The Future of Self-Driving Cars, According to Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick

World Government Summit
Widespread use of self-driving cars is "going to happen much faster than people realize," according to Elon Musk, right. Travis Kalanick is at left. World Government Summit

Car ownership in America peaked in 2006 and, minus a recent uptick, has been declining ever since, according to a recent study by Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan's Sustainable Worldwide Transportation research consortium. It's unclear whether this uptick is an aberration and that sales will continue to decline, or if the initial drop-off was the result of the financial crisis and the recent spike signals the market beginning to correct itself. "I think that we will need to have the data for the next three years or so to see whether the recent increases represent the beginning of a long-term trend," Sivak told The Atlantic's CityLab blog.

Related: Is there a union conspiracy against Tesla? CEO Elon Musk thinks so

Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick thinks car ownership is indeed becoming passé—or at least he hopes it is. Speaking this week at the World Government Summit in Dubai, the now-former member of President Donald Trump's economic advisory council keyed on the habits of young people to illustrate his vision for what he believes to be a still-nascent ride sharing industry. "Millennials aren't buying cars anymore," Kalanick said. "They don't want to drive. They don't want to own these cars. They don't want that inconvenience." He went on to cite a Morgan Stanley study that found that while ride sharing is currently responsible for about 4 percent of the miles traveled by car globally, the number will be nearly 30 percent by the year 2030.

The future of transportation was a popular topic at the World Government Summit, particularly in regard to how cities can alleviate the traffic, carbon emissions and wasted space that result from the close to 1.5 billion vehicles that are currently strewn across the planet. Kalanick, of course, thinks ride sharing is the answer, and reeled off statistic after statistic touting the benefits of Uber while trying to be as diplomatic as possible as he criticized government regulation that he feels is the result of both fear of progress, as well as "relationships [regulators] may have with existing industry that's trying to protect itself."

Kalanick has been the subject of criticism recently for one of his own relationships—with the most powerful man in government, Trump. In December, he joined the economic advisory council, but after growing concern from the public and his employees following the company's perceived attempts to undermine a travel ban-related taxi strike, he removed himself from the council.

Also speaking at the World Government Summit was Elon Musk, who, unlike Kalanick, has elected to remain on Trump's advisory council. Musk's thinking tends to be a little more out-in-orbit than Kalanick's (or anyone's), and though he discussed space travel, artificial intelligence and the idea of a "universal basic income," the Tesla CEO also addressed the future of transportation at length. In December, Musk tweeted that traffic was "driving me nuts" and that he was "going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging." It seemed like a joke at the time, and then maybe a little less so when two hours later he tweeted that he was "actually going to do this." Then, he actually did it: In Janauary, Musk began excavation under Los Angeles. For now, he's calling it an "experiment."

He explained his motivation in Dubai. "I think the solution to urban congestion is a network of tunnels under cities," he said. "I don't mean a 2-D plane of tunnels, I mean tunnels that go many levels deep. You can always go deeper than you can go up. The deepest mines are deeper than the tallest buildings. You could have a network of tunnels that is 20, 30, 40, 50 levels, as many levels as you want, really. Given that, you can overcome the congestion situation in any city in the world."

This is easier said than done, and Musk noted that the "challenge is just figuring out how to build tunnels quickly and at low cost and with high safety," which is like saying the challenge of teleportation is just figuring out the science behind it.

A 50-level-deep network of tunnels seems about as far-fetched—maybe even more far-fetched—than commercial flights to Mars, but one thing Musk and Kalanick agree on is the imminence of self-driving cars, a "disruption" they see as taking place over the next 20 years, with a noticeable proliferation of automatic vehicles happening in the next decade. "It's going to happen much faster than people realize," Musk said, adding that he feels in 10 years "it will be very unusual" for cars to be manufactured that aren't autonomous.

"When you get into the self-driving world, you're talking about transportation being a tiny fraction of the cost of what it is today," Kalanick said. "It will be fully democratized so that anybody can push a button and get to where they need to go. The tens of thousands of miles of streets that exist in every city will be uncongested. It's a remarkable thing that we're going to see this at scale in the next 5 to 10 years."

But the movement to release self-driving cars into the wild has gotten off to a rocky start that has left some people dubious of the technology's practicality. In June 2016, a Tesla owner was killed when his car was set in self-driving mode and failed to engage the brakes after a trailer pulled in front of it. In September, one of Google's self-driving cars crashed into another vehicle after failing to recognize it had run a red light. Uber's self-driving cars have experienced problems as well, such as driving down the wrong side of the street. When California's road safety agency ruled that the company was breaking the law—there are those pesky, short-sighted regulators again—Uber said it would continue to operate self-driving vehicles despite warnings from the state. A few weeks later, the company relented and sent its fleet of self-driving vehicles to Arizona, where restrictions are lax.

These setbacks have not deterred Kalanick or Musk's resolve that automated vehicles will supplant human-driven cars in the very near future, and that the technology is worth pursuing. "Self-driving capabilities will supercharge the benefits a city sees [from ride sharing]," Kalanick said. "One-point-three million people die from cars every year, so when self-driving technology is out there in force, no more people will die in cars, not to mention the tens of millions of people that are seriously injured every year. Think about what's in the newspaper. How many of the things that we care about can compare to saving 1.3 million people's lives a year? These are random acts of violence, basically. So there are a lot of benefits from this. There are still a lot of folks working on this technology, but we've got to get it where it is safer than a human and to where there are ultimately no incidents ever."

One way to put the sometimes frightening idea of automated transportation into perspective is the concept of elevators, a comparison that was made at the World Government Summit by both Musk and H.E. Mattar al-Tayer of Dubai's Road and Transport Authority, who spoke of the city's plans to invest in automated transportation, including a passenger drone helicopter set to make its debut in July.

"Self-driving transport will be similar to the lift," Mattar al-Tayer explained. "[When they were first introduced] people were afraid to use the lift to move from one floor to another. The same is applicable to the cars."

"Getting in a car will be like getting in an elevator," Musk echoed a few hours later. "You just tell it where you want to go and it takes you there with extreme levels of safety. That will be normal. There used to be elevator operators. There was a guy moving a lever. Now you just get in an press a button and that is taken for granted."

So confident of the move to automation is Kalanick that he describes Uber as being "at the beginning of becoming a robotics company." Not only will automated cars fully democratize transportation, he said, "humanoids" will be able to "unfurl" out of self-driving Ubers to deliver pizza up your stairs, while passengers will interface with artificial intelligence chatbots to coordinate pickup details with their soon-to-be-arriving ride. "These are the types of things we should expect in the next five or 10 years," he said. "It sounds futuristic and sci-fi, but that's where the world is going."