The last 100 years have seen the car triumph as the transport mode of choice. Not only has it come to define us as individuals – as extensions of our personality and who we want to be – it has also left an indelible mark on human history. It is among the most iconic inventions of all time, celebrated across the globe for its aesthetic qualities as much as its functional ones. Our relationship with it is changing, and, as we’ll see, the world in which the car finds itself in today is markedly different from the one its early pioneers and supporters could have ever imagined.
1900 – the modern world
At the turn of the 20th century, cars were still a far-fetched idea. People didn’t know much about this newfangled vehicle and those that did, well they didn’t think it wouldn’t catch on.
And so, almost every type of vehicle in popular use was horse-drawn. If you had asked someone back then what people needed to get around more quickly, it’s likely they would have answered “faster horses”.
Cars? No, no, they simply won’t catch on …
The British MP, John Douglas-Scott-Montagu, who was, interestingly, one of the great early pioneers of motoring in the UK, famously said:
I do not believe the introduction of motorcars will ever affect the riding of horses
It was an assessment many of his colleagues shared, though some were less enthusiastic than him when it came to cars. When he first rolled up to the Houses of Parliament in his novel contraption, it is said that he was told that this was not a gentleman’s way to travel.
So we were wrong about cars …
Within a decade, however, horses had swiftly been replaced by cars. No-one saw this coming. Predicting the impact of new technologies, like the internal combustion engine or the moving assembly line, is hard to do.
Technology changes things, in ways you can’t imagine. And you have to go with it. Move with the times. You can no longer be that guy in the horse-drawn carriage.
The world goes car crazy
Soon enough, cars changed the world – the way we lived, the way we moved, it was unlike anything that we had ever seen or experienced. You could go further than ever before and in less time. Cars went from being a luxury item to an aspirational one, within everyone’s reach. It was a game changer.
2000 – the digital millennium
Things have changed. We struggle to move. Global gridlock. Urban congestion. Delays. If most cities invested in a horse lane, commuters would probably get to where they want to quicker than they would in a car or via public transport. Despite the progress that has clearly been made over the years, it’s almost as if we’ve come full circle.
Consider the following stats. In London the average travelling speed in a car is just 11.8mph. In Beijing it’s 17mph. This is roughly the same speed as horse-drawn carriages a century ago.
As an example of how bad things can get with movement, you have to cast to your mind back to 2010. Commuters in China were caught up in a 100km (62-mile) traffic jam, that took an astonishing 12 days to clear. The cause? There were simply too many cars clogging up the journey from Beijing to the northern province of Inner Mongolia, which was compounded by the fact that this influx of vehicles coincided with major roadworks being underway. On average, it took motorists one day to travel two miles along the route.
As things stand, if there are no new solutions put forward, Brits will, for example, spend 18 working days a year stuck in traffic by 2030.
We’ve reaching peak capacity. Plus it’s stressful, bad for the planet and not fun. We want to live in cleaner, greener cities that are safe and easy to get around in. We want to be able to move.
Nevertheless, against this backdrop, cars remain an extremely popular way of getting around and a source of great pleasure. For example, according to the RAC Foundation, 78% of “distance travelled by all modes, including walking, is as a car driver or passenger” in Great Britain.
The digital revolution automobile to automobile
The good thing about the car’s enduring popularity is that while there are presently limits to how quickly people can get around, thanks to technology and innovation, the experience of being a driver or passenger is going to get better. Our relationship with vehicles is, after all, evolving and in the not so distant future, electric, driverless and connected cars are going to offer smarter, more rewarding and cleaner ways to travel.
As a McKinsey & Company article highlighted, “attention is now turning to developing the car’s ability to connect with the outside world and enhance the in-car experience”.
Fascinatingly, all of this optimisation isn’t just for the benefit of the driver or his/her immediate passengers (friends/family members). Other commuters also gain from all the innovation impacting the industry.
We’re more willing, through car-share schemes, to lend our cars out, as well as, through ride-share schemes, to take up an empty seat in someone else’s vehicle.
Moreover, we’re now thinking of the car as one of many options at our disposal, using them as part of a multimodal approach to movement that ultimately offers everyone a better way of getting around.
Central to all of this is the smartphone, so far the defining device of the 21st century. Given that, as of 2014, there are now more mobile devices than people in the world, the mobility possibilities for billions of people are endless. Every journey may well start with a swipe of a screen.
So where are we now?
Right back where we were at the start of the 20th century – on the edge of something brilliant when it comes to movement. As the century unfolds, one thing is certain, travel is going to better than it has ever been.