Tim O'Brien | May 24, 2016

The German Government-owned rail system, Deutsche Bahn, is planning to add autonomous cars to its transport service offering.

They will, of course, be running “off the rails”, sharing roads rather than rail lines.

For Deutsche Bahn, the addition of autonomous vehicles will allow it to offer passengers a door-to-door transport service – from car, to train, to car – and a wholly autonomous vehicle service for shorter trips.

The transport monolith sees autonomous vehicles as a logical inclusion to a fully integrated service offering to its customers.

So, no more waiting for a taxi or hoofing-it through the rain to the rail station. With this proposed service, passengers will be able to book an autonomous car, one which will meet them at their doors, to link them with their planned train travel.

This, of course, is a logical next step in mass transit: the integration of an autonomous vehicle fleet into a public transport network.

But there is a deeper implication in Deutsche Bahn’s plans; and one seen in the similar interest in autonomous vehicles expressed by Uber. It points to a future for autonomous cars and personal transport that few of us may have considered.

The notion of buying ‘your own’ autonomous car may in fact be an erroneous one. And their success – and they will succeed – will likely have nothing to do with individual consumers, as car buyers, ever actually contemplating such a purchase. It may be no more relevant than buying a tram.

In that not-too-distant world – a decade away, perhaps two – autonomous cars may more likely become the business opportunity for mass transport providers, and, perhaps, sound the death knell for personal private transport.

Perhaps, for city dwellers, if not for the ‘first car’, then certainly for the second.

Why buy a second car if the streets are teeming instead with autonomous cars, and can be at your door in minutes? And can deliver you to work – no parking to worry about, and perhaps no parking, nor entry, allowed for private cars in future cities – or drop the kids to school in perfect safety and deliver them home.

And the family’s first car becomes the weekend or holiday transport, an occasionally-used expression of a chosen life-style.

There is now a race among technology companies and automakers – GM, Nissan, Tesla, Ford, Volvo (pictured, above), BYD, BMW, Audi, Toyota, all of them – to develop autonomous cars to compete with public transit systems. Google wants its self-driving car technology to market by 2020. Its plans are not to sell the cars, but to launch them as a transportation service.

GM’s plans with its US$500 million investment in ride-hailing service Lyft, and its acquisition of Cruise Automation, is motivated by the same strategy.

The future is here; it is one filled with autonomous cars. And it will revolutionise transport and change forever the notions we’ve held for more than a century around cars and car ownership.

And it will change cities, and how we live in them and move around them, in ways we can barely contemplate.

This is the window that Deutsche Bahn’s plans, a mass transit service company, has opened.

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