autos

Driving may never be the same after coronavirus. But what a ride it’s been!


The past few months showed us something that many thought we’d never see in our lifetimes: empty roads. Miles of asphalt without a single vehicle to spoil the view. Parked cars gathered dust, multi-storeys were deserted and garages shuttered. As lockdown eased, cars started to fill our streets again. But the great hiatus provided a glimpse into an alternative future.

Some cities, such as Milan, have already stated that they want to make permanent the changes brought about by the pandemic, and there have been calls across Britain for more space for walking and cycling. The warning lights signalling the end of the car’s total dominance over the way we travel and the way we plan cities are now flashing.

For the past 15 years, I have been the Observer’s motoring editor. Like so many other things, the pandemic brought my weekly column to a juddering halt. Though environmental concerns also played a factor in its demise, it’s hard to review cars if you can’t drive anywhere, despite the temptation of those blissfully empty roads.

What does looking back over 15 years of reviewing cars tell me about motoring’s next chapter? The automobile has dramatically transformed our lives since its invention. Steam-powered and even hydrogen-driven automobiles can be dated to the 1770s, but 1886 is generally regarded as the “birth year” of the modern motor. That was when Karl Benz patented his first Motorwagen. There are now 1.3bn cars on the world’s roads.

In terms of captivating design coupled with brilliant technology, the last half-century has surely been the car’s golden age. If you regard motor manufacturing as an artform, these past decades will be seen as the automobile’s high mark, its Renaissance era, as one game-changing advance was piled on another. But a glance in your rearview mirror will tell you that this period will also be known as the last time cars could be driven with a clear conscience, a time of motoring innocence before driving became so compromised; freighted with the knowledge that these beautiful machines were wrecking our planet.

A 1966 Jaguar E-Type. The last one rolled off the Coventry production line in 1974.
A classic 1966 Jaguar E-Type. The last one rolled off the Coventry production line in 1974. Photograph: Car Culture/Getty

Guilt has never made for an amenable passenger, and the pumping soundtrack of a gurgling V8 soon starts to sound like a death rattle.

I’ve loved cars for as long as I can remember. My mother has a picture of me as a toddler sitting on my potty, knock-kneed and in red sandals, earnestly parking my fleet of colourful Dinky toy cars. I then grew up and through my job found myself at the wheel of the real-life versions of the same models I’d been playing with. As a journalist, I drove everything from the first Series 1 1948 Land Rover Defender, with its famous registration plate HUE 166, to the last Jaguar E-Type to roll off the production line in Coventry in 1974. I drove around Le Mans in a vintage 1954 racing car with the grandson of William Lyons, the founder of Jaguar. I drove a one-off futuristic VW prototype with consumption figures so low you could go from London to Edinburgh on little more than a sip of fuel.

There were Minis and Mondeos, Fiats and Ferraris, MPVs, SUVs, ATVs… I remember thinking it was funny to take an Aston Martin to a McDonald’s drive-thru, only to see there was a Lamborghini in the queue behind me. I took our household rubbish to the council tip in a Rolls-Royce – and was cheered by the workers there.

I’ve long been dazzled by the car’s mechanical mastery of the multiple threats of travelling at speed with a tank of highly flammable liquid in the back. I’m amazed you can drive in comfort over frozen tundra or across a scorching desert with your paint job remaining immaculate through a swing of 60C. Why doesn’t it all just flake off? Cars give us limitless freedom. They’re our escape pods, parked on permanent standby.

Young Martin playing with a favourite Corgi car in 1967.
Young Martin playing with a favourite Corgi car in 1967. Photograph: Patricia Love

So what’s going to happen to them now? The next generation of motorists will see transformative technology once again reinvent vehicles. But how quickly will it happen? Will we soon be driven by fleets of self-piloted zombie cars? When autonomous cars finally become the norm, a point which is nowhere near as tantalisingly close as some suggest, one of the biggest changes will be the reduction in the number of fatal accidents. It will become almost impossible to die in a crash.

It won’t just be lives that are saved, either. Autonomy will create efficiencies in many ways. These vehicles won’t be owned – we will rent them by the hour or day, which means we won’t need so many. and our streets won’t be so clogged with underused cars. Traffic lights, road signs and markings will become unnecessary – the cars know where they are going. Our cities will be quieter and cleaner. Our built environment will be less dominated by the infrastructure of the road.

The elderly, infirm and even visually impaired will be able to enjoy driving without depending on taxis or other people. Autonomous cars will be far more energy efficient, too. Some studies estimate that fuel use will fall by at least a quarter.

It all sounds pretty good, but this auto-utopia is still a long way from reality. There are so many obstacles to overcome. First up there is cost. Superfast sensors, lasers and cameras don’t come cheap. Then there is safety. On average, a vehicle in the UK is involved in a fatal crash once in every 200 million miles. This gives you a clue as to the phenomenal scale of testing that autonomous systems will have to undergo before we as humans will be prepared to hand over the steering wheel to a computer.

What about insurance? If there is a crash, who and what is responsible? The mapping providers? The GPS system? The robo-pilot? Will our premiums drop? What about our no-claims bonus?

Red Tesla car with two white Teslas behind
As the uptake of electric cars, such as the Tesla, increases so their power packs will become smarter, more productive and more efficient. Photograph: John Thys/Getty

In theory, any car can be modified to be self-driving. But for some reason, we tend to pair autonomy with electric vehicles. Battery technology, despite being around for more than a century, is still in its infancy. As the uptake of electric cars increases so their power packs will become smarter, more productive and more efficient. The lack of fast chargers and anxiety over range will cease to be an issue. Clearly, we are in dire need of more public charging points, and the uptake of electric vehicles won’t truly get into its stride without the installation of thousands of easy-to-access charge sites across the UK. But a lack of petrol stations didn’t stop Henry Ford rolling out his world-beating Model T. He once famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

A ban on all new sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2035 will focus our minds. But how ethical and sustainable is the production of an EV? The manufacture of the cars – and particularly the essential minerals for the batteries, often mined in countries with poor environmental records and even worse abuses of their labour force – is anything but green. Swapping an internal combustion engine for an electric motor is only a short-term fix. Are we, in fact, just kicking our problems down the street?

Of all the scenarios about what we’ll be driving in the coming years, the one I find most plausible is that many of us will actually choose not to drive at all. In some ways, it’ll be a relief. Commuter constipation, motorway standstills and city gridlock all mean that driving now is often just a frustrating nightmare.

Before the lockdown, Birmingham – once, proudly, the UK’s “motorway city” – had already announced plans to entice people out of their cars and on to bikes and buses, and on to their feet. If Birmingham goes ahead, it will join areas of York, Bath, Sheffield, Leeds, Edinburgh and Brighton among others, which have already experimented with car-free days. Bristol has announced plans to ban diesel soon.

Further afield, Madrid has banned older cars from its centre, and Paris is following a similar route. The sustainable transport charity Sustrans estimates that of the 6.8 million private vehicle trips that were made daily in Greater London, 4.2 million could be walked or cycled.

It’s ironic that the answer to all our car problems might be as simple as more of us turning off our engines, getting out – and simply using our own legs.



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