The Future of Commute is a Jetpack…Well, Almost

What consumers want from the future of transportation

Uber wants to give you a ride to the future — in a flying car.

The ridesharing giant is teaming up with NASA to develop software to run autonomous, fully electric “flying taxis” that could reduce an 80 minute car journey to just four minutes.

Under the Space Act Agreement, Uber has signed a contract with NASA to develop unmanned traffic management systems as well as the low-altitude unmanned aerial systems (drones). These machines will be manufactured by five different partners who are working on vertical takeoffs and landing. Should the regulatory requirements fall in place, Uber intends to launch some form of this service for the 2028 LA Olympics.

Why such a dystopian solution to the commuting problem, you ask?

Data from the United Nations shows that 60 percent of the world’s population will move to cities by 2030—up from 50 percent today—naturally overwhelming public transportation systems that are already operating beyond full capacity. Hence, commuting will get more challenging before it gets easy. Already the average travel time to work in the U.S. is 25.4 minutes. In 2015, the average San Francisco resident spent 230 hours commuting and in LA and Sydney, people cumulatively spend seven working weeks each year.

To fix the snags in the current transit systems involves asking specific questions like — Can technology cut down travel time further? What information could drivers use to optimize routes better? What kind of culture does ridesharing create? How will road manners evolve with self driving cars?

But the real question is how these developments have affected the US consumer and what according to them needs fixing. In this post we look at what consumers want from the future of transportation by looking at following trends:

  • Slump in car ownership
  • The menace of public transport
  • Fear of self-driving cars

Cars to Share

Over the last decade, American transportation has transformed. And one of ways in which it’s indelibly changing is the consumer attitude towards car ownership. For Americans, owning their first car has almost been a rite of passage loaded with sentimental value. But increasingly, as costs of car ownership rise, economics might be compelling consumers to reconsider buying a car.

The annual cost of maintaining a car that runs for 15,000 miles a year totals $16,667 annually. Given this context, Americans are likely to default to using ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft to commute. But why should car manufacturers pay attention to this?

Because, on social the conversation has already gathered steam. We found that ridesharing conversation on social, specifically about Lyft and Uber, grew from 10 percent to nearly 50 percent of share of voice since 2013. That momentum is cutting into car buying and public transit conversation volumes.

A study conducted earlier this year estimated that it would take only 650 “shared cars” to replace all of San Francisco’s cabs. Car buying conversation has remained fairly flat over the past six years. But Crimson Hexagon’s analysis revealed correlations between car buying and ridesharing in cities like Austin and Philadelphia, which have fewer public transportation options.

The economic benefits of ridesharing needs no further advocacy. But here’s more evidence — data suggests that anyone driving less than 10,000 miles might be better off not owning a car and using ridesharing instead.

On social though, the cities that talked about ridesharing also discussed car-buying more than others. The interesting question here is: Are these city residents buying cars to cash in on the lucrative market of offering ridesharing services? Are they doing this to make up for inadequate public transit systems? What is the takeaway message for ridesharing companies and car makers?

The transit trauma

If it’s one thing that most commuters have in common, it’s the shared hatred for public transport.

Social media conversations for public transportation in some cities exceeds that of car buying and ridesharing. But volume doesn’t necessarily mean positive sentiment.

It’s easy to see how public transit system failures would cause people to discuss alternatives. Most posts about the public transport system expressed anger about delays and cancellations. And then, of course, there is exasperation towards the flailing state of infrastructure. People discussed both the lack of infrastructure improvements and the inconveniences caused by repairs, which often cause delays or force riders into alternative routes.

People also discuss infrastructure failure during times of emergency. For example, Boston’s MBTA system was closed for a series of days in February 2015 due to the blizzards that took over the northeast for a period of three to four weeks when the city saw more snow in a month than it usually does in a full winter, and the subway systems suffered as a result. This Boston blizzard conversation was the largest source of consumer discussion around public transportation in the last five years.

 

With this being the state of affairs with public transport, it’s easy to see why masses welcome change. But are ready for it?

Don’t let the cars drive themselves yet

The appeal of any futuristic technology is its ability to tickle our imagination — the future holds a shiny promise, while the present wrestles with reality. This is no more evident than in the case of self-driving cars.

The U.S. House took a major step forward on its way to transforming transportation by unanimously voting for a speedy integration of autonomous cars on U.S. roads. But the legality of self-driving cars is only part of the equation. Even as state and federal government agencies pave the way for self-driving cars, many are wondering whether consumers are ready.

The answer is, not yet, but we might be getting there. Although the conversation on social is accelerated, it mostly divided between those who embrace the idea of autonomous vehicles taking over and those who are more skeptical than evangelical.

As discussion about self-driving cars gained momentum, opinions polarized. Fear and anger emerged as the most prominent emotions for self-driving cars, but fear has increased from 30 percent in 2010 to 50 percent in 2016. And knowledge only leads to more apprehension.

Most people fear that self-driving cars will be susceptible to hacker attacks. And this fear is not irrational as we have seen incidences of hackers showing off some mean tricks by remotely accelerating a jeep and slamming the brakes at high speeds. Another prominent concern is whether automatic vehicles are equipped to handle emergency situations including car crashes, medical emergencies and natural hazards — A worry that skeptics of Uber’s flying car hold too.

Conclusion

Technology might determine what roads of the future will look like, but consumer preferences that are rapidly evolving will determine where the market will go. But the key to succeeding lies in accurately predicting the direction it will take.

Looking at the market from the vantage point of social media conversations can help automakers take stock of how they need to prepare for the future and preempt solutions for problems. It can help transit authorities prioritize the problems to fix and point transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft to work on the most viable futuristic technology.

For more on how consumers view the future of transportation, download our full report here:

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