Changing face of car ownership | Sunday Observer

Changing face of car ownership

Just digest this - car ownership as we know it could be “dead” in just 20 years thanks to the rise of ride and car sharing programmes. Incidentally, most cars will be electric - and autonomous - by then. These are two defining trends of our time. Sri Lanka too has decided on 2040 as the cut-off date for gasoline and diesel powered cars, though it is not very clear whether it refers only to new vehicle registrations after that year. The Government also plans to install a car charger network around the island.

Sri Lanka already has ride sharing services such as Uber and PickMe, which have made having a personal car as easy as ABC. Having a car on command makes perfect sense - there are no fuel and servicing/repair bills to worry about, parking is not an issue and you do not have to worry about lease rentals or loan repayments. The only disadvantage is that one does not “own” a vehicle in the conventional sense of the word. There could also be security concerns when travelling with a stranger.

But the idea of ride sharing (both on cars and motorcycles) is catching on everywhere. Car makers who know which way the wind is blowing are scrambling to offer their own “car subscription” programmes at a flat monthly fee.

It is just like getting a phone on contract, where you pay off the phone in around two years. Swedish carmaker Volvo, for example, has a “Care by Volvo” programme in certain countries where customers can use a Volvo for a flat all-inclusive monthly fee and even upgrade to a bigger model after 12 months. By 2040, even this may not be necessary as there will be plenty of driverless cars at your beck and call.

The inspiration

Though the Government has taken the first step towards an all-electric future, more needs to be done to convince people to switch to electrics. A further duty reduction is a must and so is ensuring a proper charging infrastructure. But there are two other approaches that should be tried out.

The authorities should allow limited test runs of autonomous cars and begin a small-scale electric car sharing programme. The inspiration for both programmes can come from Singapore, which will trial autonomous buses in several areas from 2022 and has already begun a mass-scale electric car sharing program - a service intended to comprise a fleet of around 1,000 cars and 2,000 charging points in just three years.

The service is being run for at least the next decade by France’s BlueSG and will - presuming that current plans are achieved - represent the second-largest electric car sharing program in the world after Paris once fully rolled out. BlueSG parent Bollore Group is behind the largest electric car sharing program in the world - Autolib. It also has programs in Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Torino, Italy; Lyon, France; and Bordeaux, France.

Owing to the high cost of buying and owning a car in Singapore, (one needs around S$ 50,000 for the Certificate of Entitlement alone), extreme traffic congestion and growing air pollution, the Singaporean Government is pushing to provide the new car sharing service as an outright alternative to personal car ownership. Around 2,000 Singaporeans have already signed up.

One does not need a degree in astrophysics to realise that the same three problems are prevalent in Sri Lanka as well. The only difference is that Sri Lanka can still afford to have more cars on the road being a much bigger country. In contrast, the Singapore Government revealed that it would cap the number of cars allowed on the roads as of February 2018. In other words the number of cars would remain constant, with a new registration allowed only when a similar vehicle is scrapped, exported or deregistered.

But who needs a private car when a “subscription” car is already waiting? People can sign up for BlueSG via “a premium yearly membership plan or a weekly membership plan via the BlueSG mobile app where car rentals will be charged based on duration instead of distance. The potential savings are immense for an individual user in the long term and the environment also benefits. The Bluecar is fully electric and does not emit any odour or noise, thereby significantly reducing carbon footprint. The UAE also has a similar programme run by a different operator. This shows that even oil-rich countries are moving away from fossil fuels. The authorities should contemplate having a similar programme here to discourage private car purchases, of which there are around 3,000 per month.

Autonomous buses

As we have said in this column before, the only other way to loosen the affinity with the private car is improving the public transport network. This is the aim of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) system proposed for Colombo and suburbs. But Singapore, which already has a good Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system is also trying another novel approach – autonomous buses and taxis. Under the latter programme, a company named NuTonomy is running a limited autonomous taxi service in one particular locale. The new pilot taxis are Renault Zoe and Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric vehicles that have been outfitted with various sensors and computing systems.

Importantly, as with Uber’s new pilot program in Pittsburgh, there will be engineers riding along in order to observe performance and take control of the vehicle should the need arise. But so far, the vehicles are doing fine by themselves. The plan is apparently to use the data gathered during the pilot - on software system performance, vehicle routing efficiency, the ride-booking process, etc. - to improve the firm’s software in anticipation of the launch of a full-scale commercial autonomous taxi service in 2018. The autonomous bus service will launch in 2022 in Punggol, Tengah and the Jurong Innovation District (JID) in Singapore.

Human supervision

The only problem inhibiting the development of autonomous vehicles seems to be the lack of regulatory approval, rather than technology. Singapore has again set an example to the rest of the world – rewards come to those who dare. It is a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but someone has to do it first.

Cars can already be equipped with Level 5 autonomous technology (the car can drive itself without any human assistance), but most carmakers have stopped at Level 3 which still needs human supervision. If more countries open their roads for trialling autonomous vehicles, we will be able to get there sooner, literally. If this happens, we will be able to see cars without steering wheels within our lifetime – carmakers will actually be able to reduce costs by doing away with the steering assembly and left hand drive and right hand drive configurations. Carmakers need more encouragement and assistance to make this wish a reality.