A recent news item about self-driving cars has been creating quite a flurry of debate due to the suggestion by a major automotive maker that driverless cars might only last about four years.
Some are shocked that autonomous cars might merely be usable for a scant four years at a time and then presumably end-up on the junk heap.
Let’s unpack the matter and explore the ramifications of a presumed four-year life span for self-driving cars.
According to various stats about today’s cars, the average age of a conventional car in the United States is estimated at 11.6 years old.
Some tend to use the 11.6 years or a rounded 12 years as a surrogate for how long a car lasts in the U.S, though this is somewhat problematic to do since the average age is not the endpoint of a car and encapsulates a range of ages of cars, including a slew of cars that were retired at a much younger age and those that hang-on to a much older age.
Indeed, one of the fastest growing segments of car ages is the group that is 16 years or older, amounting to an estimated 81 million such cars by the year 2021. Of those 81 million cars, around one-fourth are going to be more than 25 years old.
In short, cars are being kept around longer and longer.
When you buy a new car, the rule-of-thumb often quoted by automakers is that the car should last about 8 years or 150,000 miles.
This is obviously a low-ball kind of posturing, trying to set expectations so that car buyers will be pleased if their cars last longer. One supposes it also perhaps gets buyers into the mental mode of considering buying their next car in about 8 years or so.
Continuing the effort to consider various stats about cars, Americans drive their cars for about 11,000 miles per year. If a new car is supposed to last for 150,000 miles, the math then suggests that at 11,000 miles per year you could drive the car for 14 years (that’s 150,000 miles divided by 11,000 miles per year).
Of course, the average everyday driver is using their car for easy driving such as commuting to work and driving to the grocery store. Generally, you wouldn’t expect the average driver to be putting many miles onto a car.
What about those that are pushing their cars to the limit and driving their cars in a much harsher manner?
Various published stats about ridesharing drivers such as Uber and Lyft suggest that they are amassing about 1,000 miles per week on their cars. If so, you could suggest that the number of miles per year would be approximately 50,000 miles. At the pace of 50,000 miles per year, presumably these on-the-go cars would only last about 3 years, based on the math of 150,000 miles divided by 50,000 miles per year.
In theory, this implies that a ridesharing car being used today will perhaps last about 3 years.
For self-driving cars, most would agree that a driverless car is going to be used in a similar ridesharing manner and be on-the-road quite a lot.
This seems sensible. To make as much money as possible with a driverless car, you would likely seek to maximize the use of it. Put it onto a ridesharing network and let it be used as much as people are willing to book it and pay to use it.
Without the cost and hassle of having to find and use a human driver for a driverless car, the AI will presumably be willing to drive a car whenever and however long is needed. As such, a true self-driving car is being touted as likely to be running 24×7.
In reality, you can’t actually have a self-driving car that is always roaming around, since there needs to be time set aside for ongoing maintenance of the car, along with repairs, and some amount of time for fueling or recharging of the driverless car.
Overall, it would seem logical to postulate that a self-driving car will be used at least as much as today’s human-driven ridesharing cars, plus a lot more so since the self-driving car is not limited by human driving constraints.
In short, if it is the case that today’s ridesharing cars are hitting their boundaries at perhaps 3 to 5 years, you could reasonably extend that same thinking to driverless cars and assume therefore that self-driving cars might only last about four years.
The shock that a driverless car might only last four years is not quite as surprising when you consider that a true self-driving car is going to be pushed to its limits in terms of usage and be a ridesharing goldmine (presumably) that will undergo nearly continual driving time.
Factors Of Car Aging
There are three key factors that determine how long a car will last, namely:
· How the car was built
· How the car is used
· How the car is maintained
Let’s consider how those key factors apply to self-driving cars.
In the case of today’s early versions of what are intended to be driverless cars, by-and-large most of the auto makers are using a conventional car as the basis for their driverless car, rather than building an entirely new kind of car.
We will eventually see entirely new kinds of cars being made to fully leverage a driverless car capability, but for right now it is easier and more expedient to use a conventional car as the cornerstone for an autonomous car.
Therefore, for the foreseeable future, we can assume that the manner of how a driverless car was built is in keeping with how a conventional car is built, implying that the car itself will last as long as a conventional car might last.
In terms of the car usage, as already mentioned, a driverless car is going to get a lot more usage than the amount of driving by an average everyday driver and be used at least as much as today’s ridesharing efforts. The usage is bound to be much higher.
The ongoing maintenance of a self-driving car will become vital to the owner of a driverless car.
I say this because any shortcomings on the maintenance would tend to mean that the driverless car will be in the shop and not be as available on the streets. The revenue stream from an always-on self-driving car will be a compelling reason for owners to make sure that their self-driving car is getting the proper amount of maintenance.
In that sense, the odds would seem to be the case that a driverless car will likely be better maintained than either an average everyday car or even today’s ridesharing cars.
One additional element to consider for driverless cars consists of the add-ons for the sensory capabilities and the computer processing aspects. Those sensory devices such as cameras, radar, ultrasonic, LIDAR, and so on, need to be factored into the longevity of the overall car, and the same applies to the computer chips and memory on-board too.
Finally, another consideration is whether the driverless car is a powered by a gasoline-based combustion engine or using a battery-based electrical engine (an EV).
A conventional combustion engine is likely to have more mechanical problems and fall apart sooner than an EV engine, though EV’s also have potential limitations in the longevity of their battery systems. It’s a bit of a toss-up right now as to which type of engine will last longer.
In any case, the odds are that most driverless cars will be EV’s, partially to provide the needed electrical power for the sensors and on-board computer processors.
Why Retire A Car
The decision to retire a car is based on a trade-off between trying to continue to pour money into a car that is breaking down and excessively costing money to keep afloat, versus ditching the car and opting to get a new or newer car instead.
Thus, when you look at how long a car will last, you are also silently considering the cost of a new or newer car.
We don’t yet know what the cost of a driverless car is going to be.
If the cost is really high to purchase a self-driving car, you would presumably have greater incentive to try and keep an in-use self-driving car in sufficient working order.
There is also a safety element that comes to play in deciding whether to retire a self-driving car.
Suppose a driverless car that is being routinely maintained is as safe as a new self-driving car, but eventually the maintenance can only achieve so much in terms of ensuring that the driverless car remains as safe while driving on the roadways as would be a new or newer self-driving car.
The owner of the used self-driving car would need to ascertain whether the safety degradation means that the used driverless car needs to be retired.
Used Market For Self-Driving Cars
With conventional cars, an owner that first purchased a new car will likely sell the car after a while. We all realize that a conventional car might end-up being passed from one buyer to another over its life span.
Will there be an equivalent market for used self-driving cars?
You might be inclined to immediately suggest that once a self-driving car has reached some point of no longer being safe enough, it needs to be retired. We don’t yet know, and no one has established what that safety juncture or threshold might be.
One supposes that there could be a used self-driving car market that involved selling a used driverless car that was still within some bounds of being safe.
Suppose a driverless car owner that had used their self-driving car extensively in a downtown city setting opted to sell the autonomous car to someone that lived in a suburban community. The logic might be that the self-driving car no longer was sufficient for use in a continual stop-and-go traffic environment but might be viable in a less hectic suburban locale.
Overall, no one is particularly thinking about used self-driving cars, which is admittedly a somewhat hazy concern that is far away in the future and therefore not a topic looming over us today.
Retirement Of A Self-Driving Car
Other than becoming a used car, what else might happen to a self-driving car after its been in use for a while?
Some have wondered whether it might be feasible to convert a self-driving car into becoming a human-driven car, doing so to place the car into the used market for human-driven cars.
Well, it depends on how the self-driving car was originally made. If the self-driving car has all of the mechanical and electronic guts for human driving controls, you could presumably unplug the autonomy and revert the car into being a human driven car.
I would suggest that this is very unlikely, and you won’t see self-driving cars being transitioned into becoming human-driven cars.
All told, it would seem that once a self-driving car has reached its end of life, the vehicle would be scrapped.
If self-driving cars are being placed into the junk heap every four years, this raises the specter that we are going to have a lot of discarded car junk piling up.
For environmentalists, and indeed all of us, this is certainly disconcerting.
Generally, today’s cars are relatively highly recyclable and reusable. Estimates suggest that around 80% of a car can be recycled or reused.
For driverless cars, assuming they are built like today’s conventional cars, you would be able to potentially attain a similar recycled and reused parts percentage. The add-on components consisting of the sensory devices and computer processors might be recyclable and reusable too, though this is not necessarily the case depending upon how the components were made.
There are critics that would be tempted to claim that the auto makers would adore having self-driving cars that last only four years. Presumably, it would mean that the automakers will be churning out new cars hand-over-fist, doing so to try and keep up with the demand for an ongoing supply of new driverless cars.
On the other hand, some pundits have predicted that we won’t need as many cars as we have today, since a smaller number of ridesharing driverless cars will fulfill our driving needs, abetting the need for everyone to have a car.
No one knows.
Another facet to consider involves the pace at which high-tech might advance and thus cause a heightened turnover in self-driving cars.
Suppose the sensors and computer processors put into a driverless car are eclipsed every few years by faster, cheaper, and better sensors and computer processors. If the sensors and processors of a self-driving car are built-in, meaning that you can’t just readily swap them out, it could be that the another significant force for the quicker life cycle of a driverless car might be as a result of the desire to make use of the latest in high-tech.
The idea of retiring a driverless car in four years doesn’t seem quite as shocking after analyzing the basis for such a belief, though there’s still a bit of cringe to imagine cars lasting such a short time.
Whether society is better off or not as a result of self-driving cars, and also the matter of those self-driving cars only lasting four years, it’s a complex question and we’ll need to see how this all plays out.