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How Uber drove us to reconsider car ownership

Almost 10 years ago, much time was being poured into researching and developing sustainable vehicles with zero or low emissions. It seemed to make sense that people wishing to drive a small vehicle would also want it to be gentle on the environment.

Deakin University Associate Professor Bernard Rolfe and his team from the School of Engineering and the Institute for Frontier Materials have had a long research relationship with Ford Australia. In 2008, they developed a small, sustainable compressed-air driven car that could be sold at approximately $7000 US. Based on customer analysis, they concluded that there was a need for small-scale cheap vehicles particularly in locations such as India and China. But the concept didn’t take off. So what happened?

The rise of ride share

‘China has become urbanised. In the larger cities in the west you have more people taking public transport and the rise of Uber and other ride-share options,’ Assoc. Prof. Rolfe explains and says that because there are so many transport options for those with less disposable income, the vehicle is still seen as a status symbol for the wealthy and is increasingly considered to be non-essential for everyone else. It’s easy to see why. Taking the occasional Uber makes more financial sense than owning a car outright. That’s backed by figures that show deliveries of new cars slowed in the second half of 2016.

With more than 40 million riders globally, Uber has not only disrupted the taxi industry, it could impact the automotive industry’s profits, too. Roy Morgan research shows that car sharing will be the preference to outright car ownership in the 2020s. According to Assoc. Prof. Rolfe there are billions of dollars going towards research into ride-share technology. While automotive companies still hold the expertise in vehicle design and construction, there are many software start-ups such as Automatic that are developing sophisticated programs to track vehicle movements. Assoc. Prof. Rolfe predicts a future where there are large fleets of cars operating using the Uber model.

Technology takes the wheel

‘We haven’t seen a cheap sustainable vehicle on the market – if it was economically viable we’d see it,’ Assoc. Prof. Rolfe says. He believes that the next major shift in vehicles will be a result of autonomous cars because investing in owning one will be more financially viable. ‘If we park our autonomous vehicle at work, we can send them out to do work while we’re working,’ he suggests and adds, ‘Companies are developing new types of business systems to make money out of that.’

Plans for driverless car fleets are already in the works in Dubai. In February 2017, the country’s transport authority announced plans to buy 200 Teslas and is aiming to make 20 per cent of rides autonomous by 2030. Assoc. Prof. Rolfe says there is still an interesting future ahead in the automotive industry, but increasingly, technology will help us to get to our next destination.

Interested in the future of the automotive industry? Consider studying mechanical engineering at Deakin University.


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Bernard Rolfe
Bernard Rolfe

Associate Head of School (Research), School of Engineering, Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment, Deakin University
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