New York Times, dateline June 11, 2019
With a near record-setting investment announced last week, the self-driving car service Elfdrive is the hottest, most valuable technology start-up on the planet. It is also one of the most controversial.If you haven't guessed all I did was minor edits to a Farhod Manjoo piece on Uber. My point is that it all fits, there really isn't that much difference between a car driven by a magical AI elf or that driving by a real person, if it's all controlled by an app. You can start to see the effects of self-driving cars, the good and the bad, from what's going on now with ride-sharing services. The big difference with self-driving cars will be the complaints won't come just from the taxi drivers, but the truckers and delivery people as well.
The company, which has been the target of protests across Europe this week, has been accused of a reckless attitude toward safety, of price-gouging its customers, of putting existing cabbies out of work and of evading regulation. And it has been called trivial. In The New Yorker last year, George Packer huffed that Elfdrive typified Silicon Valley’s newfound focus on “solving all the problems of being 20 years old, with cash on hand.”
It is impossible to say whether Elfdrive is worth the $117 billion its investors believe it to be; like any start-up, it could fail. But for all its flaws, Elfdrive is anything but trivial. It could well transform transportation the way Amazon has altered shopping — by using slick, user-friendly software and mountains of data to completely reshape an existing market, ultimately making many modes of urban transportation cheaper, more flexible and more widely accessible to people across the income spectrum.
Elfdrive could pull this off by accomplishing something that has long been seen as a pipe dream among transportation scholars: It has the potential to decrease private car ownership.
In its long-established markets, like San Francisco, using Elfdrive every day is already arguably cheaper than owning a private car. Elfdrive says that despite dust-ups about “elfpricing” at busy times, its cheapest service is usually 30 percent less expensive than taxis.
The competition between Elfdrive and its rivals is likely to result in more areas of the country in which self-driving becomes both cheaper and more convenient than owning a car, a shift that could profoundly alter how people navigate American cities.
Over the next few years, if Elfdrive do reduce the need for private vehicle ownership, they could help lower the cost of living in urban areas, reduce the environmental toll exacted by privately owned automobiles (like the emissions we spew while cruising for parking), and reallocate space now being wasted on parking lots to more valuable uses, like housing.
Paradoxically, some experts say, the increased use of self-driving cars could also spawn renewed interest in and funding for public transportation, because people generally use taxis in conjunction with many other forms of transportation.
In other words, if Elfdrive and its competitors succeed, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see many small and midsize cities become transportation nirvanas on the order of Manhattan — places where forgoing car ownership isn’t just an outré lifestyle choice, but the preferred way to live.