Podium: Time is running out for the car

From a lecture given at Gresham College, London by Middlesex University 's chief transport researcher

IT WAS the internal combustion engine that finally realised the ambitions of the masses for personal transport. It took time. Early motors were monstrously expensive and getting about in an early automobile was not easy. In fact, the challenge was part of the attraction - motoring quickly became a great sport for the wealthy.

In spite of the difficulties, the enthusiasm for motoring reached extraordinary heights. Engineers were brimming with ideas for new vehicles and new technology, some of which were sensible and some not.

Even the mono-wheel made an appearance, and has re-appeared at intervals ever since. We do not know how the driver was expected to make an emergency stop without the entire assembly rotating inside its own tyre.

Postwar austerity brought Europe back down to earth with a bump. Engineers were forced to lower their sights and in the process created an extraordinary phenomenon: the bubble-car. The bubble-car was an attempt by German aircraft manufacturers to turn their expertise and production capacity to a mass market.

For a while these motorised prams were quite successful until their owners discovered they were liable to be blown over in a gale. Buyers soon returned to the predictable comfort of the Mini, the Volkswagen Beetle and other European small cars, which together opened up the whole of Britain to the family motorist.

The fun didn't last long. Traffic jams involving horse-drawn vehicles had always been common in the larger city centres, and with the arrival of the family car, the congestion spread. In the midst of the clamour for faster and cheaper transport, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that until the Fifties, ordinary people managed without cars altogether. Do we need to travel as much as we think we do?

It used to be thought that "teleworking" and home entertainment would change the way we live. Commuting would disappear. Conceivably, at some time in the future we would project life-size images of ourselves holographically into other peoples' homes. An "intelligent" computer might synthesise your speech and bodily movements. You could "be" in several places at once. But so far, it seems the predictions were optimistic.

What we would really like is a car that drives itself, so that we can eliminate road accidents for good, and do away with the need for traffic enforcement into the bargain.

Unfortunately, the world is populated with animals having no grasp of safety principles. Neither pedestrians nor other animals are ergonomically designed to mix with motor vehicles, not even so-called "intelligent" vehicles.

No computer has yet been built that can be trusted to recognise a brick wall, let alone an elephant, and although it will come eventually it may be a long way off. Consequently, it is hard to see how vehicle movement could be automated within the road system as we know it.

Humans cannot help but be excited by the imagery of motion. Trains, cars and planes have personae. As long ago as 1937, the American design guru Raymond Loewy published a book consisting almost entirely of pictures of steam locomotives of which any science fiction film producer would have been proud. His own car and locomotive designs are still regarded as classics. Later, the Volkswagen Beetle and the BMC Mini became chubby little friends, like Noddy's car in the Enid Blyton books brilliantly illustrated by Beek.

Transport technology and transport design are two different things. They converge only when technology is pushed to the limit, typically in aircraft design.

But in the case of the family saloon, power is not critical; even a Rover Metro can go faster than is advisable in today's road environment, so the pressure to maximise performance is much less.

Clearly, transport design has never been entirely a rational pursuit. More contentiously, I want to suggest that technology has not been driven necessarily by rational forces either. Inventors have pursued their dreams irrespective of scientific logic or even commercial good sense. The environment has gone to the wall.

The road is narrowing and time is running out. Throughout the developing world, billions of people dream of owning motorcars like their American and European cousins.

Rising prosperity is bringing within reach a level of car ownership that would cause irreparable damage to the environment. We need to invest in new technology in order to divert travel demand into sustainable channels.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee