Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the auto industry strained under the weight of billions of dollars in planned spending on new technology.
The array of development projects, some with distant paydays, are often labeled as ACES — Automated, Connected, Electric and Shared vehicle technology. It now appears the global health crisis could prove fatal to the "shared"portion of that expensive acronym, and that should trigger a rethinking of mobility strategies industrywide.
Unlike the safety benefits of automated driving and driver-assist systems, the environmental gains electrification promises and the improved convenience that connectivity can provide, the idea of shared mobility — from scooters to Ubers — has always been an economic answer to an economic problem: how to move people from point to point without the burdensome costs of individual ownership.
But it doesn't take a doctorate in mathematics to recognize that the values in that equation have changed. Consumers who previously weighed private vehicles vs. shared ones on the basis of convenience are now looking at transportation with an eye toward survival from infectious viral particles.
For now, mass transportation is likely to feel the brunt of change — and not just subways, bus systems and commuter trains. Air travel has collapsed amid public fears over potential contamination. Seating fewer passengers lessens a traveler's risk, but it will raise per-person costs profoundly.
And while a cab, Uber or Lyft ride might pose less potential risk of infection than a ride in a crowded subway car, early evidence suggests city dwellers are reconsidering vehicle ownership to mitigate their exposure to the virus.
To be sure, owning a vehicle is not a viable economic option for many Americans, for whom there is simply no alternative to shared or other public transit.
But significant portions of this industry had adopted the belief that large numbers of vehicles would routinely be driven or ridden in by many people from different households. And the desire to unlock that potential future value served — for some — as a readily available excuse to abandon the financial discipline required of long-lasting institutions.
In this coronavirus era, shared transportation is a fraught strategy. Meanwhile, automated, connected and electrified driving still hold great promise for those who can afford to invest in them.