Peak Car Theory and the End Of Life Reality
I was musing the other day how much my life has changed in the last half a decade. 5 years ago I was married and I moved to a new city. It’s a city where public transport is plentiful, cheap, and reliable, where cars are almost universally shunned, and more than half the cars in any picture of the downtown core are taxis. It’s a place where fuel runs about $5 US a liter and people just don’t consider owning a car unless they truly need one for work or similar. Where the city is doesn’t matter really, but what does matter is how it contrasts to me previous life living in Montreal and Toronto – and how I have come to realize that peak car isn’t just a catchy phrase, it’s a reality that is spreading.
If you live in Montreal or Toronto (especially Toronto) living without a car is painful. The city and the burbs are generally built to car travel dimensions. That means instead of local stores and shops, generally you are dealing with a shopping center or mall. Those malls are surrounded with parking for the car you inevitably need to get there. Public transit is generally poor, expensive, and time consuming, and not at all appealing. In fact, for most people, the costs of public transit almost justify the cost of a car! Many people live in these cities without cars, but things are pretty tough at times, especially if you need to get somewhere unusual. Taxis are a non-starter, generally way to expensive for anything except emergency use.
For us car nuts, a show like The Grand Tour celebrates all that is car, and all that is the freedom of cars. Richard Hammond, one of the hosts, was recently involved in a pretty scary single car crash and fire that left him with what he calls his bionic knee. It also left him with an extended time where he could not drive a car. He recently tweeted this little gem “”On the day I shall be told by doctors when I can drive again, the car is sentenced to death” – @RichardHammond”. This as a result of the news in the UK that as of 2040, there will be no new petrol (gas) or diesel cars. You can read his view of it all here. He still believes in a “car” thing, even if his crash did come at the wheel of an electric car. Volvo agrees with him, it seems
Me, I am not so sure. Autonomous cars (cars that drive themselves) are slowly becoming a reality. At least at first blush, they appear to be much safer, even in these early days, and even without any coordinated system to run. These are just cars with lots of sensors figuring it out as they go. Some of the biggest companies of our day, like Google are hard at work to make this a reality. Tesla already produced 3 models of all electric cars with all the sensors and such built in, ready to take the wheel – in fact it already works to a certain extent, less some issues that keep it from completely taking control at all times. Self driving taxis are being tested and well, it’s all coming along nicely.
Electric cars are all about pollution and such, but it’s a bit of a misdirection as much of the electricity is generated by burning fossil fuel or even coal, so it’s not really “clean” energy if you look at the whole system. Self driving technology is what is really going to do the modern car in, because safety wins out over almost everything else. You can argue back and forth about the relative energy efficiency of electric versus fossil fuels versus hydrogen power, but it’s hard to deny that taking humans out of the equation will make cars much safer.
Depending on which survey and which set of numbers you work from, human error (one or the other driver, pedestrians, etc) accounts for over 90% of all auto accidents. Mechanical failure and other factors are so far behind, they are almost rounding errors in many studies. Some reports suggest over a million people a year die in the world driving cars. Saving the lives of 900,000 plus people every year is not just a noble goal, it’s an almost unavoidable goal.
The last part of the story is convergence. When you combine the electric car with the self driving car, and add in Uber style “car on demand” App mentality, you create the perfect storm to change the concept of the automobile and it’s ownership. The average American spends over $500 a month just to pay for a new car, and more to insure and fuel it. Car loans are getting longer, and the overall affordability of a car is sliding out of reach of most Americans. The technology and the financial demands are such that there is a large opening for a change in the equation that has driven the US since the early 1900s. It’s a change that could change the very way a city is built. Interestingly, it may not only swallow up and spit out the car, but buses and commuter trains as well.
It sounds like science fiction, but it’s really not. In my next post, I will paint a picture for you of the “car of the future” model for you, both from the standpoint of the car itself and the economic models which will drive it (instead of you). Peak car is here. 9.8 second quarter mile from the showroom cars are the very end of the road for all we have known. Are you ready?