Opinion: The future of transport: Blue sky thinking versus reality — DriveTribe

This article was first published on DriveTribe.

Since the beginning of the century, major strides have been made towards electric vehicles becoming the new norm and autonomous vehicles becoming a reality.

Regarding the former, more electric vehicles than ever before are being manufactured and their market share has increased dramatically. Concerning the latter, various companies including Uber, Tesla and Google have had ground-breaking success in their development of self-driving vehicles.

It is easy, therefore, to proclaim that a major transport revolution is underway, and that in the very near future everything we thought we knew about motoring will necessarily be entirely overhauled and replaced with newer, slicker methods of transport. It is not difficult to imagine a wholly technological automotive world in the not-too-distant future in which everybody uses autonomous electric vehicles to travel everywhere completely cleanly and safely in a sort of robotic Utopia.

The reality of the matter is, of course, infinitely more complex. Whilst it is true that recent years have seen unprecedented alterations to the workings of the motoring world and that governments and significant industry players have taken major steps towards modernising their output, any kind of Utopian vision comes crashing down when viewed in the context of real-world limitations and the inevitable mundaneness of the gradual rolling-out of new and innovative technologies to the everyday lives of the masses.

This point is eloquently expressed by David Hone, Chief Climate Change Adviser for Royal Dutch Shell. When asked his view on the biggest challenges that will come with the implementation of a clean energy future, he said: ‘What is often forgotten is the transition required to get to that point.

‘For example, there is a very significant material challenge involved in putting a billion electric vehicles on the road. That potentially represents a century of production for a material such as cobalt, which isn’t abundant and exists largely in central Africa. Doubtless these issues will be solved, but doing so will take time and innovation.’

It is imperative that we look past the media sensationalising of these issues and focus on the pioneering work taking place today.

On 1 March 2018, Shell hosted an event in partnership with Intelligence Squared to discuss this very question, which is arguably one of the biggest issues facing mankind in a rapidly evolving world: the future of transport.

Hosted by broadcaster Edith Bowman, the debate featured the distinguished opinions of author, journalist and researcher Jamie Bartlett, Uber’s Head of Cities in the UK and Ireland Fred Jones, creative technologist and innovation consultant Eugena Ossi and journalist, author and railway historian Christian Wolmar.

Entitled ‘Disruption Ahead: Will Future Transport Systems Benefit Society Or Drive It Apart?’ the discussion covered a wide range of topics, including driverless cars such as the ones being developed by Uber, ride-sharing schemes such as the one offered by Zipcar, and electric vehicles of all kinds. It scrutinised various issues surrounding the development of the world of motoring, such as emissions and pollution, traffic flow and congestion, and road accidents.

The debate began with the posing of a profound question: Would you give up the prospect of ever owning a car in favour of shared transport solutions? This dilemma cuts to the heart of the battle in socio-political ideologies which rages deep within the discussion of the future of transport, namely that of collectivism versus individualism. If we are to embrace the electric-autonomous transport revolution, then we must necessarily abandon the luxury of individual car ownership and revert to shared services, such as those of Uber and Zipcar, essentially treating our car journeys as a form of public transport.

Individual car ownership has been the norm in the developed world for several decades. Given the rampant commercialisation of practically every growing industry, until very recently one might reasonably have supposed that the trend in motoring would move yet further into individualistic territory, with usage of public transport shrinking and the range of personal vehicles on offer ever growing. Rather, the transport revolution has upended this notion; as environmental considerations have edged into the public consciousness and road accident statistics have become increasingly disconcerting, the free market’s technological innovation has shifted towards electric and autonomous vehicles.

The supposition that presents itself from this assertion is that the traditional world of the individual ownership of petrol and diesel powered cars is under threat. It is not illogical to predict at this juncture that traditional cars will become notably less prominent in the coming years and decades. It is to be expected, therefore, that traditional carmakers, car owners and car fans are hostile to this transport revolution, because they feel that it is fundamentally incompatible with their way of life.

In reality, this fear is largely misplaced. For as long as a demand for traditional vehicles exists and a free market survives, that demand will always be catered for. Currently, such vehicles constitute the mainstream; 2016 saw the highest ever number of new vehicle registrations worldwide. The size of the market for traditional vehicles will surely shrink substantially as the transport revolution takes hold, but this decrease will eventually plateau as the outline of the core car market comes into view.

There is substantial reason to believe that such a demand for traditional vehicles will always exist. Individual car ownership has all but conquered the motoring world entirely and carved out for itself an irrevocable place in the everyday life of the typical citizen. Ever-expanding cities are the future of our nations and cityscapes are built around car usage. In the Intelligence Squared survey, nearly half of participants responded that they would be unwilling to give up the possibility of individual car ownership in favour of shared transport solutions, even in the face of a radical transport revolution.

The only way the market for traditional vehicles could be completely eradicated is if governments intervened to such a great extent that traditional manufacturers were unable to survive. In the absence of such a remarkable development, so-called petrol-heads need not fear the future of transport, since as long as they exist, there will necessarily always be a place for them and an industry which is delighted to provide for their needs and desires.

Perhaps an even more important consideration is that such a transport revolution is yet to fully manifest itself, meaning that it is impossible to definitively explain its nature, and what the automotive world and our broader society will look like in its wake. Simply, fretting now is needless, since nobody truly knows what the future of transport will be. The best course of action, therefore, is to facilitate society to innovate and create the future.

All proceeds from Shell’s event went to Tomorrow’s Engineers, a programme led by EngineeringUK, dedicated to crafting the future. Being an oil and gas company, one might expect Shell to be devoted to ensuring that fossil fuels remain the world’s primary energy source. In fact, as David Hone says, ‘Shell is a major energy company and has thrived on transition, volatility and change for nearly 120 years.’

Shell has been a bedrock of the industry for generations, and with its consistently pioneering ethos shall remain so.

Hone continues: ‘We shouldn’t paint Shell into a renewable energy corner with the assumption that that is entirely where the future lies. The second half of the century could well see a much more diverse energy system, featuring fossil fuels, biofuels, hydrogen, electricity, synthetic fuels and other things. That is a rich menu of offerings to invest in.’

When a major company like Shell invests in any one of these growing areas, it stimulates development and innovation and enables the creation of an environment in which a better future is made.

Shell’s Energy and Innovation mantra proclaims that ‘the answers to tomorrow’s energy challenges lie in the power of people’s ingenuity’. By using a mosaic of fuels and methods for the foreseeable future, Shell ensures it will be able to work well within the transport revolution and its aftermath, and that society will be satisfied with whatever the future of transport brings.