The Future of Cars

Model T Ford

Sometime in the near future, it will be illegal for humans to drive cars. They will steer themselves, and we will merely sit back and relax as we are transported from A to B by complicated software. The roads will be much safer and probably much less congested, as the autonomous vehicles will only be on the roads when absolutely necessary. If there are those who can still drive, they will be maintenance people or from the emergency services.

How soon this future will materialise is hard to say: some optimists think we could be there in five years. The sceptics place their bets closer to thirty years, but nearly everyone agrees that such a future is inevitable. J. G. Ballard suggested in a 1971 essay that the time would come when steering wheels would be made completely illegal, but not before pointing out that this most dangerous aspect of the car is also it’s most liberating.

For the author of Crash -easily the most disturbing motoring novel ever written- the car is a truly terrifying machine; it’s environmental impact and the staggering death toll which it has inflicted are enough to validate this. But in spite of these horrors, he admits that the car has “created a sense of leisure, possibility, freedom and initiative” which was unheard of in the days before the Model T.

It only takes a cursory look at the popular culture of the past century to grasp the car’s impact on our society, but with the rise of the self-driving car, the qualities Ballard mentions will slowly evaporate. And it will not simply be that we no longer have control of the vehicle, but that the way things are going we may hardly even own the vehicle either.

J. G. Ballard

Last month, a truck operated by Otto, an Uber-owned self-driving software company, successfully transported a shipment of Budweiser over 120 miles with almost no human help, and the parent company is already experimenting with autonomous taxis in Pittsburgh. The end-goal for the company is to own a fleet of self-driving vehicles so that it can take the entirety of the revenue which is earned at present by their employees collecting customers. The day of the driver is already drawing to a close.

The ambitions of companies such as Uber and Lyft tell the first half of the story of our driverless future. Despite its ludicrous claims that drivers are able to earn $90,000 a year, Uber has seemingly made it’s mission one of pushing drivers’ wages ever down whilst working them ever harder, as the numerous recent lawsuits against it have claimed. The company state that its drivers are self-employed, but tightly control the wages, which usually end up below $5 after fuel and toll fares are factored in. In the end Uber aims to own the cars and disown the drivers, having built their empire by offloading the risk onto them.

In Uber’s perfect world, non-ownership of cars is completely incentivised, and it essentially becomes privatised public transport. And that is where Tesla comes in. Elon Musk recently announced that, once its level 5 autonomous “autopilot” feature is completed and legislated, Tesla would be operating a car-sharing service of its own to be used exclusively by Tesla drivers. The idea is that when you are not using your Tesla, you may send your autonomous vehicle off to act as a taxi, and make money from it. He calls it “the people vs. Uber and Lyft”, and on paper it looks as though he is promoting the ownership of driverless cars over the corporate monopolisation of the ride sharers.

But there’s a catch. On Tesla’s network, you may not simply share your car with anyone, and you certainly can’t do so using another ride sharing scheme. Even with friends and extended family you have to allow Tesla to take some revenue and, in much the same way that Apple, Google or Blackberry can brick your mobile phone at will or your network provider can store details of your calls and texts, so Tesla will be able to track your every journey and remotely control your car if they so choose. Already they are offering a cool $20,000 for their latest software updates, a quarter of the price of their cheapest car. Assuming other auto companies follow suit when full automation kicks in, it increasingly looks like we will only be licensees of driving technology rather than bona fide owners.

Elon Musk

A world where we neither drive nor truly own cars would be practically unrecognisable to most people today. Cars have long been a symbol of autonomy and individualism, and it is hard to overstate the massive impact they have had on us both socially and economically.

The car has represented many things, but perhaps most importantly it has represented social mobility and the power to control what we are doing and where we are going. Owning a car means you do not feel like you are being taken somewhere as riding in a train, taxi or indeed a self-driving car would. It makes you feel as if you are taking yourself somewhere.

The advent of the bicycle in the 1890s was, according to a number of feminist writers, vital in enabling women to have a sense of control over where they could go and when. Beatrice Grimshaw wrote that she “rode it unchaperoned, mile and miles beyond the limits possible to the soberly trotting horses. The world opened before me.” This radical opening of the world by the bicycle would be recreated a hundred times more powerfully by the car, not just for women, but for those who could not afford regular carriage fares or the upkeep of a horse before the mass ownership of motorcars arrived.

If we no longer control the car, and in fact hardly even own the software that does control it, we will no longer have the sense of freedom the automobile once offered. How liberated would Grimshaw have felt if the bicycle were driven for her by a remote corporation, in effect chaperoning her?

The British environmentalist George Monbiot has written that the car, in his view, has been responsible for a rigid centre-right political attitude in western societies, due to the individualism which it espouses. Whether or not you think Monbiot is correct -or indeed whether or not you think it’s a bad thing- reducing the car’s impact to the political surely misses the point. The car has had such an all-encompassing influence on our lives, that to pin a label such as ‘left’ or ‘right’ on it is as useful as pinning such a label on electricity or running water.

Unlike the exhibitionist individualism that, for example, social media often displays, the individualism of the car is far more internal. The car, rather than being a projection of the self, behaves more like an extension of the self, especially when you are driving it, hence the sense of liberation and responsibility it lends. To remove these senses is arguably to contribute to the removal of a self-determination that has been a cornerstone of working democracies and strong middle classes.

Bicycles in the 1890s

And if these psychological factors have had such a great effect, the economic factors have been even more significant. In the UK alone, 400,000 people are employed as HGV drivers and 300,000 as taxi drivers. The possibility of driving, and the need for people to do it has created a huge levee of jobs. With the car’s arrival, not only were more jobs created than were lost, but a degree of economic stability and mobility emerged. Working as a fixed rate taxi driver means that the work one does corresponds to the wage one receives; for the countless independent delivery people, the wage one receives is under their direct control. It is no mistake that the rise of the stable middle class has been directly analogous to the spread of the motorcar.

Already Uber have conspired to drain these levees with their race to bottom for drivers’ wages. Decades of social contracts built up to ensure that taxi driving is a sustainable job have been swept away by Uber’s business model, which is increasingly being exposed as exploitation. In the end it won’t matter, as has already been pointed out, because autonomous vehicles will destroy these jobs in a heartbeat. And now that we have made a new social contract by which ride sharing massively benefits the software company at the expense of the car owner, it is highly unlikely that Tesla’s “people vs. Uber” network will be lucrative enough to make up the lost wages. That is assuming people can afford a Tesla in the first place.

It may be difficult, as Niels Bohr once observed, to predict the future. However, it is safe to assume that we are heading into a future where not only will we not be able to drive, but one in which we will be locked into contracts with auto makers as we currently are with our mobiles phones. It would be a world where everything will be known about every journey we take, and our cars will be ultimately under the control of remote servers. Or perhaps these car systems will not be under the control of large companies and operate more as genuine public transport systems, although this seems ever more remote as private ride sharing companies grow and grow. Either way, the car as we know it looks to be disappearing, and with it, so will the world it has created. As Ballard concluded, the sensation of power and control made possible by the car, along with the hum of engines and the smell of exhaust, will be an archaic novelty, confined to vintage rallies and fairs.