People often ask me what the future of motoring holds, after all my day job is working with car companies to develop prototypes of the cars of the future. But the long term plans of the big car companies is only part of this story.
It’s true they try to guess the future, often a new car design will be in production for seven years with a facelift half way through, and it takes between three and five years to do all the engineering so all in all a totally new model may still be going strong a decade after the initial plan was agreed. And when you are investing billions in factories and engineering facilities you need to feel that your guesses will be fairly close to what the future will actually hold.
So many experts are consulted; economists, engineers, scientists, sociologists and pundits all make contributions in one way or another, and gradually a fuzzy picture of the future coalesces.
But times are changing.
Oil supply is uncertain, it’s not so much that it’s running out, more that politics and economics mean that prices will carry on going up and the reliability of supply is less certain than ten years ago. And when a critical factor like oil becomes iffy then long term plans become impossible to make, this means that it is far safer to plan for alternative fuels, and electric drives seem relatively easy to plan for (see a previous post). But even the role of alternatives is not clear cut, there is renewed interest in making fuel by reversing the combustion process with electricity. Petrol and diesel burn and turn mostly into water and carbon dioxide whilst releasing energy, so by combining water and carbon dioxide and putting loads of energy back in you get fuel. So depending on where the electricity comes from this has the potential to be carbon neutral and also has the benefit that the car industry doesn’t have to invent new engines. This could be the next big thing, really very big. Unless it’s easier to plan for electric drives or some other technology, in which case this will get too little investment and never get anywhere.
Fuel is a hugely contentious issue these days, both for its cost and its environmental effect.
Have you ever seen people complaining that they don’t get the claimed fuel economy from their car? The problem is drivers are hugely inconsistent, I am famed for squeezing higher fuel economy figures from almost any car, but a colleague of mine usually manages to use twice as much fuel as me on the same journey! And it’s not just MPG, its how many litres of fuel you have to pay for each month, and part of that is what route you choose and traffic flow.
But there are some bigger issues that will influence the future, did you know that road deaths in the UK have just started going up? About two thousand people are killed on the UK roads every year, that is an astonishing statistic, how the hell can we live with this situation? Almost all of these are caused by driver error.
These problems are contributing to the drive towards fully autonomous cars, although the main drive is the fact that most drivers hate driving and would rather be on the internet or chatting to friends, so having a robot chauffeur is a real selling point. We have already seen self parking cars gain popularity, and Volvo were the first to introduce collision avoidance where the car will do an emergency stop if it gets worried. All the car companies I know of are working on autonomous cars, they are still many years off, but within a decade they will be widely available.
Autonomous cars have the potential to reduce journey times, slash road deaths and injuries, reduce insurance costs, reduce financial losses, and reduce emissions. Manufacturers also benefit from a reduction in warranty costs caused by customers abusing their cars. And intriguingly once a car becomes autonomous the interior design focus changes dramatically towards being an entertainment or business centre, windows become less important, seats facing forward is no longer mandatory, just imagine the possibilities.
But in the shorter term there is still a lot of work going on refining existing technologies.
You may have noticed that engines are getting smaller again, coupled with much higher boost levels, such as the lovely little Ford three cylinder unit or the sprightly VW Tsi. This trend is set to continue over the next ten years at least, with a greater presence of electric hybrid drives to ensure the engine is used only at its best efficiency.
But something is coming that might make these plans irrelevant.
And it’s the weather.
People have noticed that the weather is becoming increasingly inconvenient. The climate is warming up, in the UK this means that crops are getting ruined year after year. I’m fairly close to the farming community and a startling thing is that most farmers I’ve spoken to can’t remember when they last had two consecutive good years. This year our food prices will go up, although to be fair we have very cheap food in the UK to start with, and there may be shortages of certain types of food. Initially grains will be diverted from animal feed stocks to feeding us directly,, driving up animal feed and thus meat prices will be the first to go up. This will drive inflation up and this in turn worries politicians, and when politicians get worried they usually pass some badly thought out laws.
But it’s not just food, floods have caused huge damage and disruption costing the country a fortune.
You can see where this is going can’t you? Yes it’s our old foe climate change, for decades people have been warning that there was a problem, and for over a decade the car industry has taken this very seriously but the problem has always been that the message we’ve been receiving has been confused and complex, making it impossible to know who to believe and so what to plan for. This is partly because the climate is a hugely complex thing, and our understanding of it is still in it’s infancy, what’s shocking is the lack of funding for this science, which takes us back to politicians.
Politicians react to popular opinion, more so near an election. So no matter what the real truth of the matter is (how about massive investment and incentives for zero carbon drives and proper funding for climate research? No, ok then spend the money on nuclear weapons we will never use.) politicians now have a population with ridiculously expensive fuel, flooded homes and food shortages. The people want this mess sorted out, so the standard scenario is that in this situation politicians choose someone to blame and pass laws to restrict the ‘bad thing’ that is the alleged cause of the problem.
Car companies are a bit worried about this situation, not knowing what laws will be passed on emissions or what taxes will be applied to fuel and different types of car means that long term plans are near impossible. Obviously 6.0 litre V8s will get hammered, but what about a 2.0 or a 1.5 litre turbo unit? If the top of your current range has a 3.0 V6, what should you plan to be using in ten years time? Maybe even a sub one litre engine will still get hammered?
And what about the cars due for release in 2013, many years of work and many millions, sometimes over a billion, have gone into getting each one into production. They simply have to be in production for their intended production life span or the company may suffer serious damage, and for very high volume producers like Ford or VW loosing the market on a new car because it gets taxed to oblivion or fails new emissions limits could bring it to its knees. This is serious stuff.
But more serious is the very real change in our climate, if greenhouse gasses are the problem then we have to engineer a technical way of ripping it out of the atmosphere in astonishing volumes, after all we’ve been pumping tons of shit into the air for hundreds of years and there is one hell of a lot of it up there now. And it’s not just CO2, Methane is far worse and a lot of that comes from our passion for meat, there are many factors and it all needs sorting out.
If the politics dictate that petrol and diesel suddenly face being taxed to death, or even banned, then all of a sudden getting funding for reformed fuel or electric drives will become a lot easier, because investors can see the benefit.
But time is running out, and what we need is some sort of certainty so long term plans can be made and investments made. Tell the car industry that cars in ten years time will have to be all electric and we know what we have to work with, sure it will be hard but it will get done. If its gas or reformed fuel or whatever, just let us know.
So what’s the next big thing? Could be reformed petrol, could be hydrogen, could be electric, could even be banning cars and everyone working from home (ok, not that). One thing that I have seen across the board is that there is an increased focus on putting more fun into motoring, there are some fabulous drivers cars in the pipeline. Longer term there are loads of fascinating technologies in their infancy that could change our lives fundamentally, some are being funded and some are just starting out. But in all honestly it all depends on politics, and one thing no one can predict is politicians.