Every passenger rail project that comes before voters these days gets hammered. Voters ask the question: “Wait, this rail project will cost billions and not be integrated with the existing car-based transport system? It only takes me near to my destination and not to it? Why the heck would we want to do this?!”
Let’s face it: cars and trucks won. Passenger rail lost. And, that’s okay because passenger rail is 19th century technology.
On the other hand, the automobile offers us the gateway to a true 21st century transportation system. We are on the cusp of technology changes that will make our city amazing – and I can’t wait for it to get here.
The Future of Transportation
Through magic, I received this email sent by me from ten years in the future. Here I describe and reflect on the start of my workday in July 2025:
I want to be out of the house by 8 a.m. but that’s going to be tough. I’m tired and it’s been a long week. I’m finally packed up and I pull out my phone. The screen says, ‘Ready for ride to office?’ I say yes. My phone had already alerted the service that I’d need a car and now confirms it with the service.
You can save a little money by hiring a multiple passenger car, but I use a single-passenger vehicle by default. It’s a “Class-B” car. Not as fancy or smooth as the “Class-A”’ but they always smell good and I’m 6’6” so I like legroom.
The car arrives about 90 seconds later. It’s not driven by anyone. It drives itself. The door opens. I hop in the seat and we head downtown.
It’s not like it was even a decade ago. The last car I actually owned was a Subaru in 2019. I got rid of it as quickly as I could. Who wants to own an asset that loses value? We tore out our driveway in 2020 and replaced it with grass. Our garage is now a bonus room. The city is now working on narrowing the streets by a half by expanding everyone’s lawns.
We are off at a blazing speed through the streets. Sixty mph on Broadway is great and we don’t stop. I can’t remember the last time I stopped at a stoplight since the cars all communicate with each other. Pedestrians? They just walk out into the streets whenever they want. The cars avoid them easily and alert each other when a pedestrian is on a road miles ahead.
I can see the person in the car in front of me is watching a video. We’re that close. Early on, it was nerve-wracking when the cars all became self-driving. What was an acceptable safe distance when humans were driving is now 1/10th of that. Keep 100 ft. behind the car in front of you? Not for the machines. It’s 10 ft. on city streets but that’s mainly because for the passenger’s benefit so we don’t freak out. On highways, the cars are bumper to bumper at 90 mph so fuel-efficiency is way up. The traffic forms “trains” of dozens and sometimes hundreds vehicles all in close proximity.
I arrive at work and the car speeds off after I exit. It has worked through the night, so it’s returning to its home base away from people to recharge. That’s great, because I have a meeting after lunch on the south end of Austin. I’ll hire a car to get me there and I can work from the car on the way up.
Note: Okay, obviously, I didn’t get this from 2025. If I did get a communication from 2025, I hope it would have more interesting information than my daily commute.
Autonomous Cars Will Change Everything
Looking back from 2025, we will see a radical change from 2015:
The most common job title today in Texas today is truck driver. A lot of people will be out of work once autonomous 18-wheelers became common. Makes me happy to operate a coding bootcamp company and not a truck driving school. These are already on the road.
Parking garages and surface parking lots will become bad investments. Those nasty surface lots downtown will be torn up and redeveloped. Why pay $20 to park a car for an hour? Cars don’t park any more where people spend time. Cars will return themselves to their service hubs placed in the outskirts of town and return when we call for one.
Rail won’t even get discussed any more. Why use a rail line when you can hop in an autonomous car or bus and have it drop you off at your destination? Urban planners loved “multi-modal” but people love “get me to where I want to be fast and cheap” more.
Short-hop flight demand will slow down dramatically. Why fly to Dallas when a hired self-driving car or bus can get you there in 3 hours and drop you off at your destination? Drive-to destinations like San Antonio will see an even larger influx of tourists. If you’re going to hundreds of miles away, airplanes still work very well.
The notion of owning a car will slowly die out. Apple, Uber, Google will have vertically integrated car manufacturing and sharing services. (Google will have bought Lyft and Apple will have rolled out their own rideshare service.) They’ll design cars, trucks and buses via contract manufacturers and own the fleets that run around town. Toyota, Ford and GM will no longer be meaningful to the average person just like most of us have no idea that Apple contracts to manufacturers in China/Taiwan to actually produce our iPhones.
Retail will radically change. Those big box stores will hang on but barely. Go to a shoe store? Nope. We’ll click a button and an autonomous van arrives at your house full of shoes. You try on the shoes, keep the ones you want and the van goes back to the distribution center. Boom.
Autonomous cars and trucks will enable us to unlock an amazing amount of value from our existing investment in roads and car technology. Travel and shipping will be cheap and efficient. If an automobile-centric infrastructure will be this awesome, why muck around with trains that only get you in the vicinity of where you want to go?
Back to Today
Many techies freaked out about losing rideshare companies Uber and Lyft for three reasons:
Reason 1: Rideshare is great for customers today. Rideshare has a huge incentive for drivers and the companies to offer great customer service and safe travel. If a driver is bad, they won’t be in the network for long. It’s more economical, too. Young people already see the inherent inefficiencies in owning a car that sits idle 98% of its life. Taxi companies, on the other hand, act like the monopolists they are by maximizing profits and caring little about customer happiness.
Reason 2: Techies want the future ASAP. Techies are up in arms because we see the future of travel coming quickly. It’s going to reshape our country, city and our individual lives. The dramatic change we’ll see is analogous to the positive changes brought by telephone, the Internet and safe passenger jets.
Reason 3: Negative Signalling. Techies want to be around other like-minded people. If San Antonio is seen as a backwards place, that hurts recruiting of smart people and companies. I know of one startup that decided against moving to our city when they heard of the rideshare debacle. Achieving cities don’t run off the future. They embrace it.
San Antonio: A Follower or a Leader?
Rideshare is the first step to a pretty amazing future for San Antonio. Besides the picture I painted, we can finally atone for the gutting of downtown our city perpetrated in the 20th century. Walkable neighborhoods like Southtown can no longer be overwhelmed by parked cars.
But, techies are worried. A lot of people making tremendous amounts of money are going to be disrupted. If a tiny special interest like the taxi industry can hold back an entire city, what happens when the truck drivers, street sign manufacturers, car finance companies and auto insurers fight to protect their turf?
That’s why techies freaked out about rideshare, organized Tech Bloc and helped the city get rideshare back to San Antonio. If the future is going to be awesome, we want it to get here as quickly as possible. And, the first step was to get rideshare back to San Antonio.
*Featured/top image: The Pearl Stable was packed for Tech bloc’s Summer Rally last week with technology industry advocates from all sectors. The group’s first initiative was to bring back rideshare. Photo by Scott Ball.