Over the past couple of years there have been many articles about the future of cars and how they will be powered and used. If we stitch all of them together we get a really interesting (or concerning) picture of how we travel in a personal vehicle and even survive!
Let’s start with the driver. We know that many younger people aren’t that interested in cars and are more focused on social connection through a mobile device like a phone or tablet. This could change generationally, however, I think we will continue to see fewer people learning to drive. This potentially dampens the sale of new cars to individuals who would prefer to use a form of public transportation. It could see a temporary reduction in city traffic and thus pollution.
Motorcycles and Autocycles
We might see an initial rise of smaller engined motorcycles and “autocycles”, three wheelers that are covered, allowing the occupants some weather protection. These are being designed today and could be seen as cheap city/town vehicles, a far cry from the original TownCar by Lincoln! This wouldn’t necessarily reduce traffic congestion but would reduce the consumption of oil for example. Many Asian cities are dominated by motorcycles and this could spread westwards.
The concept of car sharing in many cities across the world has seen a huge rise in usage by people who live in a city or suburb and who only use a car on a limited basis to run errands. These schemes allow many people to use one vehicle and can be a substantial saving for someone who would otherwise have a car sitting idle for many days of the week. I use GoGet in Sydney when I’m not taking my classic out for a run. It allows me to choose from a range of vehicles in local “pods” depending on what I need to do.
This is the big changer of the future. Today we see cars being sold that are a huge evolution from what we saw even 10 years ago. Electric vehicles are now being seen in our cities on a more regular basis. They are more reliable, have greater range and are being sold at a price that is now in the sights of some people who are not yet ready to car share or who live in an outer suburb and what to reduce pollution and their reliance on oil.
We see cars that have greater connection to the internet where an occupant can search for information whilst on the move to help them find fuel, food or other services. This connection helps them in an emergency too, reducing the time taken for rescue teams to arrive.
Some cars can auto-park themselves already and this year we have also seen the introduction of “autonomous” cars in a development and test environment although Audi did travel to the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas in one, showing that they are getting closer to production. I believe that this is the feature that will define the future of personal transportation. If people aren’t bothered about learning to drive, they can use a car that drives itself!
Let’s take the concept of driverless cars to the extreme! Who needs a taxi driver now? Imagine this: you want to go into the city and on your mobile you access a taxi app, book a car and when it arrives, you swipe a transport or credit card to unlock it. The app has told the car which street you want to go to and it takes you there. You swipe your card to pay and the doors unlock to allow you out. The vehicle then auto accepts the next request in the queue for a passenger nearby or finds the nearest charging point for a battery top up. No humans (apart from the passenger) are involved. At a pre-determined point the data collected answers a question and sends a request to the manufacturer for a new vehicle to increase the taxi fleet.
The manufacturer puts the new vehicle on a driverless truck that ships a group of cars to a city delivery point. The vehicle’s GPS tells it that it is in the city of choice and the car drives to the taxi company for registration and to be put into service. Again, no truck drivers involved! The taxi company has only mechanics/cleaners and a few other admin or data people working for it.
For the industry, this could be an initial saviour as companies and some people buy autonomous cars. Then something happens. With robotics increasing, they can produce cars cheaper, however the volume of buyers reduces thus putting pressure on the manufacturers to lower prices further. At some point, it will become less profitable to ship cars around the globe and the manufacturers will shrink back into their home markets leaving perhaps only 10 companies across the world supplying cars to buyers within a few hours shipping radius. Again, fewer people will be needed to manufacture and ship the vehicles.
This is another interesting factor. Today we have a mix of oil and electricity for power. There are some hydrogen based cars in development (and have been for decades) however they are not common. As more electric cars are bought, the price of oil will decline due to a reduced market. Electricity costs may rise depending on where and how the electricity is generated. Perhaps some cars will have trickle charge solar roofs, reducing the need to connect to a grid. If an autonomous taxi has this type of charging, it may only go back to base once a month and it doesn’t have a huge power bill associated with it!
Government Funding i.e. Taxes
The fly in the ointment is the impact of Governments – globally. Firstly, they get a large amount of revenue from car drivers in the form of registration, fuel taxes, insurance taxes and goods/services taxes when a vehicle is bought or serviced. This would reduce as fewer cars are needed. For some Governments, a fuel export tax is applied that could be reduced with the price of oil declining. Next we have the reduction in income tax revenue as more people are made redundant as their skills are no longer needed, putting pressure on the workers who will see their tax rates rise to counter it. All this puts pressure on the price of goods including electricity as this could be the dominant form of power. We will see the unit price of electricity go up with higher taxes to counter the loss of revenue from other sources.
In addition, we will see much more legislation written to deal with the mix of autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles on the road. Speed limits will drop further and revenue raising against those limits will increase for drivers who still enjoy the feel of car control.
Some Governments could literally run out of money and not be able to function thus causing more civil unrest. Certain countries could see their vast bank balances shrink to a point that they return to the state that they were in before they found their oil. There are countries already in strife because their budgets were written for a $100 barrel of oil and with the price substantially under this, they cannot afford to provide services for their population without increasing other taxes – which is always unpopular! They will have to switch to solar energy production to survive.
With rising unemployment, Governments will shut their borders completely to protect the local jobs, so we will see more people struggling economically. More job seekers will put pressure on the size of wage per job thus reducing peoples income.
Is the Future Exciting?
It depends where you sit on this one. I believe that initially, autonomous cars will mean that those humans with a job will work more hours because like the mobile telecoms device and laptop, there will be an expectation that we will work whilst being transported to work. We saw that when people could get email and files on a mobile device, the user was now connected 24/7 and expected to answer emails at all hours, or they worked longer hours whilst commuting by public transport.
It could mean quite a bleak future with billions of people out of work and whole industries collapsing due to a lack of people purchasing their products. For centuries we have had an increasingly global economy and our children and grand-children will see that start to disintegrate.
Wow, who would think that the future of cars could be so damaging to the world as we know it!!