A garage-shaped white elephant

November 19, 2021

20211119 A garage-shaped white elephant

Guelph City Council has been debating whether to allow double-width garages for certain single-family homes. Although there are great arguments on each side, one point hasn't received much attention: We’re effectively in 2007, planning to stock up on Nokia handsets, right before the smartphone boom.

The automobile entered the public consciousness - and the right of way - at the turn of the last century. Since then it has become ever more prevalent until now it is a cornerstone of our transportation system. These days most Guelph households have one (or two, or more). It’s hard to imagine a future in which people don’t own cars.

However, the convergence of three innovations - electric drivetrains, autonomous driving technology, and smartphone-enabled ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft - is about to change all that. The - er - driver of this transformation is the number of dollars that road transport costs per passenger kilometer. This cost is going to drop by a factor of ten - dropping from a household annual average of $11K to just over a grand. A prophet of this transformation is Tony Seba, and I won’t duplicate his reasoning - you can check it out for yourself here.

Nokia execs laughed at the iPhone. Who on earth, they argued, would pay over $500 for a mobile phone? It would take decades for smartphones to take a significant share of the mobile telephony market, they scoffed. They were dead wrong. From a standing start in 2007, smartphones owned the market less than five years later. The product won because, although it was more expensive than the incumbent tech, it was vastly more capable.

The soon-to-be-available alternative to the internal combustion-propelled, human-driven, individually-owned car will be far better, but also far cheaper and far easier. Electric, autonomous, shared mobility - call it the electric robotaxi - is practically here. Established tech companies and start-ups are working on the technology, including Tesla, Google sister company Waymo, GM’s Cruise subsidiary (more here), Amazon, Argo AI and others.

A lot of burdens come with car ownership, including the upfront cost of buying the vehicle, insurance, parking, licensing, oil changes every quarter, and major maintenance checkups at least once a year (frequently bearing bad news of costly repairs). And fuel. Remember when gasoline was less than a dollar a litre? You don’t have to remember very far back - that was just a year ago. Today it’s 40% more expensive.

Now, imagine a world of electric robotaxis. You touch a call button on a smartphone app. Or maybe your calendar app is intelligent enough to know that your next appointment is several kilometres away and makes the call automagically. A car arrives a few minutes later. You hop in, sit back, and read, sipping a made-to-your-order coffee that the car picked up for you on the way (and maybe the coffee provider threw in the ride for free - yes, that’s how cheap it will be). You take a phone call or two, which is completely safe since you’re not the one driving. You arrive at your destination, hop out, and the car heads away to pick up its next customer.

In this world, your garage is obsolete. Even your driveway is, if you decide to let the car wait on the street while you green up a good chunk of your front yard that used to be covered with asphalt. Too old, too young, or not physically able to drive? Not a problem. All you need is a smartphone. (Read more on how driving will look for the next generation here.) Even if you already have a car and all that entails, you can switch to the alternative in as much time as it takes to download an app.

Cheaper. Better. More convenient. Easy to switch. That sets the stage for what Tony Seba calls a disruption. It means that the bottom will soon drop out of the market for used cars. The rallying cry will switch from “How do I get my two-car garage?” to “What the heck can I do with this useless garage?” An entire new industry will spring up helping homeowners to repurpose their garages into something new and more useful. If homeowners convert these over to apartment suites, they might even offer a solution to the dearth of entry-level housing in our community.

Our Council will still need to solve the problem it faces today. Solving one problem often creates another. Perhaps in this case, at least, solving one problem will set the stage to solve another.


Alex Chapman

Executive Director