Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Which idiot came up with percentage-based gradient signs

Rant warning: the contents of this post could sound like something produced by UKIP. I wish to make it clear that I do not in any way support or endorse that political party. In fact it gives me the creeps. Once upon a time, the signs for a steep hill on British roads displayed the gradient in a simple, easy-to-understand form. If the hill went up, say, one yard for every three yards forward it said '1 in 3'. Then some bureaucrat came along and decided that it would be a good idea to state the slope as a percentage. So now the sign for (say) a 1 in 10 slope says 10% (I think). That 'I think' is because the percentage-based slope is so unnatural. There are two ways we conventionally measure slopes. Either on X/Y coordiates (as in 1 in 4) or using degrees - say at a 15° angle. We don't measure them in percentages. It's easy to visualize a 1 in 3 slope, or a 30 degree angle. Much less obvious what a 33.333 recurring percent slope is. And what's a 100% slope