Suppose for a minute that self-driving cars become commercially available. Obviously, a lot has to happen before we get to that point, but suppose that it does. What happens to the economics of ground transportation?
Today, cars are owned or leased by individuals (households) or fleet operators (delivery firms or rental car companies). Auto manufacturers sell to dealers, who sell to individuals and firms; finance companies from universal banks to specialist lenders finance the trade. The buyer trades cash for utility (you have the car that suits your lifestyle), convenience (you have the car that you want any time you want it), and vanity (your car is a projection of who you want people to think you are). The rise in popularity of leasing hasn't changed things all that much because lessees make payments in exchange for possession that guarantees the same utility, convenience and vanity enjoyed by an owner-operator. Because there are millions of owners (and lessees), ownership is fragmented. Fleet operators have some buying power, but large fleets don't represent a very big portion of the total auto market.
Cars are underutilized: the average car sits unused about 95% of the time. This creates an opportunity to squeeze more efficiency out of the fleet. Enter firms such as Uber and Lyft: an idle person can take their idle car and give someone a ride. Of course, it isn't the car that's being shared, it's the labor: an UberX customer rents the driver, not the car. Uber brings new sources of labor into the market for personal transportation (competing against car ownership, car rental, taxi, limo, etc.), makes it conveniently accessible to passengers, and algorithmically optimizes pricing (the financially lucrative if socially unpalatable "surge pricing"). In a labor-intensive market prone to chronic shortages at the point of consumption (there never is a taxi when you need one in Manhattan...), this gives Uber and Lyft a price advantage over incumbents and attractive growth potential.
Enter the self-driving car. Suppose that we get autonomous self-driving cars that don't require a human operator backup. A self-driving car could deliver itself to a consumer and return itself to a vehicle pool. A vehicle that arrives when it's needed, and disappears when it isn't, changes vehicle consumption into an on-demand, short duration rental transaction. Companies that operate fleets of cars will initially compete on algorithms that maximize fleet utilization, plus inventory management that optimizes the mix of vehicles available in specific geographies at specific times (fuel efficient sedans for trips from home to the airport on weekdays, and light trucks for weekend DIY projects). The more efficient the dispatch and the more comprehensive the fleet, the easier it is for an on-demand service to satisfy an individual's need for utility, convenience and vanity in their choice of transportation.
In a world of self-driving cars, however, the service operator isn't optimizing labor, it's optimizing asset utilization. The economics of ground transportation will change to reflect this. A self driving car changes the current owner-operator (that is, the individual driver) into an on-demand renter-passenger. Rental transactions become simple debit or credit transactions between an individual and a fleet operator.
In this world, the users aren't the owners, but neither are the operators. Auto transportation will come to resemble the air travel business, where there are companies that own fleets of airplanes and rent them to companies that operate them to deliver passengers and packages. The fleet owners - firms like International Lease Finance - are asset-heavy companies that buy and insure aircraft from manufacturers (Boeing, Bombardier, Airbus) and lease them to airlines who operate them to deliver people and parcels. Being large buyers and large suppliers, the lessors concentrate ownership of the assets, which gives them negotiating power with both manufacturers and lessees. They are finance firms that throw off fixed-income-like returns to their investors.
The fleet operators are asset-light, leasing the aircraft (an operating expense) and slugging it out with one another for consumer market share. They throw off equity-like returns because they follow the ups and downs of the consumer economic cycle, facing the simple economic threats of substitution (videoconferencing has culled some demand for in-person meetings) and competition from start-ups siphoning off revenue of the most profitable routes (it isn't hard to start an airline, but it is hard to make money at it for any sustainable period of time, as the list of defunct carriers attests. It will be no less difficult to start an auto operating business).
The auto fleet operator - now an "asset sharing" company of assets it doesn't own, but rents - cannot compete for long solely on efficient dispatching and high asset utilization. Being operating companies of utility services, they compete on price, so they need to be merciless about increasing operating revenues and decreasing operating costs. They will develop complex pricing structures, just as airlines have done to charge premiums for better seats and extra bags. They will segment their market into a small premium segment that rents luxury vehicles and a mass segment that rents more humble rides. They will develop loyalty programs that rewards individuals for transaction volume and revenue contribution. And although it's tempting to think about fuel consumption as an individual responsibility as it is in the owner-operator model, the fleet operator will quickly realize that energy is a major cost component, and will hedge fuel costs as a way to lower their operating cost - or be able to offer lower operating prices vis-a-vis competitors.
We have cars that can drive themselves today. But a lot has to change before a significant number of the cars on the road drive themselves - and not just because of the equipment, infrastructure and policy needed to make it happen. Cars are vanity purchases. Suburban transportation and lifestyles are bound to automobiles. The convenience factor, particularly in periods of high demand, will compel many to continue to own or lease. The individual ownership or lessee model won't change any time soon, so this future is still a long way out.
Still, it suggests that the future of the dial-a-car business will be an exciting one, but for a different set of reasons than anybody is projecting today: intense competition, race-to-the-bottom pricing, volatile earnings, and the occasional trip through bankruptcy. Not exactly the kind of future that captures the imagination.