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Prepare to be Disrupted

Sep 25, 2014 Urban design

Tony Seba predicts an end to private motor vehicles in cities within 15 years.

Above: New York, 1900 (left) and 1913.


Tony Seba starts his lecture with a photo of Fifth Ave, New York, taken in 1900. It’s full of horse-drawn vehicles. “Can anyone see the car?” he asks. There is just one. Then he shows another photo of the street, again full of vehicles, taken in 1913. “Can anyone see the horse?” he asks.  Again, there is just one. “This is disruption,” he says.

“Disruption” is a complete and rapid change in the way we do things. We already know about it because of digital cameras and smartphones. What we don’t know, Seba says, is that 100 years after automobiles (and electric streetcars) suddenly replaced horse-drawn vehicles, it’s happening again. Private and public transportation is about to be completely disrupted.

Four technologies are making it happen. The first is the electric vehicle.

Did you scoff? Scoffing is common in the early stages of disruption, says Seba, especially by experts. There were military leaders before World War I who could not see the value of aeroplanes.

The Tesla Model S is already “the best car ever”, according to Consumer Reports in the US, and it’s also the best-selling luxury vehicle in that country.

An electric engine, says Seba, is four to five times more efficient than an internal combustion one. Ten times cheaper to charge and to maintain, per kilometre. Tesla says its next SUV will have the performance of a Porsche 911 Carrera and will cost $US40,000. By 2022, it will be $US21,000. By 2025, Seba says, “the gasoline-based car industry will not be able to compete”. It’s just over 10 years.

The second technology is the smartphone, which has enabled the rise of companies like Uber, the for-hire transportation service. Uber is just five years old, has spread to 155 cities in 41 countries, and is already nine times more valuable than Air Zealand.

The third technology is sensors. “Every­­thing that can be measured will be measured, everywhere, all the time.” Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication will make driving safer and more efficient. “Within 10 years, the world will have trillions of sensors in billions of devices, generating all kinds of information.” And talking to each other. It will be the internet of things.

The fourth disruptive technology is autonomous vehicles, also known as self-driving cars. Google has 100 of them. Nissan plans a worldwide launch in 2018. You will be able to ride to work in privacy while doing your emails, reading, sleeping if you like.

Two years ago, the sensor technology on the Google cars cost $US70,000 per unit. Already it’s only $10,000. Self-driving cars rely on technology like adaptive cruise control (ACC), which controls your speed relative to the car in front. Seba says the combination of ACC and V2V in self-driving vehicles will allow us to have around four times as many cars on the roads. Without accidents.

So here’s the Seba scenario. We won’t own cars. When we need a ride, we’ll use a smartphone app to summon a self-driving, electrically powered vehicle, which will arrive within a couple of minutes. If there’s one such vehicle for every five people (a very generous ratio) there could be 80 per cent fewer cars around.

Get that? The roads will have four times the capacity they have now, but at any one time could be carrying only a quarter the number of vehicles. We’ll have a lot of empty road  space.

Will it really happen? On-call self-drive vehicles will cost us 80-90 per cent less than our own cars do now. That simple reality will drive the change.

Helsinki has signed up. In July, it announced a commitment to “mobility on demand”: a mix of smartphone apps, self-drive vehicles, little buses, ferries and shared bikes that will see private vehicles gone from the central city by 2025.


Heard of the Horse Manure Crisis? In 1880, there were 175,000 horses in New York, dumping 1800 tonnes of manure on the streets each day. When it rained, they became rivers of shit. “Transport experts” estimated that by 1930 horse manure would fill the streets, three storeys high.

In 1898, they held the world’s first Urban Planning Conference, to work out what to do. They allocated 10 days, but gave up after three because “there were no new ideas”. Although the internal combustion engine had already been invented and electricity had been harnessed for the public good, the experts didn’t realise the significance of either.

Yet, within 15 years, automobiles and trams had changed everything.

Stand by. “We are going to see more changes over the next 15 years than we have seen in the last hundred,” says Seba. “Cities will become cleaner, healthier and wealthier. This is not in the future. This is now. It’s already happening.”


Tony Seba is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Stanford University researcher. He was in Auckland in July and gave a lecture in the Auckland Conversations series, hosted by the Auckland Council.
An Idea for Auckland is a regular new column, and contributions are welcome.


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