Electrification, autonomy, digitalisation; the list goes on. But amid the swirl of change, it’s easy to overlook a more fundamental truth: boil down the impact of so much disruption and it’s clear that the future of the car as we know it is under assault.
In the UK, our average driving distance has been in decline for years. In 2002, it was 9200 miles, last year it was down to 7400 and this year it’s easy to imagine that that figure has been halved, despite the best efforts of Autocar’s road testers to keep you informed.
No doubt it will creep up again as lockdown eases, but I doubt that it will ever recover. We’ve all discovered workarounds to business and personal commuting, many of which improve our wellbeing and finances. How many people have paid for a 10,000-mile lease this year only to spend months staring at an expensive ornament? How many of those leases will be renewed at 5000 miles? The potential spiral is obvious.
Lockdown has made us aware of what was staring us in the face: even prepandemic, the average car was used for just six hours a week, meaning it was parked for 96% of the time. Factor in studies in the US suggesting that the average person spends 20% of their income on transport, led by car use, and 32 hours per year stationary on traffic-clogged roads, and it’s impossible not to ponder whether there’s a better way.
We’ve been here before, of course, but now there’s no question that big business and eagle-eyed investors are doing all they can to provide a catalyst to break the mould, their plans to seize a slice of the pie and their audience with the country’s decision-makers justified by the potential environmental gains. Car sharing, ride hailing and eventually even hired, autonomous pods so in demand that they never need to sit idle are all on the agenda. Already trials are proving effective in some big cities.
Yet it’s also a fact that the number of new cars registered in the UK has risen as the number of miles driven has fallen. The pandemic has made us more aware than ever of our love of personal space, in turn driving a surge in used car sales. Public transport – trains, buses and more– has been around forever, but most prefer not to use it.
So too there are examples of car-sharing schemes, run by the likes of BMW and Daimler, that were ended early. At one memorable dinner with a BMW executive, when asked what he had learned from a multimillion-pound car-sharing scheme in the US, he replied off the cuff: “That people don’t want to share cars.”
Change is certain. The outcome of it is less so.
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