Wither, The Car?

Last autumn, BBC News published a thought-provoking piece on their website called ‘Why you have (probably) already bought your last car’. In it, they made the case that, just as the age of horse-drawn transport effectively ended a mere twenty or so years after the first Model T Ford left the Piquet Avenue plant in Detroit, the next transport revolution could happen a lot faster than we expect. A combination of the promise of the imminent arrival of autonomous cars, simpler and longer-lasting electric vehicles were cited as two of the key drivers (no pun intended) for the extinction of the privately-owned car.

There are plenty of things to like about the scenario that the article paints, costs savings for the individual, who no longer has to sink significant cash into a mostly unused, depreciating asset, being not the least of them. It also fits well with the idea that the transition from the discrete purchase of individual products to having everything as a service (even toilet paper) is inevitable and desirable. However, it is interesting to contrast the bold assertions of the BBC piece (which, to be fair, admits that it is deliberately making its argument forcefully to provoke debate) with an article the Guardian newspaper published about the Chinese bike sharing firm Ofo, pulling out of London, due in part, to vandalism, or news last year that the Parisian electric car-sharing service, Autolib, was to close, amidst complaints of poorly maintained, dirty vehicles (and, to add insult to injury, it wasn’t making any money, either). Ford announcing it was going to close down its Chariot ride-hailing bus service just a few days ago adds weight to the argument that it is not building the vehicles that is the hard part, it is maintaining the service.

The great American writer, Stewart Brand once wrote about the ‘Romance of Maintenance’, good architecture, he said, considers the role that maintenance plays in the life of a building. Buildings – and indeed, cars and buses – can’t keep themselves clean, the unsung heroes of the next transport revolution may well be the men and women employed cleaning up after careless service users. The experience of Autolib and Ofo show that Brand’s advice would be well heeded by those wishing to sell Mobility As A Service too.

All this probably suggests that we haven’t bought our last cars just yet. Completely autonomous vehicles are still some way off, and until the cost of drivers is removed from the financial equation facing companies, the challenge of making these services profitable will remain an unsurmountable hurdle for all but the deepest pockets and most patient.

Nevertheless, the tide is turning, the number of 17-25 year olds taking driving test in UK is down 20% from 2007-2017, UK car sales have just recorded their biggest year-on-year fall since the financial crisis of 2008 and reports suggest that when Uber is floated, it will have a market cap of around $120bn, making it bigger than any car company bar Toyota. Privately-owned cars will probably never vanish entirely but it’s quite easy to imagine them becoming a luxury once more, a niche hobby for enthusiasts. For designers, the exciting challenge will be developing practical and pleasant transport that people will happily choose over owning their own car and where ease of maintenance is designed in from the start.