By James Wong
Perhaps in unfortunate coincidence, while writing this article, news spread like wildfire across London over Westminster council’s new plan to scrap free parking on single yellow lines on weekday evenings and weekends. Yet another knot has been tied around the driver’s neck, reducing what is essentially the only reason for driving in London to a potentially profitable venture of the authorities to, as they say, reduce congestion.
What has this got to do with the future of the car? Quite a lot, actually. I recently attended a dialogue hosted by Daimler for students all over the world and the topic was about ‘globally sustainable leadership,’ but within the rather wide-reaching topic lies the microcosm of sustainable business. Daimler, like most of the leading car manufacturers today, is quite simply scrambling to find a solution to allow their business to continue growing. Sure, emerging economies would still be able to power growth in the next few decades. However, growth of the automotive industry is undermined in the long-term by the sheer impracticality of the automobile.
The car is threatened first and foremost by its consumption of fossil fuels. Crude oil prices have been near all-time highs in recent times, made buoyant by a turbulent political and economic landscape. However, what escapes the headlines at the moment is that our consumption is still ballooning at a very rapid pace. This, coupled with the depleting resource, will surely price out the average commuter from taking the car as a daily transport. In the UK, petrol prices are at a point where people are starting to think twice about driving, turning to public transport instead if the car seemed as an unnecessary expense. It is for this very reason of skyrocketing costs that cars may no longer be the democratisation of transport, but something only to be enjoyed by those who can afford it.
The next point is that cars simply do not make sense with the current infrastructure of how cities are typically built. Roads are a city’s blood vessels to ensure everything flows, keeping urban conurbations alive. That is fine when you have a population that is manageable. Unfortunately, cities are predicted to continue to grow in size and at an alarming pace due to urbanisation and the prospect of a better life for rural dwellers. There are going to be huge concentrations of populations all over the world and as these people prosper, car ownership will be within reach of the potential hundreds of millions, especially in India and China, who have emerged to the middle class. Sadly, most cities in these countries have not yet thought about the long-term consequences of car ownership, or perhaps do not have the resources to worry about such an issue in light of more pressing problems of poverty and health. However, cars will soon present itself as a very strong limit to growth in the form of urban gridlock, lost of precious time and resources in inefficient commutes, the preciousness of space (making parking exceedingly rare) and obviously the extremely high cost of personal motoring. It is sad, but true – the car will slowly and surely be put out of people’s reach or rational reason.
So where does that leave the future of the car? In the short to medium term, car manufacturers are making cars more fuel efficient. While that allows lower emissions, lower fuel consumption and as a result lower costs for motorists, these technologies do not come without disadvantages. Nowadays, to make an engine cleaner, it is downsized and then turbocharged or supercharged, or both. These forced induction methods are not new; however, there is no denying that they generate more wear and tear for the engine, as it is trying to put out as much power and torque as a naturally aspirated engine but with a far smaller displacement. It is a nice idea with seemingly little drawbacks, but the reliability and cost-effectiveness of such a strategy is yet to be seen in terms of maintenance schedules and parts replacement. If the past is anything to go by, forced induced cars are by far more expensive to upkeep than naturally aspirated ones.
Totally emission free cars are the next solution, thereby eliminating the combustion engine altogether. However, these cars also face expensive battery replacement options and currently do not have a very useful range. They also face the problem of charging – however, some innovative ideas were brought up during the dialogue to circumvent this, including inductive charging (charging without needing to make any contact) or ‘battery replacement stations’ so cars don’t ever have to need to wait to get fully charged. These are promising ideas.
Now say that the efficiency of the car is resolved – we still face the problem of congestion in urban conurbations where the majority of the world’s population will reside. This is where the car manufacturers have to work closely with the government to build new infrastructure to ensure that public transport is given as much priority as private transport. The usage of cars has to be restricted, as is already the case in cities like London or Singapore. Sadly, this would likely also spell the end to mass car ownership – there simply isn’t enough space for everybody to own and drive a car. Some ideas were voiced out during the dialogue, one of which is that cars would still preserve its usefulness in the rather niche area of transportation late at night, or for traveling long distances. Increasingly, cars would also be used for the handicapped – especially those who cannot climb stairs and escalators to train stations – for sheer necessary convenience. However, for the majority, the focus would be on public transport. Indeed, public transport seems to be the most realistic solution for cities at the moment. Buses and trains can hold far more people than the space they occupy as compared to cars, thereby improving the use of limited space more efficiently. For them to be electrified would also be easier as the start and end destinations are all already fixed according to a route, making charging and range issues less of a problem. Good thing, then, that Daimler already has vested interest making commuter buses.
I am of the opinion that cars face a pretty bleak future indeed. In the next decade or two, we may still be able to avoid the prospect of living without our beloved vehicles as we can still stomach the fuel costs and the congestion. Unfortunately, it is just going to get worse on both counts, especially so for emerging economies with the larger proportion of the world’s population. However, there is still hope. These developing countries can start early with their as-yet relatively undeveloped infrastructure, being easy adopters of new technologies and ways of doing things as they start on a clean slate. For developed countries, the cost of revamping age-old infrastructure already in place will be a major issue, unlikely to be looked at until the burgeoning immigration numbers make the current systems crumble under over-utilisation. As for those who choose to stay at relatively rural and spacious areas of the world, these problems might be less of an issue. However, I believe that with proper management and planning of the transport network, there is still the possibility of cars and public transport co-existing with each other. I can only hope that cars will still be around for the future generations to enjoy and appreciate; otherwise, it will be something we can only recount fondly – with longing – from our memories.
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