ITC debates automotive technologies
Car Futures: how will new vehicle technologies change our transport lives?
The car as we know it is changing. Driven by economic and environmental concerns the traditional petroleum-fuelled vehicle is being reshaped and redesigned to accommodate a range of new technologies, including fuel-cell energy, electric power and advanced control systems. In addition, vehicle infrastructure integration is developing fast, and new forms of car for urban living are being designed.
These changes have the potential to affect dramatically the place of the car in our culture, as well as national policy towards cars, highways and travel. To debate these changes the ITC hosted a special evening on 28th June, welcoming more than 40 senior experts from the automotive, design, engineering, technology, academic, civil service and safety sectors.
To open the evening, a panel of experts comprising design critic and author Stephen Bayley, technology expert Professor Rob Thring, and safety guru John Dawson, each floated ideas on different aspects of the future of the car. In the lively discussion that followed it was clear that technologies were fast changing all aspects of our relationship with the car, for better and for worse.
How will new technologies shape policy towards the Car? – key issues raised by the speakers:
- Cars will be cleaner. Petroleum-Free Car Travel is possible with proper investment. The technologies to provide alternatives to the internal combustion engine are here already, explained Professor Thring, and some of these are already finding their way onto the market, as with the Nissan Leaf. It is plausible that hydrogen and electric power will become cheaper means of fuelling cars than petroleum, but the speed of adaptation will depend on support and investment from central government. Car design will have to change to adopt these new sources. For instance, Hydrogen cars need large fuel storage space, while electric cars avoid the need for fuel storage or elaborate cooling systems.
- Cars will be safer. New Technologies can transform safe road travel, explained John Dawson. The Towards Zero Deaths goal of leading countries is possible when road transport is developed as a ‘safe system’ involving road, vehicle and error prone drivers. Such a safe system design has eliminated routine deaths on the Formula 1 racetrack. The majority of deaths today are ‘A road’ crashes outside towns. Roads and cars have passive safety (air bags, crumple zones, safety fences) and emerging active safety now nudges or forces drivers back into normal driving (smart seat belts, stability control, pedestrian detection, emergency brakes). The new Roads that Cars can Read initiative promotes road signing and marking. Road crashes cost 2% of GDP so the cost benefit ratio of good measures is huge compared to other transport investments.
- Cars can still be objects of beauty. Stephen Bayley drew attention to the way in which cars have a life and purpose beyond a mere means of travel. Our psychological attachment to these machines is profound, and they have provided an important social role in defining status, prestige and social competition. The aesthetic importance of the car for the consumer should not be overlooked. New technologies could force car designers to scale new heights of creativity to rival those of past generations.
- We should be aware of what we could lose as the car changes. The internal combustion engine with its heat, its dirt and its noise has driven car design in the past, explained Stephen Bayley, and relates strongly to our human desires. There is a danger that new technologies will turn the car into an object we engage with much less, reducing it to a disposable object. Policies that stigmatize car use are often grounded in a misunderstanding of human nature.
Key themes raised in the discussion:
- Car use cannot be rationalised. The car has become embedded in society and modern living; it has become much more than a means of travel. These associated aspects of car travel, bound tightly with issues of liberty, status, pleasure, escapism and beauty, help to ensure the irrationality of the car consumer. Why, for instance, do we pay exorbitant sums for children to travel in limousines to a school prom? We should not expect, therefore, that cost alone will dictate the future direction of the car.
- Governments will need to embrace the opportunities provided by new technology. Many of the technologies already exist to help us develop cleaner, safer and more intelligent vehicles. We do not yet know whether there are any limits to technological advances. However, many of these innovations (on which there was considerable UK expertise) will not be adopted without policy support from central and local government. Sadly, some attendees expressed pessimism at the lack of political initiative surrounding new technology.
- Transforming the car will also transform our cities and places. The development of autonomous vehicles will dramatically change our public places as phenomena including parking, signage and signaling are reduced. It is possible that we will see the end of car congestion too. Traffic has always been a sign of vitality in human cities, so reducing this could force profound changes on urban design. We will also need to reassess the way that we allocate space to cars.
- If the car survives, different international markets will emerge. We are already seeing a divergence in car markets between the rapidly developing societies of Asia and the sophisticated, mature markets of Europe. Whereas in the former societies the needs are for reliable, cheap, and primarily urban vehicles, older markets may see demand revolve instead around amusement and pleasure. Different car types for urban and rural travel could also emerge, based on the need for smaller, cleaner and more intelligent city vehicles, compared with the space and long-distance travel needs of rural living.
It was agreed that policy towards the car must demonstrate awareness that this is not a rational market. New technologies have the potential to transform radically our cars into safer, cleaner and more economical machines, without necessarily sacrificing aesthetic quality or their iconic role in our culture. The challenge is to combine this sustainable technological expertise with an understanding of the emotional needs met by car travel. The UK has an opportunity to be a major player in this area but it will only happen if there is substantial government backing for policies to support business investment in this area.