Uber is street-testing driverless on-demand vehicles. General Motors is planning to release a driverless vehicle for use on the Lyft platform. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, believes that autonomous driving is "basically a solved problem" and that "we are less than two years away from completely autonomy." Policymakers need to get ready. They need to recognize that the impact that driverless cars will have on our communities will be linked to how the vehicles are owned and regulated.
So far, discussions about how driverless vehicles will be deployed have focused on two competing models: the current model of private ownership versus transportation as a service. Uber and Lyft are championing the service model, meaning that individuals would no longer own vehicles and, instead, would have on-demand access to transportation services.
What has been missing from the discussion so far is a middle ground between individual ownership and transportation as a service. Fortunately, state governments already have in place a legal and regulatory model that blends the concepts of individual ownership with shared use and shared costs: common-ownership communities such as timeshares, condominiums and co-ops.
Typically in a shared-ownership community, a not-for-profit corporation is created that owns the shared assets of the community. Professional managers are hired to oversee the community. Owners of individual units become members of the not-for-profit and pay assessments that cover common expenses such as insurance, taxes, maintenance and management fees. Owners vote and direct the community through a board of directors. Many communities also have rental pools through which unused units can be rented by other members of the community, perhaps when family is in town, or by vacationers and others who are not members of the association. All of these features and structures are applicable and necessary for operating pools of shared-ownership driverless vehicles.
The condominium and timeshare models provide a ready framework for creating a hybrid of individual vehicle ownership and transportation as a service. Unlimited by the physical space of a building, these shared-car-ownership programs -- carshares and "cardominiums" -- could include unlimited numbers of members. Owners would have rights that are transferable by sale. Members would save money by sharing maintenance and insurance costs. And carshares could cater to specific owner classes, such as those seeking luxury or budget vehicles, family cars or environmentally friendly vehicles.
Owners could have use of a smaller, more practical vehicle on a day-to-day basis with the right to dip into the rental pool for an SUV or a pickup truck when needed. The power of driverless technology means that the right vehicle would be able to arrive at the location of the driver's choosing for immediate use.
While trends and attitudes are going to be changing as driverless technology evolves and moves into the mainstream, there are reasons to be skeptical that decades of cultural, financial and physical infrastructure built around individual car ownership can rapidly be changed wholesale. According to Census Bureau estimates, there are 1.8 vehicles per household across the United States. Individual vehicle sales have been at record levels, and a recent Goldman Sachs survey found that 49 percent of consumers were "not interested" in autonomous vehicles.
Driverless-car proponents need to start working on business and governance models that provide both flexibility and meet the traditional ownership expectations of consumers. If change is right around the corner, as people like Elon Musk predict, we already need to be preparing for the impact of driverless cars.
Preventing our communities from being overrun by individually owned vehicles in an autonomous age and reaching the 49 percent of consumers who are not interested in autonomous vehicles requires a legal model bridges the gap between individual ownership and transportation as a service. The shared-ownership concept of condominiums provides a ready framework to create a hybrid vehicle-ownership scheme -- the cardominium -- that respects traditional expectations of car ownership and yet allows drivers and communities to realize the advantages that driverless technology will create.