The future of cars
If you live in London, it’s easy to see the limitations of cars. I currently own two vehicles, a car and a motorcycle. The car sits unused for days or weeks on end, as it’s seldom the most convenient, let alone the cheapest option.
Between the sitting in traffic, paying (or studiously avoiding) the congestion charge, and forking out more in parking than it would cost me to do the same trip by train, the comfort of a door-to-door trip in the warm, with companions and a radio station of my own choosing, is a luxury, expensive in both time and money.
If I want cheap door to door travel at my own convenience, the motorbike is palpably better. If I want to read en route or have a beer while I’m out, it’s the bus or the train.
But nipping around London as a single person with no kids is one thing. Travelling between cities, or moving a family between home/school/work/nursery/supermarket/grandparents, or just living in a place without 24 hour public transport, present a whole different set of problems. Problems which are often best solved with a motorised, privately-owned, self-driven box on wheels. Which is why most of the journeys undertaken (63%) and most of the miles covered (79%) in the UK last year were done by car.
So, can we continue to fulfil our desire to move around in a personal box on wheels? The number of cars on Britain’s roads is likely to keep rising, though this is probably more a function of increasing wealth than simple numbers of people. In 1951 fewer than 15% of UK households had a car or van. By 1971 nearly half had one, and in 2009 75% of households owned at least one car (32% had two or more).
Of course, the recession has slowed this move towards car ownership. It’s also possible that as more and more people live in cities, many of us will decide that we don’t need to own a car, for the same reasons I’ve outlined above. And though we are travelling around the UK more than we were in 1972, say, (around 7,000 miles a year, up from 4,500) that total distance hasn’t risen much since 1990.
There are two main schools of thought about the future of cars.
One is that technology will solve the problems. Hydrogen is slipping from favour, as the technical and infrastructure drawbacks become more glaring, so electric cars are the current favourite to transform the gas-guzzler into a clean, quiet, low-carbon runaround. Intelligent transport systems are also in vogue, meaning anything from co-ordinated traffic light and speed limit systems to near-autonomous robot vehicles that control their own speed and distance from the car in front, maximising efficiency and minimising the dangers of driver error.
The other approach is to say that cars are more of a problem than a transport solution, no matter what they burn or how tamely they trundle about. Trains, bicycles and working-from-home are the favoured alternatives here. Technology does play a role, but it’s mainly as a tool to help us change our behaviour – by charging drivers per mile, and extra at rush hour for example. Demand management is the name of this game.
But both these approaches lack vision.
It’s not that our behaviour should never change. After all, our transport habits have changed enormously since our grandparents’ day, when car ownership was a luxury for the few, and travel abroad remained a dream for many unless they were going to fight a war. But do we really want to roll back the democratisation of mobility, instead of making it ever more available, ever faster, cheaper, more convenient and comfortable?
And it’s not that technology has nothing to offer. Clearly, the successive introductions of the bicycle, the railway, affordable cars and accessible air travel have all made possible this newly connected world. There’s no reason to think we’ve exhausted the potential of technological innovation.
But let’s use the possibilities of this technology with some imagination. For example, do vehicles need to stick with one power train for local, inter-urban and international travel? Couldn’t we “containerise” our personal vehicles, so the same box with the same baby strapped in the back can trundle round the corner on electric power, lock onto a motorway to cross the country without continuous driver input (more reading time) and then drive through the Welsh hills to Grandma’s house on an efficient petrol/hydrogen/whatever engine? Would we be less attached to owning a car if we could have reliable and convenient access to a range of vehicles at a moment’s notice, on the car club or bicycle rack model? Whatever did happen to flying cars – are we really just waiting for somebody to solve the Air Traffic Control issue?
Most of us want to travel, that’s clear. Most of us want the autonomy of a self-drive vehicle, at least some of the time. Let’s start looking at both new technology and new models of transport from the point of view of what people actually want, and see just how far we can go.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Timandra Harkness is a journalist and writer, film, science and comedy; She is the co-writer and performer, Edinburgh Festival Fringe smash hit Your Days Are Numbered: the maths of death. She produced the debate Plug in, turn on, drive off: the future of cars? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Saturday 30 October.
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