‘I’m in love with my car’, sings Rami Malek's Freddie Mercury in the 2018 Bohemian Rhapsody, eulogizing ‘the machine of a dream’. Ever since the song was released in 1975 by Queen, the world has seemed to wholeheartedly agree with him. Cars have become a cultural symbol of massive power, a teenage ticket out of suburbia, a flashy image of conspicuous consumption, a marker of the passage into adulthood. Yet, as automobile sales fall all over the world, is our century-long love affair with the car finally over?
In 1908, the first Model T Ford rolled off the production line; by 1930 the equestrian age was, to all intents and purposes, over. In the US, the number of cars produced in a year increased 90- fold- from roughly 45,000 in 1907 to 3,971,000 in 1935, and a car-oriented society was born- all thanks to the internal combustion engine. Yet it looks like the years of sweet, sweet internal-combustion are drawing to a close. A growing number of tech analysts are predicting that in less than 20 years we'll all have stopped owning cars, and, what's more, the internal combustion engine will have been consigned to the dustbin of history; the future’s electric.
In January 2019, car production in Britain declined 18.2%, to 1.49 million vehicles annually, whilst even in the US itself, birthplace both of sprawling suburbia and a whole Beat generation counterculture based around the nomadic road novel- when adjusted for population growth, the number of miles driven peaked in 2005, and dropped steadily thereafter.
Children of the Revolution
The biggest lifestyle shift is taking place among the young: A study last year found that driving by young people decreased 23 percent between 2001 and 2009. Millennials don’t value cars and car ownership; from 2007 to 2011, the age group most likely to buy a car shifted from the 35 to 44 group to the 55 to 64 group, suggesting the old-man-in-a-Porsche demographic is having a swansong.
“Different things are converging which suggest that we are witnessing a long-term cultural shift,” said Mimi Sheller, a sociology professor at Drexel University and director of its Mobilities Research and Policy Center. She cites various factors: the Internet makes telecommuting possible- why drive to meet your friends in the flesh when you can communicate from under six inches of duvet? The renewal of city-centres has made the suburbs less appealing and has drawn empty nesters back in. Meanwhile, the rise in car-pooling apps has facilitated more flexible commuting arrangements, including the evolution of shared van services for getting to work.
Sceptical? Let me enlighten you- here’s what experts predict will fill the car-shaped void:
Hear me out. Tony Seba and his team at think tank RethinkX have envisaged a revolution that will rip through the personal transportation market. Seba believes that the cost of self-driving electric vehicles will plummet so rapidly that the cheap transport afforded by an Uber-style network will cause many of us to give up our cars- to save money. Mr Seba calls the idea of a robo-taxi network "transport as a service", and estimates it could save the average American as much as $6,000 (£4,560) a year. That's the equivalent of a 10% pay rise.
So- the revolution is coming- and perhaps soon: RethinkX, for example, reckons that within 10 years of self-driving cars getting regulatory approval, 95% of passenger miles will be in these electric robo-taxis.
H is for Human
Relinquish your grip on the steering wheel, my friends, Seba has prophesied that the logical next step after widespread robo-taxi implementation is for human beings to be banned from driving cars at all; they would pose a huge risk to other road users. Andry Rakotonirainy, at Queensland Institute of Technology, an expert in intelligent transport systems, believes that a road network full of self-driving cars will be far safer than today’s human-directed traffic, as "in over 90% of cases, crashes are due to human error'' but what has him concerned is how to make the transition.
His colleague, robotics professor Jonathan Roberts, predicts that ultimately ‘governments will ban human drivers'. He concedes there will always be people who love to drive and suggests there might be special roads for humans, or “H” plates instead of learner plates, seemingly envisaging a little dunce cap of humanity- marking us out from our robot compatriots.
Roberts says infrastructure will need to be upgraded to make the most of what self-driving cars can do. He points to current road capacity being limited by human reaction times, meaning more driverless cars could be on the road at once travelling at high speeds. “You’d want highways with racetrack-style banked turns, so cars can go 150km an hour around a bend two metres apart from each other,” he says. Freeways turned into racetracks for a tightly-packed fleet of lighting-fast robot cars- is my Lightning McQueen fantasy finally realised?
Rise of the e-bike
Cities are investing in cycling all over the world. With 140km of London cycle paths under construction or in planning, road-by-road the bike is being prioritised over the car. E-bike sales could surge past 1.5 million a year by 2050 as environmental, health, and cost benefits make electric-assisted peddle power an increasingly popular mode of transport in the UK. Around 11 per cent of total bike sales across the Halfords Group last year were from electric models and the cycling retailer’s sales of e-bikes have grown by 47 per cent over the past year.
These are not to be confused with the e-bike's unruly cousin- the e-scooter, which has been embroiled in growing backlash. The archaic 1835 Highway Law prevents people from riding them on public roads and pavements, as it prohibits anyone from riding a "carriage of any description" on a footpath; police have recently been cracking down, with almost 100 scooter users stopped and fined last week by London police- whilst the first fatal e-scooter crash was recorded in London in July 2019.
This hasn’t stunted the skyrocketing popularity of this particular carriage; a report from the Boston Consulting Group described the rise of e-scooters as a 'tsunami' that has descended on cities all over the world. Partner Joe Hazan characterised it as 'the fastest rollout in the history of mobility services and the quickest wave to spread across the world. It's basically gone global over the past two years’.
Are we ready for H-plates and e-scooter anarchy? It may be beyond our control. Move over 1908, it seems the new transport revolution is here, and it’s mass produced. If the pattern persists — and many sociologists believe it will — it’s undoubtedly good news for the environment, as transportation is the second largest source of America’s emissions, but it may just spell the end of road-trip culture.