“There will be more disruption to the car industry in the next ten years than there has been in the last 100 years.”
So opened the “Future of the Car” Summit in London last week, organised by the Financial Times. The above quote came from Paul Willcox, Nissan Europe Chairman, at the start of his keynote presentation. He believes that the car companies need to adapt and innovate much faster if they want to survive the next decade.
As Peter Campbell from FT pointed out, for most of its history, the car has been something we drive, something we own, and something powered by an internal combustion engine. Yet for many of us in the next decade, none of those things may still hold true.
Already the majority of new car buyers do not, and will never, own their cars; preferring instead to finance them by one means or another while the car remains the property of the finance company. Alternative fuels, usually electricity supplied via batteries or a hydrogen fuel cell, are currently few in number now but growing rapidly each year. And modern cars already have a whole suite of systems which actively override a driver’s actions if the situation calls for it.
Who wants to own a car anyway?
In a decade’s time, you may well rent a car on demand through a car club or pool arrangement, which will drive you to wherever you want to go and which is powered by electricity rather than petrol or diesel. Basically, you will have your very own clean, green private taxi service which is connected to other vehicles and traffic systems to give you the fastest and most efficient journey possible.
Within two decades, car drivers could end up like horse riders today; driving for enjoyment or sport, rather than as a way of getting from A to B. It will be a slow development to begin with, and there will be many naysayers who will be convinced that it will never happen; but once the tipping point is reached, the shift from driving a noisy, smelly petrol car to relaxing in a quiet, comfortable autonomous electric vehicle will happen very quickly.
Of course, much has to happen to reach this point. Autonomous cars can be built now, provided you wanted to spend £100,000 and have a few large boxes and antennae strapped to your car’s roof. Oh, and private citizens are not currently allowed to use autonomous cars on the road, which is a slight problem. But much work is being done to make the technology smaller, cheaper and more sophisticated, and legislative changes are being enacted to allow trials of autonomous cars on public roads right around the world.
The future is electric
Like it or not, petrol and diesel power will be phased out by car manufacturers as quickly as car buyers will accept electric vehicles into their lives, with range anxiety being the biggest barrier to overcome. Paul Willcox at Nissan suggested that “90% of European drivers today could easily live with an electric car”. Electric cars – regardless of how they source their power – offer huge opportunities for car manufacturers to reshape vehicle design, making cars safer, more comfortable and cheaper to build.
We have discussed autonomous driving on several occasions here at The Car Expert, and it is another issue that divides drivers. The reality is that the largest inefficiency in the automotive world today is the driver. Without human drivers, traffic will run more smoothly, emissions would be reduced and there would be far fewer car accidents – by Nissan’s calculations, 90% of all car accidents are caused by human error. Driving enthusiasts may insist on their desire to retain full control of their car at all times, but in reality the vast majority of customers will happily acquiesce to the car taking control and whisking them wherever they want to go, while they sit back and watch a movie or have a nap.
The march towards connected, autonomous cars has started and it will continue until the vast majority of commuter travel is completely taken out of human hands. Driving will be a recreational activity, done in classic cars on weekends along private roads or circuits. Motorways and urban roads will be driven by computer-controlled vehicles, working together to deliver millions of passengers to their destinations far more safely and efficiently than we could ever do ourselves.
What? You actually want to drive your car?
Rather than today’s humdrum of circling the car park and looking for a space (apparently up to 30% of all urban traffic is people looking for a park), an autonomous car will drop you at your destination and then take itself off to be charged or cleaned. The idea of owning a car is already declining among millennials, and car manufacturers expect traditional car sales to private individuals to continue to fall in years to come. Car clubs and rental schemes will become far more popular, and car companies are already starting to invest substantial money in these programmes.
If you do insist on your right to drive a car, every movement you make on a public road is going to be tracked. Your insurance is likely to move from an annual premium to a pay-per-journey system, with higher insurance costs for higher-risk journeys (driving at night, driving in the rain, driving in winter, and so on). Speed cameras will monitor your average speed for entire journeys, and your car’s black box recorder will transmit instant data to your insurance company or the police if you transgress at any point.
Driving as we know it today is coming to an end, as is the way we use our cars. The future may not be more enjoyable for drivers, but it will be safer and smoother for passengers.
Stuart attended the FT Future of the Car Summit 2016 as a guest of the Financial Times.