Why you have (probably) not already bought your last car

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash
I have just read an (unintentionally) hilarious article on the BBC News website. In it, Justin Rowlatt sets out arguments as to why you have (probably) already bought your last car. Aware that this sounds a little unlikely, Rowlatt starts by suggesting we'll be scoffing - I'm not. I understand the arguments - but I think they show an impressively bubble mentality.

The article tell us 'tech analysts' predict that in less that 20 years we'll all have stopped owning cars and all cars will be electric. Let's leave aside the obvious point that most of us buy cars more frequently than every 20 years and look at the main arguments in the article. They are:

  • Self-driving cars cut taxi journeys from $10 to $5
  • Electric cars have less moving parts so should last at least 500,000 miles
  • Electric car prices will fall as they become mainstream, reducing self-driving journeys even further to $1
  • Accident rates will plummet. Within 10 years 95% of journeys will be self-driving and human drivers will be banned.
  • 'Don't worry that rural areas will be left out. A vehicle could be parked in every village waiting for your order to come.'
So let's take fast dominance of electric cars first. I would love to have an electric car - but I simply can't afford one at the moment. To get a reasonable range for non-urban driving (300 miles), there's pretty much nothing under £55,000 new. I could get a new petrol car with that range for £6,000. That's a big differential. And what about used? At the moment there are more than three times as many used car sales in the UK as there are new. It will take a long time before there are enough electric cars in the used car market to dominate.

As for the technology claim - it may be true, but it's also highly misleading. Electric cars do have fewer moving parts - but there's a lot more complex technology to go wrong. Crucially, that 500,000 mile figure ignores a typical battery life of 100,000 miles. Then you have a bill of between £5,000 and £25,000 depending on the car. That's more than many people pay for a new car now.

So now let's move from the car itself to those self-driving, shared vehicles. Let's say (highly doubtful) they really could reduce the cost of a taxi-style journey to 10% of its current value. Do you really think that means the price will be reduced by the same amount? If so, please consider buying Tower Bridge off me, as I've got it available at a bargain rate. But I also don't think this 10% value takes in the extra costs involved. Remember Manchester's equivalents of Boris bikes - Mobikes. They lasted all of a year before being withdrawn due to vandalism. How do you think driverless taxis will fare? 

The accident rate argument is a good one, but it omits one huge psychological problem which I think is hardly ever addressed. Driverless cars will save lots of anonymous lives, but will kill lots of people with friends and relations to complain about them. At the moment around 1,700 people are year are killed on the road in the UK (and over 1 million worldwide). Yes, it would be wonderful if we could drop that to, say, a quarter of the current value. That's saving over 1,200 lives a year in the UK. But that would still mean over 400 people killed by driverless cars each year. And that's a lot of lawsuits. We accept a small risk to use preventative medicine. Vaccines harm a few people, but save many. However the percentage risk we tend to accept is very small, and I'm really not convinced that driverless cars (which have already killed people) will ever get down to acceptable levels.

I've kept the best til last - 'Don't worry that rural areas will be left out. A vehicle could be parked in every village waiting for your order to come.' I'm sorry, but this is such a city-centred view. Surely Rowlatt has never lived in a village. I used to live in a village with about 2,000 inhabitants. During 1 hour each workday morning around 200 cars left the village for work and on the school run. Do you think those 200 families would read 'A vehicle could be parked in every village waiting for your order to come,' and think 'That's okay, then'?

Let's take it up a notch. I now live in Swindon, a town with a population of around 200,000. Again, is it realistic to think that there could be enough cars for the peaks available in Swindon? Even at this size, we aren't big enough to justify Uber setting up, while Deliveroo only covers a very small central area of the town. Shared facilities only work with a high enough density of requirements for short journeys.

And I think that's at the heart of the perception gap between Rowlatt plus his 'tech analysts' and the rest of the country. The prescription would work in London and a few other big cities, but not for the vast majority of towns and villages. I'd suggest a good measure is that this approach could work where it's possible to summon a black cab by stepping onto the pavement and waiting a minute or two. So that's London and probably a handful of other UK cities. Outside very high density occupation with mostly very short journeys this timescale is not going to happen.