What Will Robots Do to Property Values?

Our podcast this week is all about driving. Last spring, we had a podcast on driverless vehicles that heavily focused on its likely positive safety impacts. Over at Economix, economist Casey Mulligan explores another likely effect of both driverless cars and the drone delivery services that Amazon is experimenting with:  property values increase in urban centers.  Here's Mulligan's theory:

As technology helps with moving goods and people more cheaply, it might seem that urban real estate would give up some of its price premium because distance becomes less of an obstacle to economic transactions. Wouldn’t a driverless car cause some workers to sell their Manhattan apartments and commute to their jobs from more spacious homes in the suburbs or even rural New York State?

A Great View If You Like Parking Lots

In our podcast "Parking Is Hell," we explored how the overwhelming demand for parking space has a lot of downsides. One big problem is that city centers can feel as if they're practically held hostage by parking lots and garages. I was in Minneapolis the other day, and here are four pictures taken from the window of my hotel room. It's not exactly a view that makes the heart skip ... 

If Your Parents Drove a Ford, Do You?

Most adults have vivid memories of the cars of their childhoods -- the wood-paneled station wagons (with backwards-facing rear seats, no less) or the boxy minivans in which they were driven to school or church.  But how much do those memories affect people's car-buying decisions in adulthood?  That's the question asked in a new paper (draft PDF; abstract) by Soren T. Anderson, Ryan Kellogg, Ashley Langer, and James M. Sallee:

We document a strong correlation in the brand of automobile chosen by parents and their adult children, using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. This correlation could represent transmission of brand preferences across generations, or it could result from correlation in family characteristics that determine brand choice. We present a variety of empirical specifications that lend support to the former interpretation and to a mechanism that relies at least in part on state dependence. We then discuss implications of intergenerational brand preference transmission for automakers’ product-line strategies and for the strategic pricing of vehicles to different age groups.

Should I Send $550 Back to Ford?

My family liked our new Ford C-Max hybrid so much that we bought a second one just a few months later.  But in between the two purchases, I learned something that made me think that in buying the second car I might also be buying a cause of action. 

Before the second purchase, I learned that Richard Pitkin of Roseville, Calif., had brought suit against Ford for overstating the C-Max’s fuel efficiency.  It apparently is too good to be true that a C-Max can achieve 47 mpg both in the city and on the highway.  

Sure enough, two weeks ago, two $550 checks arrived in the mail because Ford had dropped its official mileage estimate from 47mpg to 43mpg.  Ford calls the money a "goodwill payment." 

Autonomous Vehicles, Where Are You?

“The African region has 2 percent of the world’s registered vehicles but a disproportionate 16 percent of the world’s road traffic deaths,” said Tami Toroyan, a technical officer in the department of violence and injury prevention at the World Health Organization in Geneva.

We've talked in the past about the massive potential upsides of self-driving vehicles. Just this week came word that Nissan hopes to bring autonomous vehicles to the market by 2020. If you read this heartbreaking Times article by Nicholas Kulish about a series of bus crashes in Kenya (from which the quote above is taken), you may be ready for such vehicles even sooner.

There are of course many barriers to get past before the world is ready for autonomous vehicles -- yes, there will be lawsuits of all kinds and yes, professional drivers all over will protest the loss of jobs and yes, there will be people who trust a human driver more than a computer driver -- but I do wouldn't be shocked if my grandchildren grow up in a world where "driving a car" seems like something that cavemen used to do.

Has the U.S. Reached "Peak Motorization"?

Peak oil? Probably not. But have we reached "peak motorization" in the U.S.?

Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute says the answer is quite possibly yes:

The absolute number of vehicles reached a maximum in 2008. However, it is likely that this was only a temporary maximum and that the decline after 2008 was primarily driven by the current economic downturn that started in 2008. Consequently, with the improving economy and the expected increase in the U.S. population, it is highly likely that (from a long-term perspective) the absolute number of vehicles has not yet peaked.On the other hand, the rates of vehicles per person, licensed driver, and household reached their maxima prior to the onset of the current economic downturn. Consequently, it is likely that the declines in these rates prior to the current economic downturn (i.e., prior to 2008) reflect other societal changes that influence the need for vehicles (e.g., increases in telecommuting and in the use of public transportation). Therefore, the recent maxima in these rates have better chances of being long-term peaks as well.

But Sivak is smart enough to hedge his prediction:

However, because the changes in the rates from 2008 on likely reflect both the relevant societal changes and the current economic downturn, whether the recent maxima in the rates will represent long-term peaks as well will be influenced by the extent to which the relevant societal changes turn out to be permanent.

A Car that Gets 262 MPG

Volkswagen has designed it, it's called the XL1:

The XL1 represents the car as blue-ribbon science fair project. But unlike other megacars, which are built to maximize speed and power, this one, more than ten years and upward of a billion dollars in the designing, contains not one centimeter of wasted space or poundage. The engineers eliminated power steering because it would have added 10 kilograms. For maximum lightness, the core of its body and chassis is comprised of a one-piece molded carbon-fiber monocoque. The magnesium wheels get wrapped in custom-light Michelin rubber. The windows lower with hand cranks. There’s no radio — the sound system wraps through the Garmin GPS — and no place to plug in your smartphone, because Bluetooth is lighter.

Baby, You Can Program My Car: A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called "Baby, You Can Program My Car." Yes, it's about driverless vehicles. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript here.)  

I recently had the good fortune to go for a ridealong in a self-driving Cadillac SRX4 with three of the engineers responsible for making it go: Raj Rajkumar, John Dolan, and Jarrod Snider, all key players in the General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab. We rode around a large track that the university has built on the site of an abandoned steel plant in Pittsburgh.

What was most remarkable, to me at least, was how unremarkable it felt to ride in a vehicle that no one was steering or braking. In other words, it felt normal -- not like a science experiment or a rocket ride -- and, as amazing a feat of engineering as a driverless car is, I also realized how much of the technology to go driverless already exists in the modern cars we've been driving for years (cameras, sensors, automation, etc.). 

What Does That Have to Do With the Price of License Plates in China?

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that in Chinese cities, the cost of obtaining a license plate (about $6,900 back in 2011) can now exceed the cost of a vehicle:

Shanghai is one of four Chinese cities that limit car purchases by imposing quotas on registrations. The prices paid at Shanghai’s license auctions in recent months — 90,000 yuan ($14,530) — have exceeded the cost of many entry-level cars, the stronghold of Chinese brands such as Chery, Geely, and Great Wall. While residents with modest incomes may be able to afford an inexpensive car, the registration cost is often beyond their reach. “Whenever there’s a restriction of new car purchases through the quota system, there is always a big impact on lower-price cars like the ones we make,” says Lawrence Ang, executive director of Geely Automobile Holdings, whose Panda minicar sells for 37,800 yuan.

In our podcast "The Cobra Effect," we looked at license plate rationing in Bogota, where households purchase two cars in order to be able to drive every day of the week. In China, counterfeit military licenses plates, which allow drivers to avoid being pulled over by the police, are popular. This week, the Chinese government announced a crackdown banning military licenses for luxury vehicles.

The Downside of More Miles Per Gallon: A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “The Downside of More Miles Per Gallon." (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

The gist: the Federal gas tax is a primary source of infrastructure funding but, politically, it has proven a hard tax to increase. Furthermore, because the tax is a fixed amount (18.4 cents per gallon) rather than a percentage, gas-tax revenues don't rise even when gas prices do -- as has been happening lately.

Even worse, as modern cars travel further on a gallon of gas (good news, right?), they contribute even less money for the roads they travel. And cars are going to get even more fuel-efficient.

So what's to be done? Some politicians want to get rid of gas taxes in favor of an increased sales tax -- which, Eric Morris argues, is a bad idea, since it shifts the burden to non-drivers.