As I’ve followed the reveal of Canoo this week, it’s something that’s coming out of left field for most of us. Like WALL-E when he found the spork, automotive journalists just aren’t sure which box Canoo fits into, if any.
As my colleague Steve points out: you can’t buy one, but you can subscribe to one. Ed Neidermeyer at The Drive points out that the vehicle is taking a very different approach to entering the EV market than most, oddest of all by starting with a van instead of a safer bet on a sports car or SUV, and in many other ways. Nobody else is operating in the niche Canoo is trying to carve out, and that could either kill the company or lead it to wild success. We don’t have any idea which way this will go.
What nobody’s pointing out so far is that we’ve been here before, and vehicles like this could prove to disrupt industries far outside of the automotive world when combined with autonomous technology.
The Conversion Van Returns
While the very different form factor and interior of the Canoos are quite different from what we’re used to these days, it’s familiar to people who haven’t forgotten about the conversion van. Both of my grandfathers had one. It was part ultra-plushy road trip vehicle, part living room, part kitchen, part office, and part bedroom. It was more than a van, but not quite an RV. Some had small graphics on the side, often a gladiator or a centurion. Others had whole sides custom painted with scenic murals, mostly-naked women, or even aliens and robots.
Readers will probably point out that the subculture isn’t entirely dead, but it’s undeniable that the aesthetic is very different. There’s “van life,” where people build custom interiors for a variety of vans to make them more like an RV. There’s also the homeless-not-by-choice version of it, where people live in vans but they’re not pretty or livable inside or outside. Instead of impressive artwork on the sides, many vans are very plain and non-descript on the outside, often to avoid unwanted police attention when camping out in cities.
While Canoo vehicles are probably not going to have murals, they’re reminiscent of conversion vans. The company even calls them “lofts on wheels.”
When you look at the different concepts Canoo envisions, it’s clear that they mean for this vehicle to do far more for the user/subscriber than the average vehicle. I’ve seen several people on Twitter and in articles point out that there are crash safety issues for people sitting on non-automotive seats (like the couch above), if the vehicle is considered an RV, the standards may be looser. However, I’m sure most considering a “loft on wheels” would like to know they’re safe in an accident.
When I reached out to Canoo, they said that the vehicle isn’t designed to sleep in, and the U-shaped seating in the rear doesn’t turn into a bed like many older conversion vans. They didn’t comment one way or another on whether they planned for people to sleep in these vehicles, but they did say they have no plans for a camper at this time.
Whether planned for or not, I have a hard time not seeing the “van life” crowd gravitating toward this platform. There are already a variety of van living conversion kits available for a variety of existing cargo vans, some of which can be installed or removed from the vehicle in 30 minutes. If nothing else, people will likely add temporary furniture to the cargo versions of the Canoo.
How This Could Disrupt A Variety of Industries
Air travel is a pain in the ass. There’s no nice way to put it. For a cross country flight, you need to get up early, get to the airport (my closest airport is an hour away), arrive 2 hours early, go through security, sit and wait (assuming you didn’t spend the two hours in security), wait some more, board the plane, wait some more, go partway across the country in many cases, wait some more (possibly hours), finish crossing the country, land, wait for luggage, wait for a shuttle or other transport, and then go however far it is from the airport to your final destination.
If the run-on sentence in the last paragraph was painful, that was intentional. Airlines are like run-on sentences for travel, but they take all day. In theory, you only spend 1–4 hours for US domestic flights in the air, but many more hours dealing with related headaches. A “quick flight across the country” can take you all day. I’ve gone around 2,000 miles and it took from 8:00 am to around midnight from door to door.
Now, let’s assume for a moment that you have an autonomous vehicle you can sleep, live, and work in. Sure, it’s nowhere near as fast as an airliner in the air, but there’s no TSA, no delays, and no layovers. A 2,000 mile trip, at 80 miles per hour, would in theory take 25 hours. In reality, it’s a few hours longer. Say, 28 hours.
So, were I to board a self-driving conversion van (these may not exist for a good while, but let’s assume for the sake of argument they exist in the near future) at 10:00 pm, set it for a destination around 2,000 miles away, and go to bed, I’d be around 700 miles into the trip when I got up and got dressed. At 10:00 pm that night, I’d be only 2–3 hours from my destination. I could sleep, and wake up at my destination the next morning. Functionally speaking, I wouldn’t have saved any time traveling by air, but could have been far more productive.
The point: autonomous vehicles you can sleep in could have a major impact on domestic flights once people catch on. With electrified vehicles and clean power grids, this could have major environmental benefits compared to air travel with kerosene-burning jet engines.
At my destination city, I wouldn’t need a hotel. I wouldn’t need a rental car — or, alternatively, I wouldn’t need to use the destination’s transit much if at all. If the vehicle had a fridge and a small stove, I could cheap out and avoid most restaurants. With all of that savings, I could potentially stay in the destination city for longer and get more work done.
Depending on the size of the vehicle and the size of the user’s family, they might not even need a place to live when they returned home. This could alleviate housing shortages in some areas, but would probably require better availability of RV park-like parking spaces in many places. Either way, this could have positive and negative impacts on housing, rentals, and other real estate markets.
Even the job market might not escape the reach of such a vehicle. If it’s super easy to pull up stakes and move across the country, or super easy to take extreme commutes during one’s sleeping hours, the effects are hard to predict. Employers in smaller cities outside of large metro areas could find themselves competing for workers with the big dogs in the big city.
Alternatively, if jobs become a rare thing due to automation, and Universal Basic Income becomes the norm, millions of people may decide they’d rather just be nomads than live in one place. There’s already around a million people living in RVs full-time, so that’s not a stretch. Legal concepts like residency in one’s state, or citizenship, could become blurred when enough people don’t want to sit in one place very long.
The very concept of borders and restrictions on freedom of movement could become largely untenable under the onslaught of people going to and fro exploring not only their home continent, but the world via ferries that resemble an RV park and resort.
Does this all start to sound ridiculous? Of course! But keep in mind that only 100–200 years ago, everything we do today would seem absurd.