How We Will 'own' Cars in the Future
Change is in the air at the Geneva Motor Show. The big established car makers, such as Ford and Daimler and GM, are looking over their shoulders at some new and very worrying kids on the block.
Apple and Google are busy making new electric and driverless cars that they say will 'disrupt' the market. Tesla, it could be argued, have already done so with their groundbreaking Model S, and they already have plans to release a model costing around £20,000 pretty soon. By increasing driving range and making electric cars luxurious, fast and cool, they have already achieved much that the traditional car makers have failed to do over the past decade or so.
While all of this focus is on the technology that will shape the cars we drive, however, there is less attention being paid to how we will use and own them. There are some worrying trends for car makers in this regard. The number of young people sitting their driving tests is falling across Europe. The trend is especially pronounced in Germany, where the makers of prestige brands such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes are beginning to be concerned about the falling numbers of young drivers getting behind the wheel. There is some debate as to the reason behind this phenomenon.
Undoubtedly, cost has been an issue. Owning a car is not just about the cost of purchasing the vehicle, but also about ongoing running costs. The price of a car insurance policy for younger drivers has, for example, risen to the point where it is unaffordable for many. The recent financial crisis also resulted in a reduction in the number of loans being available, and many so-called higher-risk customers, such as younger people, may have found it more difficult that most to get good finance deals. Thankfully, that situation is easing now, and there are many more affordable loans and finance packages available. Indeed, one of the factors quoted in the continuing growth of new car sales over the past two years has been the availability of affordable finance deals.
However, there is also no doubt that there are other factors at play. Research from Germany suggests that young people are no longer as keen as their parents were on car ownership. It suggests that cars are not now seen so much as object of desire as they have been in the past. It seems that the younger generation is far more concerned with green credentials than any previous generation has been, and cars are simply seen as environmentally questionable. In short, for some young people, cars are just not cool.
This is one of the things behind a changing attitude to using cars, where cars are simply seen as a service to be hired when needed rather than an object to be possessed. This attitude is perhaps partly responsible in the growth of urban car clubs and journey-sharing websites.
Now, however, the new car technology itself may lend itself to a different type of car usage. If the driverless car is to be a success, then it makes most sense when it is used in much the same way as a taxi is today. You would use the car to take you to work or complete other journeys, but when it is not being used it for one person, it could simply operate for another - just as a taxi does today. It may be that a motorist would choose to 'own' such a car, but many may be tempted to program the car to be used as a taxi at times when it was not needed. This sort of model would makes such cars very affordable, even in the early days when the technology makes the cars expensive.
Such an ownership model would make a lot of sense. It would make cars much more efficient and cheaper to use. It would also contribute to quieter roads and smaller car parks. Ultimately, however, it would pretty much end the taxi industry, and it would inevitably mean fewer cars being built. Good for the environment, perhaps, but not such good news for the big car manufacturers.