You don’t even see it coming. The car. Not because it’s too nippy for the human eye but because it’s too normal; it doesn’t represent the future any more. Well, I mean, does it? The car is the transparent clutter of ordinary boring today. And so may as well be invisible much of the time. And that’s quite a cultural feat, given vehicle numbers – we can barely move around in towns for cars. And is it surprising after three or four years of record sales for the motor industry – not so far off 80 million new car sales every year since 2016, essentially double the annual figures of thirty years ago. That’s so big, feeding such an invested-in normality, we no longer notice it.
But if we’re going to have to attempt to picture a more sustainably positive future for the human planet’s manufacturing, transport and wellbeing – hopefully in a nifty heads up display so we can keep both eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel – there are many things around us that we’ll need to pause to pull into focus a fresh look at. Boring things in the ordinary world beyond the wipers that we’ve considered immutable. Or even commutable.
So I think it’s time I slapped the dashboard.
Actually look around you. What is the shape of the street you are standing on? The materials of it, the markings all over it, the barriers, the refuges, the kerbs, the lights, the endless railings telling you where to walk which is never where you want to actually go… and the sound. The constant sound. And oh yeah, the road surface – how little of it you can see for bodywork and wheels when everyone in your road is home from work. If there is one bit of modernity that has shaped our streets and towns more than any other, changed human living from rural to suburban, been so relentlessly engineered… and has opened up the sheer scale of ordinary geography for ordinary all of us in truly daily domestic living, it is surely the invasion of the motor car. In fact, a century of automobile lifestyle has changed the shape of the whole human planet, lassoing it in asphalt, and covering that in an estimated 1.2 billion motor vehicles today… and opening the road to all of us.
That metric tonne of metal and composites containing an internal combustion engine refined by racetrack engineers – the one that your nan has parked outside her semi to get her to the chemist – it’s such an ordinary bit of our lives we don’t even notice the stationary industrial scrap yard her whole street is today, and yours. And we accept that the noise pollution, air quality damage, space robbing and income sapping of car usage is just part of the way the world is now. Because who would want to give up the freedom of driving? Especially if we are disabled? Or live twenty miles from a Co-Op. Or a hospital. Or a job.
Our lives and economies are built around roads and personal transportation and it has shaped us as communities. Of course it has. But how much of that car culture has been truly to our benefit? It’s just too complex a socio-economic matrix to reduce down to a simple green light or a red one, I think. But many groups have been asking us to question our automobile obsessions for years, and it’s becoming ever more pressing a problem.
And is there an almighty disruption coming to the jobs-heavy car industry no matter what? A pretty fundamental perfect storm of challenges, in fact. Well, of course there is – EVs, automation, urbanisation, the increased cost of living, the sheer medical disaster zones coalescing in the polluted air around our arterial highways alongside the trust-debilitating Dieselgate scandals of cover-ups, even as the World Health Organisation says that in general: “Air pollution… is the biggest environmental risk to health, carrying responsibility for about one in every nine deaths annually.” And, um, y’know. Oil. The whole oil thing. The life on Earth vs CO2 emissions thing. With new car sales slowing again this spring and with younger people – the middle aged SUV markets of tomorrow – famously appearing to fancy auto ownership less and less, more people are beginning to ask: Have we already reached Peak Car?
Well, as clunky and contrived as the car more honestly, almost ridiculously, is, it has obviously struck a powerfully human engine note. The miracle of the horseless carriage took off so incredibly fast, you will have undoubtedly seen the Business Insider pictures comparison, 5th Avenue, 1900 vs 1913. In the photo taken Easter morning 1900 the headline is: “Spot the automobile” from a crowded New York avenue of buggies and horses. In the photo taken supposedly just thirteen Easter mornings later, the headline is: “Spot the horse.” That’s disruption.
Now, this is the warning every electric vehicle salesman is waving at the diesel and ICE markets of the 21st century. While some cycle fans and eco champs lobby to ban the car outright from wherever they can – yet what has happened to completely pedestrianised high streets in the last 20 years? What might happen to hospital budgets if the council stopped charging you a couple of quid to leave your ton of metal and composites on some prime real estate whenever you felt like it? And how do we plan around the projections that suggest decreased vehicle ownership might lead to still more vehicles rumbling around the roads in the decades ahead? All while thousands of jobs in car manufacturing are going in the UK between Ford, Nissan, Jaguar Landrover.
What is to be done with the not so humble motor car and our reliance on it in countless cultural ways? Is it a fiend or friend to the human future? What do we imagine we should plan to do with a modern worldview so built around it – and what is even thinkable to change about a global addiction to gas and gears?
This new series of Unsee The Future explores stories of high level themes and takes a few snapshots of some of the ground level details of the now of fearsome realities, to see where any more hopeful thinking might be encouraged as we dare to squint forward. Ideas, habits, trends that are all, in their daily way, helping to make up the grain of the whole human planet today, as we attempt to plan for tomorrow.
And in our past dreams of tomorrow, the car has been as symbolic of the future as any bit of consumer technology we’ve been sold. Because this is a bit of remarkably refined engineering that really seems to move us. It’s also been ruddy useful for taking things to the skip.
I’m Timo Peach. Shut up and drive.
It is an audacious bit of manufacturing, the car. Thanks to old Jerry Ford it essentially helped create modern manufacturing. Assembly lining a product so bold, it so often manages to carry our emotions at least as easily as our shopping. Because we live great chunks of our lives in those little metal boxes – in those personal, private spaces. And we owe them a ton of affecting moments. Even whole life outlooks.
Speaking personally, as an obvious Generation Xer growing up with cars still essentially tinkerably mechanical and hilariously breakdown able (one day I’ll play you the demo of Ode To An Opel which I wrote about my second car, it’s a Haines manual of a song) today I’m as grateful to my folks for helping me get my license at 17 as I was then, when Dad first handed over the keys of his absurdly unsuitable 2.6L Rover SD1. Driving opened up a world of independence for me… including the very practical codependence of my marriage to the lovely first lady of Momo, living as we did originally in different counties and both travelling north to university somewhere even further away from our home towns. And all these years later, when we said goodbye to our brilliant old Audi TDi, after twelve years of reliable fun with that, we said goodbye to thousands of miles of very personal memories across umpteen countries. Views that could only have been seen through those tempered glass windows. As Joe Scott, of Answers With Joe said of a similar experience: “I had a lot of key experiences in that car, I dealt with breakups and bereavements in that private space.”
Private. Alone. Me space. A product that has encouraged a selfish sense of entitlement more habitually than perhaps anything else.
The car is, like anywhere we humans move in, a space for us to explore being us in. So, it should be no business surprise to think that, in a way, one of the car industry’s chief products is the advertising industry. On a gear stick. The vehicle of dreams… and of personal aspiration.
You don’t need me to list songs, movies, telly programmes or novels all celebrating the thrill of automotive democracy. It’s a long-tickled, leather-trimmed fetish of humans. It’s really gotten into our blood. What is it about being behind the wheel? Roy Lichtenstein’s 1963 pop art painting In The Car was at one time his most price-fetching bit of work, apparently. And really, for years, if you gave a TV show a regular set of wheels, who became the real star? The Batmobile. The General Lee. The white-striped Gran Torino. The A-Team’s van. Kojak’s bleedin’ Buick (oh, ask your dad). Bergerac’s Triumph Roadster (yeah, ask your nan). The Audi Quatro. The VistaCruiser.
But it’s true that no one loves the motor car quite like the ad man. Yet is even he (obviously he) running out of ideas? Two Audis in a swimming pool leaping like dolphins? Look, I know what can happen in a pitch – sleep-deprived panic blurts to the client that then have to get made. Who the hell brought Steve?
“Yeah, Audis. In a pool. Synchronised. Synchromeshed. They sloop, we pivot. We ribbon and flip, We launch at the high board and balance a ball… or, yeah. We do some lumbering donuts. A bit splashily.” I miss Jeffrey Palmer; at least when they dropped an Audi 80 in the sea in that ad from thirty five years ago it was to make a smug point about ridiculous rich gits getting galvanised. Because, man, did we still want to be that continental rich git back then.
I know you’re expecting a much better experience of audience-sourced ideation in your advertainment before you’ll align your personal brand with a product. But as consumers we apparently were expected to say out loud sometimes: What does your car say about you? These days, rather more than the Austin Maestro did in 1982 which only spoke at you. My car now could be shedding all kinds of social information about me via its bluetooth transmitter for all I know.
Lord knows I’d certainly like to live the right motoring extension of my own personal brand and I think a 1989 Aston Martin V8 Volante might do it. Bang on brand for me right now, I’m sure you’d agree.
Car marque snobbery guff is last century culture rucks our cartwheels are still rather grounded in, sure. And it doesn’t half sound spewed from a cracked gasket in the old robotic world machine, laid out as bald as a retread here. But growing up as we are all trying to do, surely, about how brands reside in our lives, our car is an especially expensive fashion choice to still have to make when we could just take the bus. Grab a lift. Cab. Train. Cycle. Skate. E-Scoot. Heaven forbid – walk occasionally. Even if it looks like you usually get dressed asleep, everyone knows your clothes too are some kind of statement – whether it’s one of practicality, frugality, propensity, sentimentality, or hilarity. And just so, when you think about it, with the car; we all know we have to leave whatever it is conspicuously outside friends’ and clients’ homes and offices and the car industry still spaffs squillions on storytelling to convince us its still worth spending a conscious commitment of moola to turn up in something that projects something about us.
“Step out of your home and what do you see?” wrote Tom Bogdanowitcz, now Senior Policy and Development Officer with the London Cycling Campaign. “There is a subliminal and overt message on the streets and in the media to buy cars and use them. You’ll find it on TV, on your computer, in the newspapers you read. It makes the promotion of any other form or transport, such as cycling, an uphill struggle regardless of how convenient, healthy and sustainable it may be.”
“In sharp contrast, the promotion of cycling and walking is almost non-existent” he says. “While the government encourages us to walk, ride bikes and use public transport, it knows that car advertising is persuading us to do the exact opposite.”
Tom writes from a pretty committed bike campaigning perspective – the sort that wants fewer people to die under cars on London’s roads, I’m guessing – but when you consider that the automotive sector combined is understood to be the third largest advertising spender on the planet, which clocks in at over thirty billion dollars in the US alone, according to AdAge, you can kind of see his point about cultural influence.
That word again. Culture.
Now, I’m no petrol head. Years of watching Top Gear and finding it jolly entertaining didn’t mean I ever remembered all the boring names of different Ferraris. But driving and design I both love – they each have some purposeful meanings of perspective to me. They’re also not exactly disconnected from a very important word for my work – play. If I ever find the budget to make a belated video for the Momo:tempo track Check Out, which is essentially just an electro-funk car chase, I have a lot of fun well planned around an old Peugeot 205 on the winding coast roads of the south of France and a lot of camera bodywork clamps. And so maybe it turns out I’m a boy after all – able to quickly ignore some pretty fundamental problems surrounding the culture of the car to want to play in the traffic. We don’t even see our own culture, most of the time.
It’s just, I never did understand why girls weren’t expected to love such fun just as much. Why am I calling this “Boy Brain” thinking? Why are “boys” so linked to the car in our minds? Much as I suddenly find myself hoping there is a niche motoring mag called Trans Mission – “shifting expectations on the road to the inclusive ride” – woke or otherwise, why have wheels got to be about gender at all?
“I’ve been a senior motoring journalist for 15 years, including a stint as The Daily Telegraph’s motoring editor, and recently as editorial director of Auto Trader” says motoring journalist Erin Baker, writing in Marie Claire. “Sadly, we know the entire car industry – from the cars themselves, to marketing, dealerships, magazines and motor shows – is still a male-biased environment.”
With, she says, 11.8 million female licence holders in the UK alone, it’s weird that showrooms and advertising has been so skewed towards a traditional boys’ view of cars for so long.
“According to a recent survey by Auto Trader”, she says, “94 per cent of women don’t trust dealerships, 83 per cent don’t trust manufacturers, and 40 per cent ‘dread’ the buying process.”
Politics, not just of gender, is of course never far from the world of the car. Not far at all. It basically IS the world of the car, under the bonnet.
“Global manufacturing, employment, energy, fuel economy, pollution, mass transit, infrastructure, trade policy, taxation, and regulation. That’s all politics, and it’s all inextricably bound with the automobile.” says Lawrence Ulrich, on Drive. “If you drive a car, any car, you’re driving politics, from the design and placement of its air bags to the amount of gasoline that can evaporate from its tank while it sits in your garage. Autonomous cars are the next political frontier, with the potential to upend every assumption about how people drive, work and live.”
As well as how it’s marketed to its audiences.
When we’re talking about this level of economic presence, linking advertising and the oil industry, is it any wonder it can look like an unhealthy influence on politics?
“Look at how advertising is dominated by car companies, and you begin to understand the drive to ensure that this counter-ergonomic system persists” says George Monbiot, with typical passion. “Look at the lobbying power of the motor industry and its support in the media, and you see why successive plans to address pollution seemed designed to fail.”
Before the new Real Driving Emissions tests came in for stricter limits on the deadly nitrogen oxides diesels pump out, many environmentally minded groups felt the heftier car manufacturing nations, the UK, Germany, Spain, France, had been cowed to by the EU Commission, even watering down the effect of the tests. It’s all rather awkward, given that the EU promoted the sale of diesel cars just when diesel engines were becoming a serious contender for ordinary cars, in order to help offset CO2 level rises from petrol engines. Then it turns out that at street level, the new cars’ NOx emissions: “can cause emphysema, bronchitis, heart disease and asthma. The government says NO2 is responsible for 23,500 premature deaths a year.”
In this light, an historic quote attributed to James Marston Fitch, writing in the New York Times at the dawn of the fearsome global CO2 spikes, May 1960, sounds a note of chilling clarity of foresight. The car as pathogen.
And as a Greenpeace advertisement supposedly put it in the New York Times, 25 February 1990: “It wasn’t the Exxon Valdez captain’s driving that caused the Alaskan oil spill. It was yours.” Ouch.
So how the hell did such a mechanised harbinger of death and guilt become an object of such comfort and desire? Let’s indulge ourselves.
Just for a moment.
Just this once.
I have long thought that as cars have evolved cleverly to become safer and more reliable, they’ve lost some of the emotion wrapped up in their designs. They’re just not…
..y’know. As much fun any more. ..Or they look like your dad trying to be cool, which is just ugh!
This is sentimental poppycock, of course.
There’s no shortage of ridiculous super cars or just expensively tidy motors for middle aged anyone to nob around the car park at Sainsbury’s in occasionally, and car technology has never made for a more pleasing driving experience, even for the rest of us who want a boot for the family shop.
I mean, it really is no small achievement that while figures for car numbers on the roads have gone up dramatically during my own lifetime, figures for death and serious accident on the roads of my own country, the UK, have come down across the same period. As a report from the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety shows, fatalities on the roads all but halved between 1970 and 2012. Or as a Department of Transport graph simply shows, UK roads see around 1800 fatalities on them each year today, from nearly 8,000 when my dad was driving me and my mum back from Boscombe hospital.
But, y’know. Much as we culturally take seatbelts for granted now, and expect airbags and crumple zones to enable us to walk away from many accidents that would have chewed our legs and faces off in the middle of last century, the designs of cars have had to get chunkier to accommodate it all.
Which is just one reason why the impending revolution of electric vehicles, or EVs, is likely to be a lot of fun for the car geek, in the end. Because of course, there is that history in the car’s DNA of all those visions of the future. ( https://airows.com/automotive/30-vintage-concept-cars-more-futuristic-than-anything-today )
From the flowing speed curves of early modernism to the spikey rocket lines of the 50s and the pointed wedges of my childhood in the 70s, cars seemed the most tangible dreams of all our brave new tomorrows. They really just wanted to be spaceships, perhaps. The 1938 Bugatti Type 57 looks like a sort of Bladerunner fantasy pastiche of the 1930s from the front, and like a blue whale from the rear, while the 1939 Duesenberg Coupe Simone looks like some royal speeder from Queen Amidala’s palace. Didn’t the Cadillac Cyclone just actually have some kind of gas turbine propulsion system in it? Yeah, and so did the 1958 GM Firebird III and with its triple tailplanes, double glass cockpits and numerous fins just looks like you could take it to the moon, while the Toyota EX-III or the VW-Porsche Tapiro each look like you could take them to work at SHADOW headquarters in UFO. The poster wheels of tomorrow have always promised us this: Jump into one of these babies and you can drive straight to the future.
As such designs moved from the speed age through the jet age into the information age and the internet age, those archly ridiculous concept car designs evolved with our expectations of style but still never did get put into dealers’ showrooms like everyone wishes they would have. Partly because those Tron wheels that all production graduates give today’s cars of tomorrow would never last a minute on the A387 out of Polperro.
Like so many dreams of tomorrow, the motor car promised us tangible progress wrapped in extravagant theatre, like a flamboyant assurance of total confidence in the future. And of course mostly the future never turns up like you want it to. It’s always more ‘real’. Somehow making the comparatively brilliant boring. Which shows perhaps how the car has always really been sold to us.
Like a drug.
And like art itself, especially science fiction, crazy car designs have partly sold us the drug of What If – What if your life looked like this? What if the car could take us to the future? And what if, right now, we really could be about to actually deliver that more futury future?
Is now really the time to wanna get clean?
The biennial Paris Motor Show, the Mondial De L’Auto, has traditionally kicked off a sort of back end of the year into start of the year period around the globe of car trade bashes, bosching out flashy new production models alongside the odd archly ridiculous beautiful concept of the future automobile.
But this last year, Paris was a little… sort of shruggy.
Lots of the major car manufacturers didn’t even bother to turn up in 2018. And this was true of some other big car shows, it seems. Are they as finally bored with the boring clunky design of their own boring production cars as we all are having to watch them in almost offensively unoriginal expensive boring car ads with hipsters pulling boringly smug I know I’m cool faces while driving a boxy, bloated, lumpy, boringly well engineered SUV along an empty highway in Dubai at five in the morning?
Sadly, I don’t think so. Although I do. And I think Peugeot does too, because the punchline to the reveal its new E-Legend last year was “Unboring the future.” And, although the car in question is stupendously bling, it’s looking like they’ll actually be able to make and sell it as blinged.
And this year saw a bit of a turn back towards enthusiasm for the trade shows because of a notable difference – the gathering steam of electric.
As Autocar reported about the 2019 Geneva Motor show: “We knew from the start this show would be about ever more practical and enticing electric cars, and about older school supercar manufacturers starting to fight for their relevance. They’re not in trouble, mind. Far from it. But there was the definite overtone in Switzerland that they’ll be the place where a spare-me-that-electric-nonsense attitude lasts longest among customers.”
Was last year the brain-frozen dumb calm before the storm of innovation?
Tesla. The tech start up that has taken the entire car sector to school. Inspiring half of GAFA, Apple and Google, to attempt to monoculture the car market too now. Because the car of tomorrow is in the process of becoming the car of today as we speak, and turns out it’s not really a car in the sense we’ve always known them.
As Brett Berk says for Autoblog: “As the car business and the technology business become increasingly intertwined, and as we prognosticate toward a future in which they become virtually indistinguishable, brands are using electronics showcases such as CES, or “ideas” conferences like South By Southwest, as a locus to introduce their new electric, autonomous, networked vehicles.”
And the key thing is, these days, some of those glossy concept designs are finally beginning to look at lot more like we’ll expect the production model to actually look. Yay, the future, dreamers!
Is the super smooth Le Fil Rouge from, er, Hyundai, with its missing B-pillar and swooping Aston styling and featureless glass dash really so impossible to imagine on the road? Or the VW ID Vizzion, doing much the same thing all round? No, not really. And it’s partly because they give them proper wheels and it’s partly because people are now driving Tesla 3s and BMW i8s for long enough already to expect such futury driving experiences to be Put Outside Your Houseable.
Sure the Icona Nucleus and the Renault EZ Go both do go the full Tron Legacy in their looks, including the wheels, and watching their promo video while listening to the Stranger Things 2 score only helps this… but it’s all a little easier to picture passing me on Southbourne Grove now than it was, somehow. Although the DS X E-Tense is still reasonably bat-shee, and Batmobile, which is what you’d hope for from the French in cars.
VW’s ID Vizzion is, however, actually going into production. And this is a car that boasts no steering wheel or dashboard or screens of any kind – VolksWagen is fully banking on the imminent practical integration of autonomous driving and AI with augmented reality wearables. It’s meant to be more relaxing. Waking up with a hangover at dawn to find you’re in the driver’s seat with no wheel or any visible means of seeing what the hell is happening to you, whisked off through an autobahn robot dawn with a silent scream up through the moulded plexiglass panoramic roof.
Of course, the car business has always been a technology business, but ol’ Brett means the slightly flashier technology of digital. Whatever that is. But it’s clear that one of the ways the two sectors will merge is not just their physical technologies but the business model. As KPMG said in a report back in 2012: “”The world is moving from car ownership to car usership.”
Or as Ross Douglas says to Medium, from the Autonomy mobility summit in Paris: “Car companies will soon start selling miles instead of motorcars.”
There are forecast to be, in essence, a lot cars on our roads in the years to come, but fewer cars on people’s drives.
“The car industry has realised that the desire to own a motorcar for status and the need to have it are changing very quickly, particularly for young urbanites that want freedom, autonomy and flexible mobility” Douglas tells Fernanda Marin. “We’re now seeing that there’s no fun in sitting in traffic jams and that there are a lot of other solutions coming that are cost-effective, quick and fun. These ideas, such as offering mobility as an aggregated service (MaaS) that includes a mix of different means of transportation, are challenging both the car and public transport industry. And these industries have started to understand that to not be disrupted they need to play in this new space in some way or other.”
The psychology of the car has simply always fitted with advertising’s classic schtick – easy selfishness. Disconnection. Which is ironic, given how brilliantly all the components of a car are put together on a robot-and-midlands-person assembly line. But just as advertising has had to grope its way towards telling more truthfully human stories to its weary consumers, so the car itself will have to find a new kind of practical place in our crowded lives looking forward. Against traffic pressures, energy pressures, cost pressures the undaunted motoring market won’t ultimately drive.
For what is the reality of car use? You might half know it. According to the RAC, in the UK: “The average car spends about 80% of the time parked at home, is parked elsewhere for about 16% of the time and is thus only actually in use (ie moving) for the remaining 4% of the time.”
It’s based on Paul Barter’s research at Reinventing Parking. His methodology for testing this figure was multiple, but the essential conclusion is what it is – we barely use our dedicated personal cars. As he puts it:
As David Z Morris reports it in Fortune: “Barter, like other urban planners, is most concerned with the strain that storing all those barely-used cars makes on cities. The shift away from mass car ownership… would result in “huge parking space savings,” helping make cities denser, more efficient, and more liveable.
“What Barter doesn’t point out,” Morris goes on, “is that not just the storage space, but the cars themselves, are being wasted under the current system. Sharing vehicles, either through existing services like Zipcar or Uber, or, eventually, through automated vehicles that could be summoned as needed, would lead to significantly lower overall spending on cars. That’s because while increased wear would of course give each car a shorter lifespan, a lot of vehicle wear, such as corrosion, actually takes place when a car is sitting still.
Bloomberg Businessweek has run a whole cover feature on the concept of Peak Car and says simply: “The automobile—once both a badge of success and the most convenient conveyance between points A and B—is falling out of favor in cities around the world as ride-hailing and other new transportation options proliferate and concerns over gridlock and pollution spark a reevaluation of privately owned wheels.”
Fewer youngers of us seem to be pursuing a driving licence so fast and the appeal of one for status is diminishing, it seems. “Meanwhile, mobility services are multiplying rapidly, with everything from electric scooters to robo-taxis trying to establish a foothold in the market” continues BB. “Increasingly, major urban centers such as London, Madrid, and Mexico City are restricting cars’ access. Such constraints, plus the expansion of the sharing economy and the advent of the autonomous age, have made automakers nervous. That’s also pushed global policymakers to consider the possibility that the world is approaching “peak car”—a tipping point when the killer transportation app of the 20th century finally begins a steady decline, transforming the way we move.” ( https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2019-02-28/this-is-what-peak-car-looks-like )
“If we’re trying to work out when this revolution will begin in earnest the key date will be when self-driving vehicle technology is available and – crucially – has regulatory backing” suggests Justin Rowlatt of BBC News. “That could well be sooner than you think. The UK has said it hopes to authorise the first fully autonomous cars as early as 2021.”
So, er, once the car industry finds the nerve to stop selling diesel engines in Polos, is the fundamental shift in shape of the emerging EV car market going to punch us towards a more sustainable tomorrow? Especially because, however good the kick of a turbo-diesel, the torque from an electric motor can be eyeball rattling.
“It’s not all about torque” my mate Andy said to me with a roll of the eyes over coffee. Porsche Panamera keys just beside the croissants.
“Drop a window, drop a gear and hear the cathedral of sound in the Mont Blanc tunnel, y’mean?” I rejoined cheerily.
“Exactly!” he countered.
“To quote Jonny Smith,” – I raised an eyebrow – “I love the sound of my diesel Astra in the morning.” I winked. Before adding: “It was largely all about torque before Tesla left everyone at the lights though, wasn’t it.”
He shook his head.
“They’re not really so environmental though, are they?” he said flatly.
I looked down at my flat white.
There is a fundamental problem with the electric car. And you’re there ahead of me. It’s still a car.
There is also another problem, reasonably fundamental to it: You probably already either love or really don’t like the whole idea. So much, you may be secretly happy to run with the first bit of “information” you find about EVs that fits your world view of them. And there is all kinds of stats, figures, stories and persuasions out there about them. It’s like another religion. In the Trump/Johnson/Putin binary social media tribal fantaticism years I can picture Teslas being pitchforked and bludgeoned outside Wallmarts as symbols of feminazism.
I’m having a silly moment, obviously. Especially because many environmentalists see the electrification of cars as pandering to the very culture that lead to the hell of now – patriarchal boys toys, mate. The automotive equivalent of vaping. A fig leaf for your greenwash.
Because however you cut it, encouraging people back into cars is not going to help congestion. Or the polluting energy of manufacturing such a large and hi-tech machine en masse. Nor, more significantly still, you might think as a switched on Greeny, will it help the culture of isolationist, selfish, boxed up, road-ragey, entitled, nature-distancing thinking the car has long mobilised into far-reaching habit.
So what are the problems with your Tesla, John?
Well, perhaps most immediately a lot of people will firstly just question where its electricity is going to come from. Because if you’re charging your Tesla at home from any of the usual big electricity suppliers, you’re still burning coal or gas or making nuclear waste to get to the shops. Before cruising around in your S looking for a free bit of prime real estate to leave your two and a half tonnes of metal and composites parked on. But assuming you’re ahead of me there and get your electricity from a renewable energy supplier, or even from your own roof with a little solar and home battery set up, you should still turn your admiring gaze back down to your driveway and refresh your memory – it’s not a bicycle sat proudly in front of your house. And you have a whole driveway to smugly sit it on, you rich bastard.
That is a lot of material sitting right there in front of you, in whatever EV you have. Complicated, robot-made, highly tooled, often rare-Earth stuff. And that’s where much of this gets truly awks for the conshy high hopes.
The big problem is the batteries. And as much in the details as the dumping CO2 of the wider process. Nickel mining, for example, sounds essentially horrific for the environment.
As Max Oprey put it in The Guardian: “Plumes of sulphur dioxide choking the skies, churned earth blanketed in cancerous dust, rivers running blood-red – environmental campaigners have painted a grim picture of the nickel mines and smelters feeding the electric vehicle industry.”
Referencing an incident in “Russia’s most polluted city” Norilisk, in which the local aging nickel factory spilled Lord knows what into the Daldykan river turning it truly biblical, Oprey goes on to say: “The Philippines this year closed or suspended 17 nickel mines because of environmental concerns.”
The arrival of EV battery demand does appear to be boosting an ailing industry, and that may be a significant part of the problem – nickel mining and refining is currently using aging plants and infrastructure. But it hardly helps the environmental credentials if Norwegians are complaining about air quality because of a component of the EV manufacturing process drifting across the fjords from their neighbour.
Then there is the lithium itself. As you might imagine, since the demand for lithium-ion batteries switched scales from cellphones to cars, it’s been going up a bit. According to a Bloomberg report, in 2019 the lithium mining industry will be shifting some 400,000 tons of the stuff but it’s forecast to be nudging a million tons by the middle of the 2020s. At the moment the report reckons about 51% of all that is for EV batteries, but it imagines that figure climbing to 61% by 2025 – and that would mean over 500,000 tons of raw lithium needing to be dug out of the ground just for new cars.
That is, of course… a lot of investing opportunity. Australia mines the vast majority of lithium – some 51,000 metric tonnes of it in 2018 and that was up 11,000 over the previous year as US Geological Survey says, quoted by Investing News. ( https://investingnews.com/daily/resource-investing/battery-metals-investing/lithium-investing/lithium-producing-countries/ ) But Chile seems to have the biggest reserves of it at the moment by rather a long way, while Argentina follows in both mining and reserves and China is hot on the heels. The US, meanwhile produces only 1.2% of all the mineral in the world, according to Bloomberg. When you throw into the mix that China actually hogs some two thirds of the battery production market using the lithium, set to rise to almost three-quarters of it in the next few years – to say nothing of the forecast boom in EV sales in Asia’s dominant country, which already boasts half the world’s electric vehicle sales on its own – well, this puts the Commies in an ideal position to control a whole lifecycle of lithium use better than anyone, all within its own borders. Is it any wonder, the country is investing heavily in it?
So you bet, EVs are significant financial politics now. Which only adds to the joy of them, right? Bring on the future, comrades.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that rumours of running out of lithium across the globe are a little exaggerated. One figure bounced about referencing the US Geological Survey puts global reserves alone at some “365” years of current use, as GreenTech Media shared. While that comfortable figure comes down faster than your range number when flattening the accelerator in Ludicrous Mode when you consider projections of Elon Musk’s 100 Gigafactories wish, as Tam Hunt puts it, we’re still a long way from Peak Lithium.
“The lithium production market is still a fairly new market… We’ve learned at least one lesson from the peak oil debate: higher prices do indeed spur innovation and increased production.” Plus, as Hunt also suggests: “There is a substantial difference between this commodity and oil because there are many ready substitutes for lithium that can be used in the manufacture of batteries” he thinks.
In fact, we may never reach the exact equivalent of Peak Lithium demanding innovation, because innovation in battery technology kind of IS the battery technology sector right now, in its aims – if we can crack solid state tech and shift from wet to dry batteries, for example, the theory goes that this energy storage capability will transform range possibilities to just ludicrous mileage for EVs.
But the real challenge in the environmental stakes is the overall manufacture costs in CO2 terms that an EV represents. Because it’s higher than making a petrol equivalent.
>sucks teeth awkwardly<
One of the best researched summations on all this that I’ve found is Engineering Explained’s Myth Busted video, Are electric cars worse for the environment? It’s well worth a full watch, if you’re interested. And first up, Jason Fenske rounds up the basic environmental costs his research found about making any kind of car, with different reports between them spreading the CO2 emissions figures from two to seventeen metric tonnes of it, depending on the vehicle being made. But, he adds: “Every single study I looked at agreed that electric cars require more CO2 emissions to be produced than gasoline powered cars and this is primarily because of the batteries.”
Here he quotes a Union of Concerned Scientists report from 2015 which said simply that the battery making bit of making an electric vehicle can add anything from 15–70% more emissions to the process. It depends whether you’re looking at a demur Nissan Leaf 30kWh battery, for pottering around town, or a whopping 100kWh Tesla battery for humiliating everyone who doesn’t own a Mercedes AMG E63 S and more than a mile of straight race track to finally catch up with you at around 130MPH.
So, hey, my mate Andy is right. When it comes to cars in the climate crisis years, it’s not all about torque.
And then there is something more fundamental even than emissions and waste in building cars. There’s another shape left on our landscapes besides open cast mines – the very shape of how we physically live. We’ve cemented in highways and moved to the donuts of the suburbs that depend on motor vehicles to work, especially in places with plenty of land, like the US. When you think about it, the smooth clean ride of the EV is the dream of the motor car finally come true, isn’t it? A truly encapsulated ride away from the real world as you cruise between disjointed locations in your futury personal capsule.
As Tam Hunt puts it, just to cement the more realistic automotive future, there is an obvious conclusion: “We need to do our best to get away from single passenger cars – even EVs – and rely more on smart city design, walking, biking, carpooling, trains, shuttles, etc.”
Because the elephants in the garage are countries in the catching up world: “What happens when China and India and the rest of the developing world push en masse for personal car ownership and all the privileges that this brings? Well, the world definitely can’t handle that transformation under today’s fossil-fuel system, and it very likely can’t handle it under an EV-focused alternative system either… We face a real conundrum as the developing world races to become more like the developed world.”
Well. So. There’s that.
I’m left with the images of a poster collection, rounded up by the book Bike City Amsterdam: How Amsterdam became the cycling capital of the world by Fred Feddes. It documents the campaign to transform the Dutch capital from a car-invaded typical European 20th century city into bikevana. And I think of Charles Boost’s 1973 poster that shows a white chalkboard-like sketch of a mangled bicycle under a tree with school papers strewn around it beside a road, all with the headline: “Hunting small game all year round. Stop killing children”.
So that’s it for the Top Gear years then, right Xtinctionistas? And probably it for the planet anyway.
Well, hold on. Pull over and flip the parking brake for a moment. Because in Generation Now’s overriding lifetime challenge to arrest the collapse of life on Earth from our industrialised behaviours – >chuckles< I think we’re pretty much all agreed on this now, yeah? Yeah. Pretty much – there is a number one thing we will need to do in that mission. After a few years of chewing all this around, somewhere between art and research, I’ve come to believe that the most fundamental challenge facing us in the fight, human planet brethren, is culture change. Mindset shift. A transformation of shared outlook on the whole darned story of us right now. So that we start behaving up some new habits of living.
And to that end, is the EV the trojan horse from the future?
“We are on the cusp of one of the fastest, deepest, most consequential disruptions of transportation in history. By 2030, within 10 years of regulatory approval of autonomous vehicles (AVs), 95% of US passenger miles traveled will be served by on-demand autonomous electric vehicles owned by fleets, not individuals, in a new business model we call “transport-as-a-service” (TaaS). The TaaS disruption will have enormous implications across the transportation and oil industries, decimating entire portions of their value chains, causing oil demand and prices to plummet, and destroying trillions of dollars in investor value — but also creating trillions of dollars in new business opportunities, consumer surplus and GDP growth.”
So opens the Rethink X report, Rethinking Transportation 2020–2030. And right there is the future of the car, supposedly.
The automobile, as we’ve known it for over a century, is about to transition – into… something else.
As Business Insider handily reports Rethink’s findings… are you ready for this barrel shoot of headlines?
“Private car ownership will drop 80% by 2030 in the US. The number of passenger vehicles on American roads will go from 247 million in 2020 to 44 million in 2030. Using electric ride-shares will be four to 10 times cheaper per mile than buying a new car by 2021 (And each family could save up to $5,600 per year, compared to purchasing and maintaining a traditional vehicle). Global oil demand will peak at 100 million barrels per day by 2020, and decrease to 70 million barrels per day by 2030. Savings on transportation costs will result in a boost in annual disposable income for US households totaling $1 trillion by 2030.”
Okay, then. That’s that sorted.
Everyone does seem to think we’re not going to want a car so very much in the future. And hooray for that. ..Right? It’s going to be a sort of anodyne mobile phone on wheels that maybe you’re not going to want to own with the same passion you had for your vintage TransAm, plus it’ll save you a ruddy packet and get you talking to strangers.
Well, great. There are certainly merits in talking to strangers, as a report by behavioural scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder highlights. Everyone seems a lot happier to do it than we think, apparently, and it makes us feel rather better about our commute.
But if talking to strangers is something we don’t do on the bus, how can we do it in a car?
Actually, I don’t want to twist your Green mellow here but you can’t do it all that easily on a bike either; I’ve camped in Freiburg, they pedal like they’re commuting on the Nurburgring.
But cycle guardians hold on. As simply better in so many ways as the genius of a bicycle just is, often, and as healthy as the idea seems to be in the UK at least at the moment, the story of the car is not over. Nor should we perhaps wish it to be. Not if we actually care about masses of people transitioning to more sustainable transport, we don’t.
Go on… I hear you intone.
The EV may be, I think, a transition node. A nudge point.
The EV is potentially a pressure point where the dam breaks. The concrete wall of our thinking about how we get about, and power everything we do.
One idea that seems to have really stuck with me since researching Unsee The Future is just how much humans learn kinetically. What we do physically shapes how we see the world around us, by wearing in habit to our brains. Which is a ruddy interesting thing to put together with the idea that we’re also such creatures of story – we frame everything like chapters in a narrative arc, to make sense of the otherwise unmappable senselessness of why things are the way they are for us. Which, when you think about it, makes life on Earth for humans like one big Roll Playing Game. Reciting cultural scripts while waiting for the next car chase scene.
We’ve been playing out our lives on the same old Scalextric tracks for generations – little ordinary lives lived across bigger distances linked by engine. Engine available at personal beck and call, served invisibly well by economically long-refined infrastructure.
The EV makes you look at what you thought you knew from a whole new perspective. And it instantly does something else in the process – connects your consciousness to lots of other things you’ve habitually thought of separately. Expensively so to the planet.
If the EV does turn out historically to have been one of the biggest trojan horses from the future, it’ll be because of the mindset it’s use will get millions of us practising. Not just a cleaner way of getting around, but an integrated future. A more connected mindset in your coming and going.
The lovely first lady of Momo and I have been testing out our comparatively more affordable EV much during the year, getting to know how to drive the battery and develop a relationship with it. Because believe me, with a smaller kWh car, you end up with one – it soon tells you whether you’ve been munting the torque around town like a Nova-pooning teenager by eating your mileage and also by not recharging quite as well. Treat the fun pedal with sensitivity and keep the cruising speed lower than your usual breakneck motorway flank in the outside lane all the way to Bracknell and you will actually end up in Bracknell.
You find yourself thinking about how energy works. And what it takes in time and technology to deliver it to your travel plans. And what it costs to do so.
It also gets you talking to strangers. Feels like not a single charge stop across ol’ England this summer has not had someone approach us to ask about the experience. Because, I guess, they assume we are approachable folk driving a wokemobile. And every conversation we’ve had with these strangers has been quickly about sources of energy, how easy it would be to charge your car from sunshine if you had the money and roof space for some solar and a home battery, how calm the driving experience is, how vehicle to grid systems will start half running our homes from our car batteries and how, by extension, some smart energy sharing with your neighbourhood could spread the energy around your street in a way more efficient and empoweringly social way. And about how much cheaper it is to run. Including the laughably simplified servicing costs of a glorified hoverboard.
The EV unlocks a connected view of the world. By physically sitting in the cabin and (not) pulling it through the gears – because there aren’t any! All as someone who’s never had reason to think much about all this before. Your brain is what shifts, about the whole way the world works. And if you times that by millions of committed motorists… you get… I don’t know. A different world.
Because driving an EV inevitably also means finding yourself thinking about cycling and bus rides as well. Being outside more. Especially if you’re sat at a picnic table waiting for your budget EV to charge. You can hear the birds.
And it makes you think also about how much you really need a car. As Tony Seba from Rethink X told Justin Rowlatt, an automated fleet of cars can being to deliver “transport as a service”. Selling those miles, not cars. Which is essentially what China is banking on, in promoting the the whole development of EVs.
It’s a principle echoed beautifully at the other end of the business spectrum by crowd-funded British startup Riversimple, who offer their cars on a subscription model, never to be actually sold. And who do it also with another take on how an EV can work – hydrogen fuel cell. Still zero emissions, but using a hydrogen pump network instead of battery recharge. While it remains to be seen whether hydrogen can work at the domestic car level as well as it may well turn out to work for haulage and heavier transport, it certainly cuts out the battery production problems.
To tackle centuries of ingrained economic cultural habit, we’re in the process of beginning to think differently about everything. How and why we do, well, everything. Interconnecting purpose at work with wellbeing with lifecycle in product design with usability.
And oh hey, Tesla. Remember that little start-up? It thinks differently.
It’s at least tried to build in rather more circular design, from much more first principles thinking – a willingness to question everything on the drawing board. Which is a major culture shift from a century of automotive manufacturing habits and less interrogated ways of doing things in the boys clubs of old successes. Which, you might say, is exactly what’s needed to change the trajectory of the world. Tesla represented a wake-up call to the auto makers at a fundamental level and many are likening the final delivery of its model 3 to an iPhone moment – the nudge product that quietly changes everything in a market and so changes aspects of societal behaviours.
Erin Baker says the cultural move to all new types of car is just beginning to have a significant cultural change in that old boys’ view of the motoring world.
“The cars themselves are forcing changes. Petrol and diesel-powered sports models are disappearing, replaced by hybrid and pure electric vehicles. The days of adverts that show women splayed across the bonnet of a V8 sports car are fading. Instead, we are embracing electric cars, which are more focused on lifestyle than performance. The emphasis is not on horsepower any more, but sustainability. Also, the conversation is shifting from engineering to interiors, as the car evolves into ‘the third space’, after the office and home, in which to hold our conference calls, or help the kids with their homework.”
And it’s worth pointing out a couple more things, while trying to add it all up. While a battery EV costs more CO2 to manufacture than its ICE equivalent, it pays it off rather quickly across its lifecycle.
And, oh yeah, be nice if we could clear the air outside our kids schools. Wouldn’t it. The future of personal transport has to be zero emission.
You can’t even really blame the sexualisation of modern culture on the car, much as people have. As Claude Fischer puts it in Sex and the American car: “Old-style courting had started changing to new-style “dating” a decade or two before cars became widely available” and women’s roles and expectations were already changing. The automobile just happened to make us feel sexy.
The car really was always just a vehicle for humans. Perhaps we can use it to take our minds beyond it.
George Monbiot makes a pertinent point when he says of the whole inefficiency of the car economy: “Let’s explore some pollution solutions that change this ridiculous system, rather than extending it indefinitely. Why not – through shifting road space from cars to bicycles in the form of safe cycle lanes – aim to make cycling the main form of urban transport? Why not launch a scrappage scheme that trades cars for public transport tokens? Why not implement the ingenious plan proposed by the economist Alan Storkey, for an upgraded intercity coach service that’s as fast and convenient as private transport, but uses a fraction of the road space? In other sectors, progress is marked by reducing the volume of a system while enhancing its utility. Why does the same principle not apply to transport?”
Well, indeed. For sure. But, y’know. The dream.
Of… an idea of freedom. Of personal space in an echo chamber world; of time away from screens during ordinary parts of the day. Of the sheer fun of cruising about with your Yacht Rock spreading a sonic wake of lifestyle ease behind your convertible – the place where music can be most lovingly enjoyed in a busy life. Or thoughtful, long-listen podcasts. And the dream of objects of desire that I think are sewn irrevocably into the human imagination now. Like vinyl. But maybe a far-reaching bit of technology that can finally begin to retire from ubiquity and become a joy-bringing weekend bit of escape, when we feel we need just a bit of it.
And for me, well, I’ll confess I still daydream about a lovely bit of design that maybe doesn’t have to cost quite so much of the Earth, or be thrown away, but still says something about me. Or maybe simply to me. It’s obviously not a five-ton Aston Martin, sadly, but perhaps a formerly obscure little runabout from long ago, that some hip young pup in the concept department at Peugeot has obviously had her or his eye on too, deep in the DNA of their super bling new E-Legend, channeling some of the same nostalgia for the future that I have – wave hello when one Sunday you see me cruise past in my Peugeot 504 Coupé. One crucially converted to electric, of course.
Mirror, virtue signal, manoeuvre.
Let’s take a tootle into the country. Just to see what we can see.
Monday, I’m buying a new bike.
NEXT TIME ON UNSEE THE FUTURE:
Let’s light this big firework – future Travel.
Check some of the figures pulled together by Statista.
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