The Crystal Ball

The future is a funny thing. It comes whether we want it to or not. It brings things like our first bike, college graduation, sometimes marriage and kids. It also brings things like the flu, broken arms, cancer, and—always—death. There are two ways to predict the future, psychics not included. One is called extrapolative thinking, while the other is called normative thinking.

With extrapolative thinking you use previous trends to plot the future. If your dad was six feet tall and you are six feet tall, then there a fair chance your son will grow to be six feet tall. Similarly, if your company made $4M last year and made $5M this year and all the economic indicators remain the same, there’s a chance your company could continue its growth to do $6M. That’s an oversimplification, but you get the idea. Most fiction is extrapolative.

Normative thinking isn’t the opposite. It has no relationship to extrapolative thinking. It’s the very definition of out-of-the-box thinking. It’s “What if?” writ large. It’s how you get Nazi Germany, Napster, the iPhone and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. All of science fiction is normative.

Sometimes normative and extrapolative futures converge. That’s when things get lively. Start from an imagined point and then chart the implications like so many pool balls shooting across the table.

Which brings me to the particular future I want to explore: how cycling will evolve in the 21st century. The American bike industry frets about the number of new people entering cycling each year—other first-world countries don’t have the low ridership and obesity numbers the U.S. does. So if more people entered cycling and bought bikes that would make the bike industry grow and improve the strength of existing IBDs, right?

Not so fast. The looming shift to online sales of complete bikes, which will be led by Canyon and swiftly followed by Trek, will kill all shops that aren’t prepared to shift their business model to help the big brands service online clientele. Even the bike studios are likely to see how they do business evolve. But that’s not where the big shift is going to come.

You’ve probably read about Google’s efforts at self-driving cars. To date, the only crashes they’ve been involved in have been due to errors by human drivers, not Google’s software. The AI in these things is pretty stellar; soon (okay, in the next 20 years or so) cars will have it’s called Level 4 autonomy, the ability to operate completely autonomously. So what will it mean to society when self-driving cars are in mass production?

The Wall Street Journal’s Dan Neil (a Pulitzer Prize winner in criticism for his review of the Mini Cooper S), took on this topic recently. He noted that the utilization rate for cars is astoundingly low, about 5 percent. That means that 23 hours of every day most cars sit idle. Neil posed the question of what if cars, like vacation condos, could be shared? The first thing that would happen is that companies would emerge for on-demand use of cars. You’d log into an app on your phone and the car would show up in time for your trip to the grocery store or work or the airport. You pay for only the miles logged. When finished, you get out and the car heads off to its next appointment.

So what’s it mean? Well, the first thing is that you will be able to devote the entire garage to bikes and no one will bitch at you for not pulling your car in. But there will be even bigger changes. Neil notes that cab drivers and traffic jams will be but distant memories. A road full of autonomous-driving cars will simply move more smoothly. It goes much further than that, though. You’ll get where you need to go more quickly because autonomous cars are ego-free, none of that idiocy of the guy in the luxury sedan zooming up the breakdown lane when cars are merging lanes due to construction. Children and the blind will enjoy much greater freedom. Here’s one: moms won’t be after-school shuttles.

You know what else will become a distant memory? Getting run over by a car. Give that a second to sink in. Non-cyclists’ number one overwhelming fear will evaporate like water on a hot street. You won’t need a bike lane or sharrows; they’ll simply go around you without honking. Level 4 AV cars will shift around group rides as if they were nothing more than a rolling construction zone. Also, autonomous cars don’t have middle fingers.

Among his many supporting facts is the dropping license rate for new drivers here in the U.S. People just aren’t as enamored of car ownership as they once were.

There’s going to come a tipping point, perhaps a few years after I have to hang up the cleats, but it will come. That tipping point will include not just an absence of traffic jams and lots of career-shifting cab drivers, but it will also include skyrocketing insurance premiums. Neil didn’t explore this, but it’s a natural. If you’re on a stretch of road at the wheel of the only human-steered car and there’s a crash, guess what? It’s your fault and your insurance company and the police aren’t going to give two blinks to your explanation. Even if you don’t wreck your dad’s ’67 Corvette, the fact that you’re the one guy on the 405 steering for yourself is going to become an insurance extravagance, like flood coverage in New Orleans, just with the difference that it’s still mandated by law.

That little move right there is going to price a great many people out of cars for good. That, dear friends, is what we call a societal shift. It’s a normative change that our parents didn’t see coming. Hell, most of us wouldn’t have guessed it five years ago. And given that roughly 17 percent of household income (on average) is devoted to car ownership, just think what that will do for living standards.

The upshot is that once this goes down, if you want to marry personal freedom and mobility, you’re going to be riding a bike, because you’re not going to take up flying. The next expression of vehicle autonomy will develop in aircraft once they have cars polished.

The feedback loop of moving faster than you can run, while choosing your direction is a thrill that humans will never tire of. Never. Most of us who are cyclists aren’t in it for the exercise. We do it because it didn’t stop being fun when we became adults. Or maybe we just didn’t stop being kids. Either way, the bicycle has remained a favorite expression of movement through the world and there’s going to come a day when zooming away from a stop light will only be possible by pedal. When that day comes, we’re going to see a lot of converts.

It’s a world we’re not going to need to imagine.

Image: Steve Snodgrass, Flickr Creative Commons

Join the conversation
  1. Fido Castro says

    Having been my own IT staff since 1991, I can’t help but wonder what happens when a buggy software update turns all these self-driving Ray-O-Vac Roadsters into a furious fleet of Christines.

    The roads here in The Duck! City are tough enough with motorists recycling their beer bottles at roadside and getting into shooting wars over side-eyes at stop lights, which mostly they run at 20 mph over the posted limit, and how they make eye contact when they’re all staring at their phones remains a mystery to me.

    Come to think of it, when they no longer have to pay even the slightest bit of attention to actually managing their multi-ton vehicles, motorists, they’ll have more time to perfect their aim with bottle and blaster. Man, a stationary bike at the gym is looking better every day.

Leave A Reply

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More