Imagine a world in which there are no, or significantly fewer, cars. What would that world look like and would it be somehow ‘better’? An increasing number of would-be prophets and environmental savants are predicting a post-car world. But is it actually coming?
Just over a year ago the former chairman of General Motors, Bod Lutz, solemnly declared that we’re approaching the end of the ‘automotive era.’ Believing that within 20 years human-led vehicles will be legislated off of our roads, he wrote “the end state will be the fully autonomous module with no capability for the driver to exercise command. You will call for it, it will arrive at your location, you’ll get in, input your destination and go to the freeway.” He also suggested that commercial vehicles would be the first to utilise autonomous driving technologies, citing the cost-saving opportunities.
A number of other figures share Lutz’s predictions, but not his pessimism. In fact, some of them are looking forward to a post-car future. The Guardian’s George Monibot recently wrote that cars must be phased out within just ten years, he concluded his article with ‘it’s time to drive the car out of our lives.’ But is it really, and if it is, can we?
The idea that the automotive industry might one day hit a brick wall is nothing new. In fact, predictions of its collapse or declining importance date back to the 1930s. The so-called peak car hypothesis states that private car ownership and usage has peaked and will imminently begin to decline. A report produced by the Ministry of Transport eerily suggested that ‘peak car’ would be reached in the early 21st century. The precise causes of this vary from proponent to proponent, but range from the growth of public transport, the amount of time people are willing to spend travelling and rising costs associated with owning a vehicle.
The peak car trend has been documented all over the world, including in countries such as the United States, Germany and Japan. In the UK, the number of people aged between 17 and 20 with driving licenses has declined from 48% to 35% over the last twenty years.
In fact, cities throughout the United Kingdom are introducing ‘Clean Air Zones’ that penalise drivers of the most polluting vehicles from driving through them. This is a policy that’s becoming widespread in Europe. In the Spanish city of Pontevedra, cars are for all means and purposes banned. The city’s head of infrastructure, Cesar Mosquera, has begged the question “how can it be that private property – the car – occupies the public space?” Similar, albeit not as thorough, strategies are being introduced in French and German cities as well. On top of all this, the government’s ‘Road to Zero’ strategy aims to ban outright the sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040.
A Bit Of Perspective
At the end of September 2018, there were 38.4 million licensed vehicles in the UK. Of these, 31.6 million were cars. This number has been increasing every single year since the conclusion of the Second World War. As it stands, the number of licensed vehicles is going up by around 600,000 annually. This represents a slower pace of growth than ten years ago, but is still by no means negligible. Car registrations were up by 0.8% over the last year.
What’s arguably more interesting is that the average mileage of individual drivers is declining. For instance, ‘private mileage’ was found to decline by one study from 5,100 miles in 2002 to 4,400 in 2015. Business mileage fell from 1,300 to just 600. Commuting mileage, however, increased slightly from 2,700 to 2,900. In other words, despite there being more cars on the road, we’re driving them less.
A Future Transformed
Since their inception in the late 19th century, automotives have transformed our lives. Before them, the human experience was typically limited to exceptionally small spaces. Lives would literally be lived out, from start to finish, in an exceptionally limited radius. The mass-manufacturer of cars changed this. They presented people with an affordable and reliable means of covering great distances and relatively quickly. This presented endless amounts of opportunity for work, socialising and travel. As a result, the entire way millions of us conduct our lives are predicated on owning, and driving, a car.
As it stands, the automotive industry is being transformed. Diesel and petrol are losing ground to hybrid and full-electric powertrains. Autonomous technologies promise a future in which we can safely fall asleep behind the wheel. Car sharing, responsive apps like Uber and aggressive legislation are limiting the appeal of cars in cities and urban areas. In short, the rules of transport are being altered. This is a response to emission concerns, safety and quality of life. But none of it suggests a car-less future.
…Is Still A Future
The demand for some thirty million vehicles can’t be replaced in fifty years, let alone ten. Economic necessity aside, there’s simply no other way of transporting millions of people efficiently and safely each and every day. Can you imagine those thirty million people utilising public transport instead? Pandemonium and chaos would be the result, the infrastructure simply isn’t there. We should welcome changes that have our health, safety and happiness in mind. What we shouldn’t welcome are provocative predictions that simply lack any basis in fact. Cars have a future, but it’ll be a crowded future in which they compete against alternative means of transport and changing circumstances.
The Top Ten Best & And Worst Things About Owning A Car: http://autoserve.co.uk/motoring-news/the-top-ten-best-worst-things-about-owning-a-car/
Debunking Electric Car Myths: https://www.autoserveclub.co.uk/blog/debunking-electric-car-myths/