Podium: Time is running out for the car

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