When a friend shared an article entitled Carmageddon is Coming on Facebook, I read it with interest, and some irritation.
The sub-heading of the article says humanity is “on the cusp of the fastest, deepest, most consequential disruption in transport history”. Writer Angus Hervey lays out what he thinks is going to happen to the transport industry over the next few years, courtesy of three technological waves:
• Our ability to summon a car and a driver with our smartphone
• The arrival of the electric vehicle
• “Artificial intelligence, which paves the way for autonomy” – in other words driverless vehicles.
Says Hervey: “Within a few years, electric vehicles are going to be cheaper, more durable and more reliable than petrol powered cars, autonomy will be good enough that you don’t need human drivers and everyone will be able to hail a car on their phone… we don’t have to wait for people to get rid of their old cars; they simply walk out their front door one morning and decide they would prefer to hail an autonomous, electric vehicle.”
Charming as this vision of carless freedom is, I had a question: Would I walk out of the front door with a child, a school backpack, a model of the Taj Mahal made of matchsticks, a cricket tog bag, my own lunch bag, the office’s new coffee supplies and the cake dish I want to return to a friend on the way home and then decide the thing I want is to hail a ride? Perhaps not.
I also wonder how electric ride-shared autonomous vehicles square with the developing world, where many a small business owner is keeping an ancient vehicle on the road because his or her family fortunes depend on that car. In that world, the money that might buy one of these future vehicles is going on children’s school fees and elderly parents’ medical bills. (And then there are the millions of people who go everywhere on chaotic public transport because that is all they can afford).
I’m lucky enough to have a car, a 21-year-old Honda Ballade, which has over the years taken many things magnificently in its stride. It has taken ailing pets to the vet, and ferried us home weeping when that visit went badly. It has carted a toddler around, complete with grubby car seat, dropped food and leaking nappies. Riotous assemblies of boys have giggled their way to the skateboard park on the back seat. It has taken us to many a braai at friends’ houses, with salads and ice buckets and packets of meat – and latterly a dog. It has moved the contents of a quilting friend’s fabric cupboard from one residence to another. It has had three boogie boards and three wetsuits thrown carelessly in the boot, while takeaway coffee is being consumed inside the car. In short, it has been the backdrop to much of my adult life. None of these things could have happened in the pristine surrounds of a hailed ride.
(And none of this even begins to address the question of how Carmageddon affects rock and roll!)
So, I think in fact that we will always live in a world of mixed transport modes: the young and fancy-free will remain carless and hail rides, the people running businesses will continue to have their bakkies and vans and families will have one vehicle (probably electric) in which they will live their lives. Those families, finances allowing, will probably use ride-hailing for going out at night, or for fetching older children from school when they can’t get there. But the early morning trip to the beach will still happen in a car where damp towels and sand on the seat are not an issue. And my old Honda will just keep on rolling, taking gleaming autonomous electric cars in its stride.