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Could Cars Become Time Machines?

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Money and Markets
YOUR BEST SOURCE FOR THE UNBIASED MARKET COMMENTARY YOU WON'T GET FROM WALL STREET
Could Cars Become Time Machines?
by Jon Markman

Dear ,

Jon Markman

Quick, think of a time machine.

The first image that pops into my head is the louvered, silver-skinned DeLorean of the Back to the Future trilogy. An iconic car that has a special place in the hearts of '80s culture fans. In fact, a Seattle man recently paid that iconic gull-winged ride — and now offers fans joyrides and wedding photos.

While the technology to meet your high school mom or straighten out your grown kids still doesn't exist, the rise of autonomous vehicle technology is set to bring to market a "time machine" in a different way: a way to give nonproductive time back to consumers, just as the washing machine, microwave, telephone and the Internet have in years past.

That's the takeaway from a Morgan Stanley report on autonomous vehicles, estimating that the technology could be worth 400 billion hours per year in saved time. At an average productive value to the economy of $10 per hour, that could add $4 trillion in new wealth per year.

It's incredible to think of the potential here. Instead of white knuckling the steering wheel in traffic, millions will be able to sleep, work, shop, learn, or connect with family and friends instead, as shown in the concept vehicle below. Not only will self-driving cars enable this, but the rise of ride-sharing services will as well.

Will vehicle technology give nonproductive time back to consumers?

To get to this number, a few assumptions were made:

— Global vehicle miles traveled is around 10 trillion miles, or slightly less than 10,000 miles per unit on average for the slightly more than 1 billion cars on the road.

— Average vehicle speed of 25 miles per hour, which is slightly less than the average speed of 32 mph in the United States as estimated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Wall Street Journal reported that in 2014 the average speed in Beijing was 7.5 mph.

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— The estimate of 400 billion hours excludes the time spent in vehicles by passengers. Average occupancy per vehicle in the United States is around 1.55.

The rest of the calculations get a little messier, estimating the value of an hour for the portion of the world fortunate enough to own automobiles individually and how much more folks who own cars make vs. those that don't.

The takeaway from all this is that with the concept of hands-free driving still in its infancy, we are only now beginning to understand the benefits, from lower insurance risk to fewer fatalities to more leisure time. But this also means automakers must change their approach to designing, building, and marketing competitive products.

Currently, features like horsepower, handling, acceleration, and suspension appeal to owners that want a spirited driving experience — turning every highway on-ramp into a racetrack chicane. Yet in the near future, it'll be all about owner-passengers wanting smooth computer control, comfy seats, and on-road amenities like built-in refrigerators, wireless connectively, massaging chairs, power privacy shades, and more.

Instead of mimicking a Formula 1 racer, future buyers will want a car that not only puts time back in their busy lives but delivers a first-class riding experience as well. Car commercials will shift from showing vehicles bellowing tire smoke piloted by "professional drivers on closed courses" to scenes of serenity not unlike luxury airlines ads.

I realize now that many people say they love to drive, but in time we are going to realize that most people are not capable of being in charge of a two-ton vehicle hurtling down the freeway at 70 mph at night in the rain. Personal driving is a public safety hazard and will disappear. In its place will come more freedom.

Best wishes,

Jon Markman

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The investment strategy and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of any other editor at Weiss Research or the company as a whole.

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