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Peering into a self-driving future

We may not even want to own cars, although a century of mobility could leave us needing them.

LOS ANGELES - Personal transportation is on the cusp of its greatest transformation since the advent of the internal combustion engine.

With the rise of self-driving vehicles, ride-sharing, traffic congestion and environmental regulation, we may not even own cars in the future, much less drive them.

The coming revolution was evident in models on display last month at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Hidden under their hoods and dashboards are sensors that take the first steps toward autonomous driving. Already, cars can park themselves, slam on the brakes to avoid crashes, and adjust steering to stay centered in a lane.

But the disruption will go well beyond who is - or isn't - at the controls. For a century, cars have been symbols of freedom and status. Passengers of the future may well view vehicles as just another form of public transportation, to be purchased by the trip or in a subscription.

Buying sexy, fast cars for garages could evolve into buying seat-miles in appliance-like pods, piloted by robots, parked in public stalls.

"There will come a time when driving the car is like riding the horse," said futurist Peter Schwartz. "Some people will still like to do it, but most of us won't."

In the shorter term, look for companies such as Enterprise Rent-a-Car and Uber to compete with car dealers, taxi companies and even automakers. Dealers, now the intermediaries between manufacturers and drivers, may find their business model squeezed.

Automakers, too, will find themselves fending off digital disruption. Google is already building a fleet of experimental self-driving cars.

Schwartz believes that California may dedicate lanes to autonomous vehicles within 10 years.

This transformation will change how designers style and equip cars, said Harald Belker, a former Mercedes-Benz designer who now creates vehicles for science fiction movies - including Minority Report, Total Recall and Oblivion - and Anki, a high-tech toy car company.

"You can have a two-seater where the passengers face each other," Belker said.

Gasoline may give way to hydrogen, batteries or both - or some as-yet-unimagined power source.

Certainly, there are skeptics.

"You have to be careful about one of those predictions for the future that we will all be wrong about," said Beau Boeckmann, president of Galpin Motors of North Hills, Calif., which owns the nation's largest Ford dealership and other large auto franchises.

The automobile, Boeckmann said, is among the "few mechanical objects that people fall in love with."

He believes there will always be people who want to own a car and drive it - though they are likely to take advantage of autopilot in heavy traffic and other situations.

James Lentz, chief executive of Toyota's North American operations, also questions a future of autonomous transport pods.

"You will still have people who have the passion for driving the cars and feeling the road," Lentz said. "There may be times when they want the cars to drive them, but they won't be buying autonomous-only cars."

People still will want to own vehicles for various needs, he said. They might live in a rural area and travel long distances daily. They might have a big family to haul around. They might own a business that requires transporting supplies.

In the short term, autonomous driving and communications functions will improve safety, Lentz said. Longer term, automation will act "more as a co-pilot" than a chauffeur, he said.

Skeptics, however, should consider the cynicism that greeted the horseless carriage more than a century ago, said Adam Jonas, an auto analyst with Morgan Stanley Research.

Then, he said, skeptics asked: "Why would any rational person want to replace the assuredness of that hot horse body trustily pulling your comfortable carriage with an unreliable, oil-spurting heap of gears, belts and chains?"

Car companies are just starting to wrestle with that prospect.

"New mobility, car sharing, ride sharing, what does that mean for us? We are thinking through that," Mark Fields, Ford's chief executive, said at a recent investor conference. "We are thinking like a car and truck company, but we are also thinking like a mobility company."

Currently, most cars sit idle, requiring storage, at least 22 hours a day.

"What else do we buy for so much money and then not use it?" asked Geoff Wardle, executive director, Graduate Transportation Systems and Design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Meanwhile, increasing regulations both in the U.S. and globally are forcing automakers to trade performance for greater fuel economy and fewer emissions. As automakers adopt, its going to be harder to find a car that satisfies your inner Mario Andretti.

Cars will slowly, steadily take over more of the driving, Schwartz said.

"You surrender a little control in stages," he said. "You don't have to make one big leap."

Over time, the emotional link between car and driver - the underpinning of car ownership - will continue to erode.

"The robot will take over," Wardle said. "In the end, people will think, Why am I even bothering to drive at all?"