Joining the Dots

This is an odd subject for a site devoted to automobiles. Have we made a bit of mistake? Can we avoid another?

The open road, yesterday: source

Two items appeared on the ghostly, glowing timewaste that is my iPhone. In one article the CEO of Lyft, John Zimmer, observed that Americans were pouring away an average of about $9000 a year owing a car. He estimated the occupancy rate was about one percent given that most cars have four seats and are used less than 5% of the time.

The Lyft chap predicts car ownership in cities will decline markedly in the next decade: “Every year, more and more people are concluding that it is simpler and more affordable to live without a car,” he wrote. “And when networked autonomous vehicles come onto the scene, below the cost of car ownership, most city dwellers will stop using a personal car.”

In another article George Monbiot lamented the waste of time and material devoted to transport.  “It was a mistake – a monumental, world-class mistake. Cars for everyone was one of the most stupid promises politicians ever made. Cars are meant to meet a simple need: quick and efficient mobility. Observe an urban artery during the school run, or a trunk road on a bank holiday weekend, and ask yourself whether the current system meets that need. The vast expanse of road space, the massive investment in metal and fossil fuel, has delivered the freedom to sit fuming in a toxic cloud as your life ticks by.

The primary aim has become snarled up with other, implicit objectives: the sense of autonomy, the desire for self-expression through the configuration of metal and plastic you drive, and the demand for profit by car manufacturers and fossil fuel producers whose lobbying keeps us on the road rather than moving along it.”

In a third article I read that Apple is about to try to for the car what it did for mobile phones. Apple are in talks, it is said, with McLaren. Are they going to sell software or are they planning to make cars themselves. Autocar speculated a little about Apple’s intentions.  And also here.

What will the iCar be like? It will really have little to do with driving although it’ll do that too: “The iCar will get you from A to B, but it’s set to be much more than mere transport for masses. Like the iPhone, it has been conceived to also be a personal assistant with a level of connectivity far beyond that of any existing car of today”.

For various reasons I have been making very little use of the family chariot and have subsisted on rental cars, bikes and trains plus the odd loan when none of the above suited. When I reflect particularly on the ease of using trains and the vast cost of the train network, I realise that if I had to get rid of either the motorways or the rail network, I’d scrap the motorways.

As Monbiot points out, the dream has not materialised (or it went away in 1979) and as the Lyft guy points out (obliquely) you can get a lot of alternative transport for $9000 a year. I wonder if Apple’s intervention in the car business is yet another staggering mis-allocation of resources. Do we really need a thing as distracting as an iPhone but fitted with 100 kgs of battery packs and four Recaros? You do everything that the iCar can do (it’s a phone on wheels) on a train or in a rental car. But maybe not on a bike.

While I see electric cars as a good replacement for ICE cars, I would not like to see a one for one replacement. Rather better would be for car ownership to become the province of Sixt and Avis and leave private car ownership to enthusiasts who probably aren’t interested in running their cars daily anyway. Monbiot and Zimmer point to the huge cost of cars. Apple’s intervention indicates we’re about to have another stab at making mass private transport work. As the whale said when falling to Earth: oh no, not again.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

25 thoughts on “Joining the Dots”

  1. Very interesting. I read that Apple is scaling back their iCar project internally, which would dovetail neatly with the news of partnering with an existing manufacturer. One wonders if they have spoken to Gordon Murray? Apple might not like the aesthetics of his iStream cars, but they could like the technology.

  2. Take this to extreme of course and one must start questioning whether it really is essential that we own our underwear, but I’d concur that ownership is generally over-rated.

    Trains are fine if you know where you’re going. I often don’t. Carshares are fine if you can order your life. I generally can’t. Nevertheless, George Monbiot is both right and wrong, in that he doesn’t factor in the huge change in people’s outlook from having full discretionary mobility (or maybe he does, because the article link doesn’t seem to work). Or perhaps (and I’m sorry to harp on post ****it) that change in outlook from the parochial due to being able to see what went on down the road wasn’t as big as I thought. Yes, I’ve just travelled maybe 4,000 km around Europe in my own vehicle and here I am back where I started.

    Certainly, economically speaking, for the UK home ownership is the far bigger timebomb.

    1. I have fixed the link. ¨
      Sean: you´re probably one of the extreme cases. There must be a third of motor car owners who have a routine that runs very predictably. Private cars are excellent for 4000 mile random trips which is why we might always want a few. What we have to date is an ownership pattern that is indiscriminate and overused. I´d quite like fewer but happier car trips and more and cheaper public transport trips.

    2. Im with you here Richard. I have gone from 100% car usage for my commuting to about 30–40% in the last five years (place of living and employer haven’t changed), and I’m enjoying it. The only reason I still use the car is if I have to go somewhere else after work or if my schedule is too tight (train and bicycle commuting takes slightly more time in a not very urban region like mine). What I would really miss is the ability of the car to just hop in and go somewhere, stop where and when I like, listen to music or just enjoy the silence. For this, I still can’t think of not having an own car. It would probably look different if I’d just use it for performing occasional transport tasks in a city.

  3. I agree strongly with the sentiments of the article but the practicalities are something else. Away from the urban centres many would like regular public transport, never mind it being cheap (which of course would be even better). This is similar to the argument that most of the country has good broadband/mobile cover, when in fact it is most of the (urban) population and great swathes of country are in a digital twilight zone. The thought of Avis or Sixt being in charge of our cars is unappealing; I recently hired from one of them at Stansted Airport and after handing over my licence I was also asked for my passport. Now as Easyjet had found my bus pass suitable ID when traveling from Belfast why on earth would I have my passport with me. Eventually sorted after a long dispute. Yes I use public transport daily but not owning a car would have a major impact on my life. I like to think all my car trips are happy.

    1. I use Europcar in Aarhus. It´s fast and efficient now I have a loyalty card. The rental experience at airports is probably not the same as in other locations, I would agreee. In Naples renting the car took 30 minutes.
      About practicalities, here I get rather revolutionary. Mass private transport isn´t all that practical either. The majority of the population live in urban areas and I wonder if the car-sharing and robot car concept could go a long way to dealing with those recalcictrant throwbacks who insist on living in pretty villlages in Warwickshire.
      I´d be happy with owning a Rolls-Royce and using it nine times a year. What´s ghastly is being dependent on a debt-burdened econonobox which only drags one´s sorry soul to work and back.

  4. I question my discipline in these matters, hence my scepticism since I assume I’m not that different from other people, though I’m naturally flattered that Richard labels me an extreme case (even if I doubt he meant to flatter). Otherwise I actually like the impersonality of hotel rooms and rental cars. My own vehicles are free from my imprint, unless you count the radio pre-sets. The downside is, of course, that the vehicles we’d end up in would be designed to appeal to some median user, which probably involves jaunty seat patterns, etc, etc. But, I guess we all know that, whatever happens, we’re not all going to be driving around as freely as we please in 25 years time.

  5. The sticking point of the Lyft automated car model will be guaranteeing availability. If you are the CEO of a large company, I doubt it really matters when you turn up to work. As an office drone, I on the other hand must make a four mile trip from a village to a city centre, starting 8.50am and arriving no later than 9.15am. That’s okay, you might say, there will be more cars available just off peak. Ah no, because at 9am most of Lyft’s fleet will already be in the city, having just dropped people off at work. The return journey at 3.45pm will be less of a problem, assuming that the cars are not still charging after lunch to meet peak demand at 5pm.

    1. Thinking on, the Lyft CEO assumes that he will be able to knock a significant amount of redundancy out of the equation. But not every car will be utilised all of the time, especially if they are to fully meet peak demand. Plus where are all these cars going to be charged? Somewhere within the city, I would suggest. Knocking out costs is not as easy as it first seems. After all, taxis operate on a model not a million miles off and they are both unreliable and cost a fortune.

  6. The taxi has a driver. I assume Lyfts don’t. That makes them £75,000 cheaper to run per year.
    I can see a decline in rural populations if the cost of transport rises. That’ll get rid of some of users of private cars. Planners will need to accomodate these people. There’s no point moving if the money saved on transport is cancelled by housing costs.

  7. Hmm. I live in a suburb. Low density, light traffic much of the time. We have two cars. Running costs plus insurance plus depreciation plus carrying costs for the two come to much less than $9k per car. The Lyft guy doesn’t live in my universe.

    Neither (hi, Richard!) does Richard. In my area getting from home to where I have to go on public transit (all bus) takes quite a while, what with waiting for the bus, riding it to a transfer point, waiting for the next bus, … , and eventually reversing the process. If my time had no value, I might use the bus. I do drive to the train station and take the train into town (Philadelphia), but the trains run every 10 minutes or so and deposit me close to my destination.

    More generally, the land use patterns we’ve developed in much, not all, of the US are quite incompatible with mass transit and with replacing privately-owned cars with taxis. Sorry, Uber and Lyft provide taxi service by another name. Getting to this situation took more than sixty years. I have no idea how quickly the process can be reversed, have trouble believing that it can happen quickly.

  8. The answer to all of this is to completely change our patterns of living and working. For the most part there is are few reasons why I could not work at home, within a stone’s throw away from where my son goes to school, if my phone and broadband costs were subsidised by my employer. Conversely, there are lots of brownfield sites close to the city where housing and schools could be built, or good quality housing that would be gentrified by an influx of professional families. That none of these things happen is largely due to mass car ownership.

    1. Fred and Chris: chicken, meet egg; egg, this is chicken.
      There’s an REM song with the chorus “you can’t there from here”. My view is that the future is long so we can make steps in the direction of less dependence on cars. I am sure there’s room for some but if people still wanted them the plan hadn’t been executed properly. What won’t happen is compulsion: nobody banned horses or typerwriters either.

  9. Fred. As we say in the small print somewhere on this site, there is an inevitable Euro-centricity at DTW which unfortunately surfaces now and again. Also, a lot of environmental journalists probably live in large towns and imagine anyone who doesn’t is happily sitting on a gate sucking on a piece of straw. I guess that Europe (and large towns the World over) is where the problems that individual car ownership create will first come to a head. Whether we can produce an alternative that is pleasant and decent, or one that is squalid and oppressive, remains to be seen. Forty years ago, I tended to think it would be the latter. Twenty years ago, I’d have been more hopeful that it would be the former. Today I fear that I have turned full circle – the rich behave with gross irresponsibility, the rest of us feel that our modest indulgences pale in comparison and our leaders are afraid or unable to exert any firm moral lead.

    1. Sean, unfortunately these days I can’t look many years ahead. I have to plan for what I’m likely to encounter in the next decade, give or take a little. I don’t expect to be here much longer than that. Twenty more years isn’t that likely.

      I’m not going to be able to drive forever. When I decide or am told to stop driving my life is going to change radically. No more popping out to buy a few items.

      I’ll have to relocate so that I can fetch groceries, go to the doctor, … slowly on foot. Failing that, I’ll have to go into a facility with, um, shared servants who will do for the residents what they used to do for themselves. I’ll be able to stay in my house — paid for — and make carefully planned shopping trips only if taxi equivalents are inexpensive.

      What is certain is that US suburbs aren’t going to transform into small villages with high streets near where people live.

      You’re right, this blog is eurocentric. Although I see it as more UK- than eurocentric. No matter. Reading what y’all say helps keep me from forgetting that there’s more to the world than my little neighborhood.

    2. Fred. I’m increasingly aware that when I talk about what ‘we’ will be doing in 25 years time, I might well not see it or, worse, not be aware of it. Ah well, the only consolation is it’s happening to everyone.

      I’d point out that, although Britain has voted to leave Europe, Driven To Write has not. With our most prolific correspondent being an Irishman who lives in Denmark, and correspondents from France, Germany Switzerland, etc, I think I can proudly claim that our bias is no more parochial than European.

    3. Sean, there’s nothing wrong with being euro- or even uk-centric. That’s where you live, that’s what you know best, Brexit, if it happens, notwithstanding.

  10. IMHO, It … depends on where you are. If you live in a place with excellent infrastructure, you can certainly live without a car, as many of my European friends do. Then again, to my surprise, some of my European friends live in small towns and villages with poor transport facilities. And then there are us who live in more remote parts of the world (Chile, in my case) where public transport is mediocre in the big cities and medium distance transport (by bus) is both uncomfortable and unreliable, and, to some places, simply nonexistent. Here, a plain standard hydrocarbon-powered car is the best solution and will remain so in the foreseeable future.

    Geography is a problem as well. Europe is both relatively dense, population-wise, as well as wealthy, this alone makes the incredible public transportation investment viable (When i first visited Germany some 25 years ago, i could not believe the extent of Deutsche Bahn’s network). Here, the few half-empty passenger trains routes are a corollary of the freight routes to the point that there is no passenger rail service between the two major cities of Santiago (5.2 million inhabitants) and Valparaíso-Viña (0.9 million inhabitants) even though the distance between them is less than 80 miles!

    1. Hello Roberto: the sparse train routes you describe are disappointing. I thought Santiago to Valparaiso would have been one of the obvious great-but-short rail trips.
      The countries that are sparsely populated also don’t have the same historical impetud to change to electric cars or more PT. Europe’s population size and wealth causes the transport problem but also allows for remediation. I don’t suppose anyone will be taking Fiat Panda keys from old farmers in the hills of O’Higgins. If there are any farmers there.

  11. Hello Richard. You are very right on the hills and on the farmers, although they tend to drive Japanese pickup trucks from Toyota, Isuzu (sold here as Chevrolet) and Nissan. The original Panda is nonexistent here, i don’t remember ever seeing one, the new one was not well received (too small) and is a rarity.

  12. What we haven’t discussed here is car sharing. It’s a growing craze. Just as many people rent where they live and someone else owns that house or building, the same system can work with cars. Here in NZ there are two such systems. YourDrive is one and has very recently been bought by a bigger player.

    1. Good point. I think car sharing is a problem for rental car firms though. And possibly is a bad deal for owners as the rates don’t really cover wear and also tear.

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