Driving into the future

Do you know what you’ll be doing in 25 years’ time?

Do you know where you’ll live, what car you’ll be driving? We all have day dreams but few of us get around to thinking about it in detail.

I’m fairly certain that I’ll still be driving around in a large and somewhat battered family car. Probably not the one I have now, but something pretty boring and similar, possibly electric. I predict that I will not own an autonomous car.

This week I was forced to think properly for the first time about how our daily lives might change over the next three decades by a report from the Centre for Future Studies on the future of motoring.

Korean car manufacturer Kia commissioned the study from the futurist Dr Frank Shaw to celebrate its 25th anniversary of selling cars in the UK.

It is full of ideas of how life in the UK might be: 75 per cent of us will live in cities, fines for speeding will range from £420 to £10,000. By 2041 almost a quarter of all travel time could be spent stuck in traffic, as the number of cars on the roads climbs from 28 million to 38 million.

Two huge transitions are occurring in the motoring world. The first - the transition to electric cars and the end of the conventional combustion engine fuelled by petrol or diesel - could happen relatively easily and moderately rapidly.

The second transition – the widespread use of self-driving cars - will take decades, be considerably more complicated and could be socially divisive.

The Kia report’s striking prediction is that ordinary families are unlikely to be able to afford driverless cars until at least the 2040s and 2050s.

The first widely available driverless cars will not only cost a fortune and be imperfect, they are highly likely to be unsuitable for driving in certain weather conditions or on particular types of roads, which would make them unaffordable for ordinary families.

Kia showed a prototype of an autonomous car at the giant Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. It cost a $1 million to develop. Obviously mass production will lead to lower prices, but for many years, at least, these cars will be the preserve of the wealthy.

It will probably be the 2040s or 2050s before middle income families can afford to own self-driving vehicles that can safely operate in all conditions, and longer before they become affordable to lower-income households on the used-vehicle market, the report says.

It is for that reason that the Centre for Future Studies forecasts that fully driverless cars – which are capable of transporting children or non-drivers – will represent half of vehicle sales by the 2040s. However, by that time, they will still represent less than a third of vehicles on the road, as it takes a long time for drivers to change their cars to models with new technology.

As far as electric cars are concerned, the report suggests that these will outsell conventional petrol and diesel models in less than a decade. By 2022, the report suggests, lower costs and financial incentives could make electric cars cheaper to own and operate than traditional petrol or diesel cars.

However, the report bases this forecast on oil prices recovering to between $50 and $70 a barrel. Should oil prices stay low, electric car sales would be slower and could account for only 25 per cent of new car sales.

Safety fears are one of the main reasons why consumers are sceptical about driverless cars. Other obstacles include the high cost of adapting roads and city centres, security fears over privacy and hacking and impacts on other road users.

The motoring industry needs to demonstrate what its vision will look like, to convince consumers that the technology could be safer than current cars.

The chances are that driverless cars will first become acceptable in controlled environments with obvious boundaries like university campuses and airports. However, a single lane on a motorway given over to cars using the technology, could be a relatively low-cost way of demonstrating the advantages and the safety of the new cars.

Car makers believe that moving to driverless cars would mean that traffic would flow at optimum speeds and distances, easing congestion, shortening commuting times and reducing drink drive problems and speeding. With fewer accidents likely, cars could be made lighter and would eventually be less expensive to buy and run. Insurance would also be cheaper, although still necessary.

Yet the industry knows that achieving these benefits depends on having most or all vehicles running autonomously. It is unlikely that traffic densities can significantly increase, traffic lanes be narrowed, parking supply significantly reduced or traffic signals eliminated, until most vehicles on the roads are self-drive.

The problem is that people will resist the technology and will want to stick with their familiar vehicles, hence making the full transition to driverless cars protracted and more dangerous.

The cars are potentially socially divisive in ways beyond cost and affordability as well.

If driverless cars become the norm, there could be less investment in public transport. Focusing on providing infrastructure for self-driving cars may come at a cost to conventional pedestrian and transit improvements.

We have already seen road space in central London and other cities take from motorists and given over to cyclists. What if in the rush to embrace the driverless car, lanes and safeguards are taken back from conventional cars, cyclists and pedestrians and designed around a minority of early adopting self-driving car owners?

Also there are real fears that there will be reduced employment and business activity for both drivers and for mechanics, as there will be less demand for vehicle repairs. Finally, the cars themselves will have relatively expensive equipment and service standards, similar to aeroplanes, which suggests that small independent garages would be unable to carry out this work.

Ultimately, car production may fall off, as fewer people choose to own a car and opt for car-sharing or cars on demand, with consequences for hundreds of thousands of blue-collar jobs.

The Centre for Future Studies says that in 2041 people will choose “mobility options” that are “smarter, healthier and more social”. But if driverless cars are to become mainstream, then the car makers most look to their own history and the example of the Model T Ford, the car that made travel possible for ordinary Americans.

Manufacturers can’t afford to leave behind the average car owner. And no attempt to redefine the personal car as personalised public transportation will convince voters that it is worth spending billions of pounds of public money reshaping our cities infrastructure to suit the new mobility.

As a child I fully expected to “drive” in a car that hovered off the ground. By the time I’m ready to retire, it looks like I’ll be watching from the sidelines as someone else’s remote-controlled pod rushes by. That’s not what I call social.


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