Coronavirus Has Changed the Future

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The past doesn’t determine the future. But it surely informs it. And after this coronavirus pandemic resolves itself, the automotive and transportation future is going to be built upon a whole new past.

“I think there’s a good chance,” George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen told the libertarian Reason magazine, “that this becomes like this generation’s World War II, a totally formative event that shapes how people see the world.” Social distancing isn’t just going to make for weird checkout lines at Costco, but dampen enthusiasm for buzzworthy schemes like ridesharing, autonomous cars, vehicle-sharing, and maybe even self-service gas pumping. Suddenly a 3,000-pound, four-wheeled, self-propelled, personally owned isolation chamber seems like a pretty good idea again.

Alternatives to physical transportation, like Virtual Reality, look pretty good during a pandemic. (Photo: Getty Images)

Already, Waymo has limited its ride-hailing pilot program fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Phoenix and autonomous car testing in California. Uber, GM’s Cruise, and a bushel of other startups and wannabes have also suspended testing of driverless vehicles to minimize exposure between drivers and riders. Uber has also put a temporary kibosh on its Pool carpooling services in London and Paris to aid in tamping down the spread of the virus. What may have seemed like an inevitable march towards a sharing future a few weeks ago is less certain now.

A long ride in the ultimate isolation chamber, the conventional automobile, might be an acceptable form of social distancing right now. (Photo: Getty Images)

There wasn’t much talk of spreading viruses or other health concerns in blueprints for the future. Now, with the experience of this pandemic, that’s a concern that will be in the forefront of everyone’s mind. High-density housing in city centers near public transportation has been the default setting of urban planners for decades. However, it’s never been as popular with actual consumers who still want to raise families in homes isolated by lawns, driveways, and multi-car garages. Now there’s a health factor atop that.

According to The New York Times, even before a shelter-at-home order was issued, ridership on the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART trains had dropped 70 percent. Last Tuesday, Detroit bus drivers, assessing the cleanliness of their buses, refused to show up for work and the system was down to less than 10 percent of its capacity. Soon after that the bus system was shut down completely.

It’s not that the development of autonomous technology, ridesharing, car-sharing and urban housing will stop after this pandemic has run its course. But there’s a whole new concern now that wasn’t there before. And that will shape how technology is developed, how services are structured, and, ultimately, how consumers spend their money.

As the future takes form, we can only guess how it will shape up. (Photo: Getty Images)

In the short term, the big challenge for the automotive industry will be survival. Production of vehicles has essentially stopped and showroom traffic has crawled down to virtually nothing. In fact, if you have the wherewithal and confidence, right now might be a great time to find a new vehicle at a bargain price – but bump fists to close the deal. There’s no guarantee that every manufacturer, every dealer, every independent repair shop, and every tire store is going to make it through this crisis. It’s going to be tough for a while.

But in the long term, the big effect of this pandemic will be how it changes consumer expectations and aspirations. Technology will march on, but sooner or later someone has to actually buy it. And what they want to buy may have just changed quite a bit.

Oh, yeah – always wipe the handle when you pump your own gas.

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