Does this story have a happy ending?
In part one of this little series, I sought to share the thought process arising (inevitably, it seemed to me) from the moral uncertainty surrounding enthusiasm for cars powered by the internal combustion engine in this age of global warming. In part two, we took a trip into a possible future resulting from the current state of affairs. Both articles led to a healthy discussion in the comments and, following part two’s diversion into utopian fiction (that many found to be dystopian), I want to try to provide some sort of conclusion to this story. Can it still end well?
Firstly it is important to note that the day in the life of possible-future-me is an imagining; one of many possible futures, rather than a prediction, though I do think it reasonably plausible. Secondly, when we look at the evolution that the automobile is currently going through, we tend to view this through the lenses of electrification and automation (as was noted in the comments). In reality, however, these are parts of a much broader set of technological and societal changes and it is impossible to consider these properly without broadening our perspective somewhat, hopefully without stretching DTW’s remit beyond breaking point.
Speaking of perspective, this is something we can never truly attain as regards the period of history we are living through, as we are living it. What can however be said with a reasonable degree of confidence, is that we were already experiencing a period of intense technological and societal change, the latter deriving to some extent from the former and broadly comparable to historical developments such as the industrial revolution and the invention of the printing press, when a global pandemic came along and radically accelerated some parts of this whilst modifying others. Though it is very early to draw any conclusions, it already seems apparent that the future of personal mobility is being reshaped as we speak; and not in quite the same way we anticipated a few short years ago.
The automotive future is not just about the self-driving and electric cars that populated part two of this series. Individual car ownership will also form, I believe, a quite different (and smaller) part of society’s ‘mobility solution mix’. What do I mean with that piece of management-consultancy-speak?
Well, the move towards location-independent (or, more accurately, less location-dependent) working has been on the cards for many years. The technical tools and infrastructure required to support it were largely already built and yet the digital nomads remained an envied and instagrammable exception to the daily drudgery of traffic jams on the way to the office every day that most of us continued to experience. Some lucky souls were allowed the privilege of a home working day each week but they too were the exception rather than the rule. Managers, it seemed, could not live without eyeballing their workers’ necks on a more or less daily basis.
Then, literally overnight in many cases, this all changed. Thanks to the sudden arrival of the uninvited guest Corona, hordes of office workers around the world switched to working from home on an almost permanent basis and, for the first time I can remember, the morning traffic news announced the complete absence of jams. Almost two years on, many companies have already announced that a future even beyond the pandemic will be a hybrid: travelling to work every day will be for many, if not most, in developed economies, something that remains in the past. While our attention was focussed elsewhere, the concept of virtual mobility arrived and established itself as part of daily life.
That this radical change will influence both the use and ownership of cars (whatever their source of motive power) is self-evident. Automation will, more arguably, do the same. For our ageing hero of part two, car ownership had become both uneconomic and unnecessary; any time he wanted to go somewhere, he just asked his smartwatch to send a self-driving car his way. For some this is a dream, for others a nightmare. When it will get here is anyone’s guess; as a number of commenters remarked, full self-driving has turned out to be a much thornier problem for artificial intelligence than many thought, more akin to general intelligence than the narrow, well-defined activities computers are good at; and I don’t predict a Tesla passing the Turing test any time soon.
Despite the difficulty of the automation problem, I consider it likely that fully self-driving cars will become a reality in the coming decades. In any case, as demonstrated above, they are merely one of several factors that will drive people away from individual car ownership and use in years to come. Smartphone-linked car sharing, rental and taxi services are already a commonly used reality and when the need to be elsewhere for work is permanently reduced, why go to the trouble of owning and maintaining a large, depreciating lump of rolling metal? The concept of car ownership was already becoming rather old-fashioned, as the rise of personal lease plans had shown.
So, where does this leave us car enthusiasts? What is this story’s end? I think it ends with a mix of what was proposed in the first two parts of this series: The classic car world in which a few significant and collectable, or just much-loved, ICE vehicles will survive and be used (with some restrictions, undoubtedly) and driving days designed for enthusiasts, featuring appropriate machines on non-public roads.
Is this a happy or a sad ending? Utopia or dystopia? In truth, it is neither; merely a logical conclusion to how things are developing and a necessary response to the environmental damage our societies and economies continue to cause. I won’t claim my own prediction doesn’t make me sad, because it does. Nor will it stop me from continuing to use my old MG for as long as I think I can responsibly do so and, in all likelihood, I’ll be one of the nostalgic enthusiasts queueing up for a go in an electric Caterham Seven in thirty years time. Who knows, maybe it will even be in Prisoner colours.