision is Google’s driverless car project headed by Sebastian Thrun, massive open online course (MOOC) entrepreneur and director of Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Google’s fleet of test vehicles has already logged more than 300,000 miles without any robot-caused accidents and is one-upping the personal mobility aims of Ford and other car companies by making the task of driving itself obsolete.

As more than 90 percent of car accidents are caused by human error, this new technology seems to promise safer roads. A recent industry report estimates that autonomous vehicles could eventually drop the cost of insurance by 80 percent. In addition to making driving safer and more convenient, Google’s driverless car can also empower disabled people to travel independently.

It’s clear that driverless cars promise to improve people’s lives, but significant roadblocks stymie full-scale adoption of this new application of technology. In addition to technical issues, like the need for better encryption to thwart hackers, more mundane considerations such as licensing and insurance regulations could also derail or delay the driverless paradigm. Currently, Nevada is the only state that has passed laws to allow robotic drivers, although California has passed preliminary legislation to set standards for operating autonomous vehicles on public roads.

As driver-assist and robotic technologies advance, regulations will have to change to accommodate these new forays into “agency“—that is, getting technology to do what we want when we want—on public byways. Unfortunately (or not, depending on your viewpoint), the pace of governance moves quite a bit slower than that of technology. So it’s quite unlikely that we’ll see freeways full of perfectly synchronized traffic flows anytime soon. But the number of cars on the world’s roads reached one billion in 2010 and is expected to reach 2.5 billion by 2050, the need to formulate new models of auto-mobility is clear.

city traffic

(Credit: EV World Insider)

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Perhaps the automotive industry should prepare itself for an even more radical paradigm shift than the driverless car: the advent of technologies that enable “mobility as a service.” Car-sharing services like Zipcar already obviate the need for many city dwellers to own a vehicle and can make driving more convenient and affordable by integrating gas and insurance into the hourly or daily rental price, as well as offering self pickup at multiple locations.

Combining smart phones with the insights from the knowledge that cars typically spend about 90% of their lives parked and 30% of urban traffic comes from the search for parking has led to a variety of car-sharing services that are competing with Zipcar, like Getaround and Relay Ride and the on-demand services of Uber and Lyft.

There are also apps that help cut down on time spent looking for parking, including one concept called Parkalator that was created during a hackathon called “data in sight: making the transparent visual“, which was co-organized by swissnex San Francisco last year. Put all these service-over-ownership trends together, and it’s easy to see how the rapidly expanding sharing economy might just disrupt the future of personal mobility. Perhaps we should call it social mobility instead?