The buzz around an impending revolution in car-making might have you believe that we will all be whizzing about in electric, autonomous or even flying vehicles in no time. But for anyone in raptures that the future has finally arrived, a look around a new exhibition at the V&A Museum in London may bring you back down to Earth with a tyre-screeching thud.
As the first room of pictures illustrates, futurists have been predicting a car-driven technological utopia for more than a century.
In 1914, Russian artists were commissioned to produce a series of postcards depicting the “Moscow of the Future”. They show “air cabs” shooting through the sky “at the speed of a telegram”.
In 1962, Italian newspaper La Domenica del Corriere published an illustration on its front cover showing a hellish traffic jam, while on the back it presented a futuristic solution: passengers serenely traversing the streets in individual glass-domed pods.
And yet the roads of 2019 still resemble the image of old – with most of us chugging about in heavy, petrol-powered boxes of road-bound metal.
Cars have already made a great leap forward
The idea that a sci-fi future will arrive in a flash also ignores the micro revolutions that have been taking place in car design almost from the start, when the world’s first production automobile, the 8mph Benz Patent-Motorwagen – little more than three spindly wheels, an engine and a rickety leather seat – was launched in 1885.
“The four major technological trends when it comes to the future of mobility are: electric, autonomous, service-oriented (you wouldn’t buy it, you would rent it) and flying,” says exhibition curator Brendan Cormier. “But the slow computerisation of the car has taken place ever since there were ABS brakes in the 70s.
“What started out as a very mechanical machine that required a lot of dexterity and skill on the part of the driver has slowly been subsumed by technology and devices which are doing much of the driving for you. In one sense, the switch to autonomous driving is a big jump to not having any driver at all, but the technology in the car has been slowly replacing drivers for a while now.”
Even a modern petrol vehicle is arguably now more computer than car; a typical new model – packed with cameras, sensors and radar – relies on 100 million lines of code, a number that is set to treble.
‘The house becomes merged with the car’
Jon Bentley, author of Autopia: The Future of Cars, predicts that your runaround could soon be more house than automobile. “Everything becomes fantastically liberated from a design point of view,” he says. “You could have a ‘mobility room’ in your home – the house becomes merged with the car, so it almost becomes impossible to distinguish what’s a vehicle and what’s not.”
Electric cars mean a battery in the chassis replaces an engine in the bonnet, making way for a complete redesign. Self-driving could mean no need for steering wheels or even front-facing seats, meaning you could be reclining on a sofa, or facing backwards – like a character from 60s sci-fi puppet show Captain Scarlet.
‘A car may become a haven of tranquillity in a fast-moving, frantic world’
“Another advantage of autonomy is that you can make vehicles lighter and less resource-intensive,” says Bentley, “because only pessimists will regard them as being likely to crash. It will be so rare that you would not design the vehicles to take account of that eventuality.
“Other things may become more important to your journey – the soundscape, for example. You could adjust the soundscape of your interior according to whatever’s going on through your windows – a Nordic journey through the night might trigger a particular piece of music.”
It is a concept that has been explored by students from the Royal College of Art in partnership with Bentley (the car brand). Bentley (the car expert) adds: “A car may become more like a living room, and a haven of tranquillity in a frantic, fast-moving world – somewhere you can meditate and relax.”
The history of reinventing the wheel
The main reason to believe these advancements still remain a long way in the future is the vast investment and infrastructure required to allow us to recharge our cars on every roadside, let alone facilitate fleets of for-hire flying pods.
But this is nothing new. Henry Ford went to the extreme of buying up a rubber plantation in the Amazon rainforest the size of Northern Ireland – which he called Fordlandia – to guarantee he could produce tyres at the lowest prices and without fear of supply shortages.
In the days of the early cars, Cormier explains, “politicians needed to institute massive infrastructure campaigns to make sure that there were roads that would accommodate for that. There had to be filling stations. We made investments at the beginning of the last century to
support an automobile economy and we can do that again in the future if we so choose.”
Bentley predicts that everyday cars “will become connected before they become autonomous, using a combination of 5G and Wi-Fi. This will see them warning of impending collisions, avoiding crashes as well as interacting with the road infrastructure, automatically adjusting their speed never to encounter a red light.”
But partial autonomy, he warns, will bring its own dangers. “You will have to react very quickly as a driver to regain control if, say, your car is controlling itself on a motorway and you’re attending to your emails, when the car suddenly decides it can no longer cope.
“You also have to remember which bits of your car are automated and which aren’t. This could be tricky if you regularly drive different cars. One car might slow you down to the right speed for a junction but not spot red lights. Others might do both.”
Our urban landscapes will need to adapt
Even if the technology advances enough to allow for individual pods – flying or otherwise – our cities might struggle. “The sheer density of people will prevent individual pod-like transport of any sort in cities, I would have thought,” says Bentley. “And where would they all go? Would all of Bedfordshire be turned into a car park? I think we will end up with more per-mile charging by local authorities – your car will be managed much like Uber ‘surge’ pricing, when the space is too tight.”
But he remains sanguine. “Generally, when you look into it, there’s a much more optimistic future for cars and motoring than one might have dared to hope.”
He envisages a roadscape in which hydrogen- or synthetic fuel-powered cars could drive alongside vintage vehicles – which have already been given a new lease of life thanks to 3D printing, allowing owners to manufacture new parts at home.
“A chapter is closing on the car as we know it and a new chapter is beginning. That is absolutely happening,” says Cormier, whose show also neatly illustrates the unintended consequences littered throughout the history of the car industry.
A Soviet poster from 1960 directly connected petrol with prosperity. It shows an oil pipeline, a profusion of plastic products and declares: “From oil we take for the needs of our country a river of gasoline, oil and petroleum and in addition thousands of items for domestic comfort!”
A 1962 advert for the ironically named Humble Oil Company depicts a body of ice and boasts: “This giant glacier has remained unmelted for centuries. Yet, the petroleum energy Humble supplies could melt it at a rate of 80 tons each second!”
As we embrace the new age of autonomy, it might be wise to reflect that developments in motoring always end up transforming far more than the cars we drive.
Electric cars can be ‘silent killers’
One big difference between cars with conventional engines and electric-powered vehicles is how much more quiet the new arrivals are, but this can be dangerous for pedestrians, reports Rod Minchin.
A visually impaired woman has warned of the dangers of electric vehicles, branding them “silent killers”.
Debra Roffey, 52, and her guide dog Crystal were almost hit by an electric car in Paignton, Devon, in 2017.
“A passer-by grabbed me, pulling me and Crystal out of the way of one,” said Roffey, backing Vision Express’s Stop Look Listen campaign. “There was no warning. There was no noise and no fumes from an exhaust, so Crystal didn’t pick up on the fact there was a car behind us on the seafront pathway. We could have been seriously injured or worse.”
There are 250,000 of these vehicles on UK roads, with as many as 9 million predicted by 2030. A recent EU law means new electric and hybrid vehicles must have an audio signal system and by July 2021 all such vehicles will need one.
‘Cars: Accelerating The Modern World’ runs at the V&A, London, from Saturday until 23 April