Autocar at 125: what will the next 25 years bring?
The pace of automotive development today is unmatched in Autocar’s 125-year history – and it’s only set to increase. We look ahead to what the future holds
When contemplating the car’s future, we tend to concentrate on the buzz subjects about which we have talked for some years: electrification, connectivity, car sharing and autonomy. They’re vital topics: working together they promise greater efficiency, safety and convenience than we’ve yet known.
But there are more surprising, less publicised matters heading for radical change, too. In the brave new tomorrow, what will happen to conventional car ownership, for instance? Or insurance costs? Or the simple enjoyment of classic car ownership? Will we still be able to drive freely on the road and obtain (or afford) the fuel we need? Will the fossil-fuel cars we decide to retain attract more punitive taxes than before? One of the fascinations of studying Autocar’s past quarter-century is knowing that all of the above matters – and many more – will be decided before we’re even halfway through the next.
If all new cars are required to be electric from 2035 or sooner, as seems overwhelmingly likely, many of the above decisions will have to be made within the next 10 years. It makes Autocar’s next few years about as different as they could be from the benign and comparatively unchanging period through which we have just lived. Testing times are coming. Here are some of the key points at issue.
Don’t ask if it’s coming; it’s already here. Lots of cars can drive down a motorway at a controlled speed between the boundaries of a lane. The difficulty is – and will remain – how to deliver full, safe, hands-off driving in all weather, traffic, light and location conditions. Latest guidance seems to be that Level 4 autonomous driving is very difficult to achieve and the top-tier full Level 5 at least a decade away. Then the issue becomes integration: when it comes, how will it fit into the world of the cars we already have?
We’re accelerating rapidly towards the moment car buyers will be forced to ditch internal combustion and embrace electric. But how will the law change on the way? Will ICE cars be penalised more and more towards the cut-off date? Will there be dispensation or subsidy for zero-CO2 synthetic fuels? (Shell and BP are among those working hard on them now.) Will people who want to buy ICE cars until the last minute – in order to maintain the old order as long as possible – be able to? We will know all of these things within the next decade.
*Classic car ownership*
There are at least 500,000 classic car owners in this country, and many more people (who are also voters) derive a living trading in them or keeping them going. Millions more aspire to own a classic. But today’s values assume a high degree of usability. A workable system will be needed, post-electrification, to cater for the Ford Mustang or MG B owner who drives a mere 2000 miles per year and won’t take kindly to being punished financially for his harmless hobby. Those who use high-value classics as investments need to know something of the future. No word yet from the authorities, but it must come soon.
Imagine that all cars could talk to one another so effectively that they couldn’t collide or crowd one another or run over stray pedestrians. Or get lost or encounter a traffic jam by mistake. Connectivity is an extremely powerful tool, deliverable at our current level of knowledge – or would be if we could come up with a package that could work in all cars. But there are 40 million cars on Britain’s roads, and it takes 20 years for that car pool to be completely replaced. Must we wait that long for connectivity to work properly?
EV powertrain refinement is a given at any price and performance (or at least acceleration) is available to all. You want 0-60mph in 4.0sec? Buy a Jaguar I-Pace. Two hurdles remain, however. One is the continuing inadequacy of the charging network (queuing is replacing the problem of finding a charger that works). EV cruising range is the other: cars don’t yet go far enough on a charge. Experts say viable solid-state batteries (safer, smaller, lighter, more energy dense) are five years away. But they’ve been saying that for some time…
*Future of brands*
How will our love of marques’ different characteristics play out? Electric motors sound and respond much the same, and performance, especially acceleration, isn’t the discriminator it was. Car makers will be working hard on desirability strategies but have done little to explain them. It will be fascinating watching that unfold.
*Future petrol and diesel costs*
Around 80% of what we currently pay for a gallon of petrol or diesel goes to the Chancellor. But he won’t be able to load electric power costs for future cars in the same way as fossil fuel costs without disadvantaging people who use it for the basics of life. So how will he replace the £30 billion he collects annually in fuel taxes? Road pricing – paying for the miles you drive via an eye in the sky – is the popular tip, but we’re yet to hear anything official. If such a system is chosen, the infrastructure will cost billions to install – and Big Brother will always know where you are and how fast you’re going. Will we wear it? There’s a big decision to be made there.
Timing the changes is another big issue: how does the Chancellor time the imposition of new charges without destroying the expanding demand for electric cars? Does he load liquid fuel further to encourage people to go electric? Doesn’t that disadvantage less well-off people who can’t afford to buy a new car? At what stage will the built-in fuelling advantage of electric cars disappear, as it must? All of this is coming soon.
What’s the future of the Goodwood Festival of Speed? Or the London to Brighton Run for pre-1905 veteran cars? The contribution such events make to global pollution is microscopic, and both have significant followings and are important contributors to national mental health. They will require the active support of legislators as defence against killjoy opinion and inappropriate curbs. How will the legislators jump? We will know in the next decade.
Much valuable pollution-saving work has been done with and by hybrids, starting with Toyota’s Prius family (sales 12 million-plus). Plug-in hybrids are contributing more every day. Many experts see that hybrids can be a handy halfway house for (a) people unsure about EV ownership and (b) those who must drive long distances in remote areas. But at present the law seems likely to ban them summarily on the chosen electrification date. A sensible option would be to have a staged ban – hybrids to go five years after pure petrol or diesel cars. The UK urgently needs a minister responsible for all this — and soon.
*ICE ban timing *
A consultation on the date for the banning of new ICE cars has concluded, but there’s no indication yet of the chosen date or when it will be revealed. It seems that 2035 – 15 years hence – is the most generous likely date, but car makers urgently need to hear more so that they can start planning.
Electric motorsport is developing fast. Electric karts are popular, Motorsport UK is planning electric-only events and Formula E has won plaudits for its use of city centres and impressive support from manufacturers enthusiastic to signal approval for electric propulsion. But try watching an epic Formula 1 race from the past without the sound. We suspect you won’t bother for long. Noise increases drama, and drama will be needed in the electric age. Delivering it is yet another challenge.
The next decade, even more than the next 25 years, will prove critical. Our legislators are imposing enormous curbs on us without outlining how we will live, work with and use our cars. It’s like being signed up for a high-level game without being allowed to see the rules. Clarity is needed – now. Autocar clearly sees its role in this. We must spot changes, assess their relevance, identify experts and dispense their best advice. Challenges lie ahead, but Autocar isn’t daunted. After all, it has already faced 125 years of them.
*Autocar at 125: what’s changed since our centenary?*
*Best job in motoring: Seven Autocar editors reveal their highlights*
*Autocar at 125: landmark covers from the magazine archive*