A car that drives itself?

Sensemaking / A car that drives itself?

Peter Madden unveils the future of motoring.

09 Feb 2012

Peter Madden unveils the future of motoring.

In the not-too-distant future, we'll sit back and relax as our cars drive themselves, automatically selecting the quickest route to avoid congestion and cut pollution.

Not that these cars will – strictly speaking – be ours. Who would want the hassle and high-cost of ownership, when we can choose the style of vehicle we need for our particular journey (a single-person micro-car for a meeting in town or a four-wheel drive for a trip to the countryside) and pick it up at a convenient spot with a wave of our smart phone? Drop them off, and their electric motors recharge automatically – and wirelessly – as they await their next commander...

That's the vision. But why should we expect something that has hardly changed at all over the last 100 years – a four-wheeled metal box, with an internal combustion engine, which we use for multiple purposes – to undergo such a dramatic transformation over the next decade?

There are some powerful trends pushing such changes. Rising petrol prices are biting hard, while low-carbon policies are gaining teeth. Increased connectivity makes alternatives to traditional car ownership more attractive. And more and more of us are living in cities, where space is at a premium, and where we are starting to see a layering of costs and obstacles to car use, driven by concerns about congestion and pollution.

However, the thing which will really accelerate change is that some in the auto industry are at last realising that the model of the past is doomed; that they must evolve or face extinction.

There are signals of change already out there. Surveys show that young people today aspire to own the latest smartphone more than a car. Schemes that allow access to car-mobility for short periods, such as Zipcar and Buzzcar, are mushrooming. And big manufacturers are not only launching ever greener vehicles (such as the Nissan Leaf and the forthcoming BMW i series) but some – like Renault and BMW – are even beginning to experiment with mobility services, too.

So, what are the sustainability impacts of rethinking the car? Clearly, the best outcomes of all for the environment would be reducing the need to travel, or promoting zero-carbon modes of transport, such as walking and cycling. But there are certainly enormous sustainability gains to be had from lower-emission cars, more passengers per vehicle, and a new economics of car ownership and use.

Questions, of course, remain. Will we move to these green alternatives quickly enough? And will the fast-growing populations of the developing world, who still aspire to conventional models of car ownership, have to go through the same phases as we did before they fall out of love with the automobile?

Peter Madden is Chief Executive, Forum for the Future.

Photo: Brand X Pictures/thinkstock

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