Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The future of cars and the end of car culture

A doomer recently made a sarcastic comment to my post about the short-sightedness of peak oil doomers with regards to high technology and its role in our future:

So now we have cars that can drive themselves without running into things or people... in the desert! Yeah, that'll solve all our problems!

While this comment misses the point I was making that artificial intelligence is indeed advancing and will have a big influence on our future, the comment did get me thinking some more about cars and their importance to peak oil.

Firstly, let’s cut the crap. Peak oil is about cars. Doomers can rant all they want about phantom carrying capacity, the great die-off, suburban sprawl, oil dependent currencies, the essential role of oil in maintaining civilization, and so on and so forth; but the bottom line is it’s really all about cars. If you could hypothetically replace every car in the world with a magic fuel-less flying carpet, suddenly oil consumption would be irrelevant. However there is still the issue of the ever growing number of people in industrialising countries wanting to taste the freedom of efficient transport. Even with cars that don’t consume oil, we still won’t be able to manage every person on the planet owning a car. And we wouldn’t want too!

So the trick then, is to do two things:

  • Make all the cars in the world run on alternative fuels,

  • Get people to adopt better transport alternatives to cars.

  • That first one is obviously a bit tricky, but there is a simple solution: the electric car. Martin Eberhard, CEO of Tesla Motors, the guys that developed that high performance, sexy and 100% electric sports car, has an excellent post in their blog outlining why the future of cars is electric.

    His completely logical position is nicely summed up in the first two sentences of the post:
    Not too long from now, most cars will be electric. Why? Two reasons: because electric cars are far more efficient than any other kind of car, and because they are the ultimate multi-fuel cars. Sound bold, maybe crazy? Read on.

    Electric vehicles really are the future. They make so much more sense on so many levels. We have the technology, and the transition is beginning.

    Okay, now for the second, and perhaps more important question; how do we get large numbers of people to adopt better alternatives to cars?

    I’ve always thought that there must be better options then cars. One possibility that I like the sound of is a sort of hybrid rail and private car setup, such as MegaRail. There are a lot of public transit system concept that could revolutionise the world, if only they could get support. As always, funding large scale projects frequently stands in the way of potentially hugely beneficial developments.

    MegaRail concept - an electric vehicle hybrid rail system

    Mmm, sexy.

    However, when you consider how much money must get spent on cars, from the purchasing, maintenance and operation costs of the cars themselves, to the massive infrastructure and real estate that car culture demands, this huge amount of money could surely be better spent? If every dollar that goes into cars instead went into a public transit system, surely we would have a system vastly superior to private car ownership? Unfortunately there is a century of car culture standing in the way for any change to happen at the moment. People simply live their cars too damn much.

    This brings me back to the point of quoting the anonymous doomer as the start of this post. Cars that drive themselves solving our problems? You bet!

    Imagine a future where not only are all the cars efficient and quiet electric vehicles, but they also drive themselves. This would have several very important social ramifications. The desire to drive a large and powerful car would diminish.

    Consider the social implications when all cars:

  • Are very quiet (and have no mucho exhaust note to tell people how big you genitals are)

  • Drive themselves intelligently and do not occasionally try to race other cars at the lights

  • Are hyper safe drivers that never crash

  • Become a passenger experience instead of a driving pleasure

  • The role of the car in our lives will change. Cars will cease to be a social status symbol. People won’t want big and fast cars because they will be useless – you won’t be able to make an auto-driving car race off at dangerous and fuel wasting speeds. You won’t be able to rev the engine in mucho efforts to tell everyone that you are a MAN. You won’t be under the mistaken impression that a massive SUV is safer and necessary for driving the kids to soccer practice, because you know that the AI car network simply can not crash a car.

    So what happens to society when the all important social role of the car disappears? When people don’t car about their cars – something that is almost unthinkable in today’s lingering 20th century ideals – how will people’s live change? I suspect that in such a dramatic cultural shift, and it is dramatic, people will become a lot more open about alternative forms of transport. When a car is not a driving experience but a passenger experience, perhaps a transition to a more sensible transport ideal will become feasible?

    So in response too our short-sighted doomer friend who fails to consider the implications of advancing technology, yes, cars that drive themselves just may solve all of our problems. You see, once we get to the point where cars are driving themselves, and by which point we will already be using oil alternative fuels, a wide-scale transition to superior alternatives to cars will be possible, because the AI car will have killed off the last remnants of the despicable car culture we so lovingly developed during the oil age.