Why can’t we get away from the car?

What will the car of the future look like? The question has been asked and answered many times already. Two things are for certain: it will most definitely be autonomous, shared and electrical. It will be connected, for sure — it already is. It might even fly, just like in any self-respecting science-fiction movie (it has actually left the realm of science-fiction already, as startups like e-Volo and Lilium, and giants like Airbus and Uber alike, develop their own flying vehicles). But the question remains: can this 21st-century version of a 19th-century innovation truly solve our mobility issues? What is it about the car that makes it irreplaceable, condemning us to keep reinventing it rather than just doing away with it?

Imperfect solutions

Cool as they are, these innovations cannot be the main answer to our sustainable mobility problems. Electric cars are, arguably, the most environmentally-friendly solution when there are on the road — but there are a wealth of concerns associated with the way their batteries are produced (as shown by French journalist Guillaume Pitron in his investigation La Guerre des métaux rares, published in 2018), powered (with coal, renewable energy, nuclear energy?) and reused. While they are recyclable, the sheer number of batteries and the pace at which they accumulate could pose serious problems, as writes The Guardian: “The electric vehicle boom could leave 11m tonnes of spent lithium-ion batteries in need of recycling between now and 2030 (…). However, in the EU as few as 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled.” Of course, the recycling industry for this particular product is likely to develop in the coming years. Bloomberg Businessweek also reports that several car constructors are already engaged in finding an aftermarket for these batteries, which retain about 50 percent to 70 percent of their power capacity upon removal. But that still doesn’t make the electric car the all-green solution it’s made out to be.

Autonomous cars are supposed to be safe and able to reduce traffic jams. According to a National Science Foundation study, “having a single self-driving car on the road can reduce congestion by influencing the traffic flow of at least 20 human-controlled automobiles around it,” writes USA Today. When they will be able to communicate with all the vehicles around them, congestion could become a thing of the past. But that is only one part of the picture. As suggests a June 2018 report by the World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting Group, self-driving cars could actually make urban traffic jams worse. The study, which focused on the city of Boston, found that self-driving cars could lead to a 5.5 percent increase in traffic in the city’s downtown. The reason? “While there will be fewer cars on the road overall, congestion will increase because commuters will likely choose the new vehicles over public transportation,” as sums up the MIT Technology Review. Large cities have been facing the same issue with the development of ride-hailing services: Uber, Lyft and the like have massively contributed to urban congestion because people prefer them to taking the subway or the bus. In San Francisco, they accounted for about 50 per cent of the increased congestion between 2010 and 2016, according to the TNCs & Congestion study, led by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and the University of Kentucky.

Is the car the best we can do?

Then, there are the flying cars, which are still in the prototyping and proof of concept phase. Their conceptors claim that electric flying taxis will simultaneously allow to cut back traffic and move around in a sustainable way. But the problems posed by electric car batteries will surely apply to these vehicles as well, along with the fact that, for know, these batteries cannot sustain a useful flight duration. “A combination of the regulatory environment and the public’s perception of risk makes it unlikely that flying cars will become ubiquitous anytime soon,” writes Quartz. And when they do, there will be a handful of infrastructural and safety questions to navigate.

In short, no solution is perfect. That’s usually how solutions are: imperfect, and not good enough, but still better than sticking to the status quo. What the efforts deployed to fix the car seems to point at, though, is the fact that we cannot imagine a world without them. Of course, for intermediate distances and in rural areas, they are practical to the point of being  indispensable. But for the needs of city-dwellers, who already represent 55 percent of the world population and will reach 68 percent by 2050, is the car really the best we can do? Is sitting in traffic jams the price to pay for the luxury of being taken from your exact origin to your exact destination? The race to invent the car of the future proves that, to some extent, we haven’t yet fully understood that the solution lies less with technological innovations than it does with usage. The real driver for change is therefore more quiet, less spectacular: it involves carsharing and carpooling, all sorts of soft mobility and intermodality and, above all, the idea that accessing beats possessing. It’s not a shiny flying car, but that’s the stuff of the future.