First published in April 2017
I have been involved in the South Wales Metro in some form since 2011 but thought I’d find some time to reflect on that other form of mass transportation – the car. On that I’d like to throw out some ideas that will, I think, be relevant in how the role of the car in society may change over the next 20 years. This future will result from the interplay of developments in both technology and culture. It’s at these boundaries real, often unpredicted and “non-trend” changes happen.
Let me start with, I think, an obvious but overlooked observation, that because of the current status of the car, no one really challenges. If you look out of most windows what do you see? Tens, if not hundreds, of cars sitting there motionless not being used, or if they are, stuck in traffic. On the former and this is the stark reality, most cars spend over 95% of “their lives” doing absolutely nothing. This clogs up streets, ties up natural resources and has a high impact on everything else we do. The fact we have to design our cities around what cars do when they are not moving is as bad as having to do so when they are. The fact we are still producing millions of cars whose level of utilisation will be as low is even more “crazy” and I suggest, globally irresponsible. We have also become desensitised to the nearly 5 deaths on average each day (1700 per year!) on the UK’s roads[i]; there are also significant air quality and health impacts that are only now being fully appreciated[ii] which leads to even more deaths. This has to, and will change.
Moving onto technology, yes, cars should become more fuel efficient, safer, cleaner and will undergo profound changes as a result of electric traction and autonomous “driverless” control. However, I sense we too often extrapolate from where we are today, which is not always the best starting point, when imagining the future. For example, there is often talk of future roads being filled with “driverless” vehicles all running nose to tail creating a high-speed mass transit system made up of hundreds, thousands of vehicles carrying people and goods. However, such a system will have as many potential failure points as there are vehicles; this is not practical or safe. Nor does it does address the issue of congestion to design a mass transportation system around units that carry only 3 or 4 people. Much better to have larger vehicles moving many more people thus reducing the collective risks and using the available road space more efficiently. On that basis high volume inter and intra regional transport will still be most efficiently and safely delivered by trains, light rail and buses…or maybe one day Elon’s hyperloop!
Where autonomous cars could really work well is in urban areas where many people need to make many different, independent and shorter journeys at much lower speeds – this is where driving can be safer if the driver is removed. Speeds can be regulated so that even many failure points can be designed to have little or no impact on other road users – especially pedestrians and cyclists. This is currently the domain of the personal car, local bus, the taxi and the white van. However, the emergence of cleaner, safer, driverless vehicles with the potential for lower unit operational costs will change all that. This should sound alarm bells for anyone operating as a gig economy taxi driver or low demand route bus driver.
In parallel with the emergence of autonomous vehicles, innovation is also accelerating in traction power technology. Many are calling for electric charging points at homes, places of work, in fact anywhere with an electric supply, to support the “electrification” of the current car paradigm. Well I think that paradigm is changing and in terms of physics it is not very efficient to charge millions of mainly inactive vehicles from millions of domestic 240V or other low voltage charge points (can the grid cope and what might the transmission losses be?). The biggest constraint on a more efficient charging methodology is the time it takes to charge, the energy losses in doing so as well as the cost and size/composition of batteries. I suspect that once battery/fuel cell technology becomes more developed, systemised, affordable and quick to charge then we won’t need to charge in the same way. Rather than petrol stations we could have battery stations where “modular batteries” can be swapped in/out in a couple of minutes. It is also more efficient to charge 000s of batteries at a single location using a high voltage three phase supply rather than single batteries being charged using 000s of single phase 240v supply points. In fact, the emergence of modular “quick swap” batteries is already happening. Take a look at Sun Mobility[iii], a new venture from Chetan Maini in India; this is early stage but a signpost to a possible electric future.
However, this all assumes we will still all use cars in the way we do today…but we won’t. I just don’t think young people see the car as we did; nor is it, as I set out, very responsible as a society to support the ownership of millions of mainly inactive vehicles. When I was 17 I did my lessons and passed my test ASAP. Young people don’t all share that same level of interest in the car – many are more comfortable with even poor public transport, cycling or walking. I actually no longer own a car. Things are changing. Rising costs (especially insurance) and competing demands for the diminishing incomes of young people will result in the personal car becoming relatively more unaffordable – and driving costs for young people looks set to continue increasing[iv].
My guess is that the more cars develop in terms of autonomous driving and electric traction, more people will want to experience the car as a service or utility rather than a product. With autonomous vehicles run as part of a fleet, the biggest part of the taxi fare, the driver, can be removed thus dramatically reducing the operating costs of the service. With such vehicles operating at much higher levels of utilisation as part of a managed fleet then further operating efficiencies can be secured. The cost to the end user will then be much lower than either a taxi or maintaining one’s own personal car.
Yes, some people will still own cars. But most won’t bother – cars will become part of an on demand and low cost service in most urban areas, with large fleets of autonomous vehicles operated (and probably government regulated) by organisations with scale, experience and capability in delivering public transport. We will still have mass rapid transit (Heavy Rail, Light Rail and Bus Rapid Transit) for our major inter and intra urban travel corridors, but these more traditional public transport services will be augmented and integrated with the service provided by fleets of fuel efficient, clean, low carbon, “driverless taxis” that will predominantly be used for short journeys (e.g. from home to local Metro stop, hospital, office, etc). This was a potential outcome highlighted in a report produced by Verband Deutscher Verkehrsunternehmen (VDV = Association of German Transport Companies, http://www.vdv.de ) in 2015[v].
Back to my original point, it also means that such vehicles will be operating at much higher levels of utilisation than most cars today– which is a much more efficient use of our increasingly scarce natural resources – and managed more efficiently as part of a large fleet. This is already beginning to happen, Deutsche Bahn in Germany are trialling autonomous vehicle as part of their wider public transport offering[vi]. Transdev, Renault and Nissan[vii] are also exploring such “fleets”.
Consequently, there will be fewer cars around and almost certainly fewer independent local taxi and bus services. This will free up road space and allow us to design our cities very differently. Today’s car parks, which are full all day, will in fact be full all night as fleets of cars are serviced and have their batteries replaced ready for the next day’s operations. With the human factor removed from the fewer cars operating, roads will become safer for passengers, cyclists and pedestrians (fewer people driving means fewer accidents – which will also have a fundamental impact on the car insurance market). Collectively this improvement in the urban realm will encourage even less car use as active travel becomes the default mode for the vast majority of short journeys.
This will have a profound effect on how we design and develop our cities, streets and urban spaces; for example, the road/pavement divide may diminish in importance, we won’t need bike lanes as with fewer and safer cars, there will be more space on our current roads for cyclists. This transformation will enable urban design and architectural innovation in how we plan and develop our cities.
Those that still want cars as we know them will continue to use them – people still buy vinyl records after all. However, in future, aside from a personal carbon tax perhaps we should also tax cars, not for how much they are used, but, perhaps counter intuitively, for how little they are used. This would provide a disincentive for acquiring a vehicle (and all the natural resources it ties up) if you are not going to use it and leave it instead depreciating at the side of the road. Because of the increased safety risks perhaps cars with “drivers” will be restricted from accessing many parts of our towns and cities.
So yes, there will still be cars – but far fewer than today and they will be far less personal. When we need to, most of us will use cars as part of a wider public transport service to move around cities that can and should in future, be designed around people and active travel.
22nd April 2017, postscript: I just spent 6 hrs in A&E having been knocked off my bike earlier today by a car. An autonomous vehicle with comprehensive sensors and safety systems would have made todays incident far less likely!
Mark Barry is Professor of Practice in Connectivity at Cardiff University’s School of Geography and Planning. Mark also has his own consulting business M&G Barry Consulting. He led Metro Development for Welsh Government from December 2013 to January 2016 following the publication of his Metro Impact Study in 2013.
[v] VDV, Scenarios for Autonomous Vehicles – Opportunities and Risks for Transport Companies, Nov 2015