Driving a social revolution

Over this century cars have brought freedom and shaped all our lives. What of the next 100 years?
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The Independent Online
There is nothing particularly British about the motor car, even though the 100th anniversary of car manufacture in the UK was deemed an event worthy of celebrating (and disrupting) yesterday in Coventry cathedral.

And, notwithstanding our legendary national love affair with the car, there is nothing unique about our concerns for the impact it has - on safety, pollution, roads, lifestyles and so on - for these are the worries of every developed country. So this is not a bad place from which to evaluate the car's first century and to make some guesses about its next one.

Divide the century into two halves. The first brought the development of the product virtually to its present form; the second heralded the social and physical adaptation of society to it.

No technical advance in the past 50 years? Not in the basic technology. But there have been lots of incremental improvements which have gone a long way to tackling the adverse impact on society. Thus, from a personal point of view, it would be no hardship nowadays to have to use late-Forties technology: a Morris Minor for local trips around town and, say, a Jaguar XK120 to zip up to Scotland. But the modern versions are less polluting, more efficient, safer and more reliable.

The much bigger change in the second half of the century, however, has been the adaptation of our physical infrastructure to the car and the consequent social changes. Motor transport had brought some development to pre-war cities and suburbs - traffic lights, arterial roads - but even in the late Forties most of us were still using the same communal forms of transport of a generation earlier - trains, trams and trolley- buses - or else simply not travelling. Children walked to school; their mums shopped daily on foot; dads went to work on public transport or a bike.

That pattern of life has been swept away. Our roads and cities have struggled to keep pace with the advance of car ownership, which has driven forward with astonishing power.

In social terms it has been a great liberating force, an assertion of individuality and freedom - but it has been more than that, too. The car was a machine of democracy: breaking down division by class and replacing it with differentiation by wealth. Everyone is equal in a traffic jam, but each can proclaim their wealth and status by the car in which they sit.

That same statement about human desires and aspirations is still being made today. If the love affair with the car that Britain experienced in the Fifties and Sixties seems quaint, it is in its bright spring in Eastern Europe and the prosperous coastal zones of China.

But what happens next for us in Britain? Just as technical development of the car will only inch forward from now on until some replacement for the internal combustion engine arrives, so too, I think, the social adaptation to the car is more or less complete.

If that sounds an absurd hostage to fortune, consider this. The take- up of new technology almost invariably follows an "S" curve. It starts slowly, moves very quickly as the technology hits the mass market and the costs come down, then reaches saturation point. It has happened with a whole range of domestic goods, from televisions to washing machines; it will happen to personal computers. So car use will level off.

We must be approaching a stage where most people are spending as much time in their cars as they want to: the desire for personal mobility may be enormous, but it does have a saturation point. Remember the days when people used to go for a drive just for the sake of giving the car a spin?

If recreational car use must level off soon, so also will other functions. The development of out-of-town shopping centres is slowing, largely because the need is close to being satisfied by the present crop. Similarly, we are probably in the early stages of a revolution in commuting patterns, where the rush-hour thins as a greater proportion of the workforce is able to do more work from home.

Anyone predicting a slowing in the growth of car use has to face the fact that every previous prediction has been wrong and there is not much evidence yet of this slow-down. I do believe, however, that it will slow radically within one more generation. On a long view, the next half-century will not be dominated by the need to adapt to the motor car in the same way as has the past 50 years.

Two final questions: what will happen to the car itself, and what will be the next big technological change that, like the car, will reshape our society?

We are not going to abandon our thirst for personal mobility, so something like the car will continue for another couple of generations at least, quite probably longer. The present technology will continue to be improved so that cars will become even safer, even more reliable, even easier to drive, and virtually pollution-free (though not much cheaper).

Somewhere between 2020 and 2030, I guess, something will arrive to replace the internal combustion engine. We may know within the next 10 years what that will be. If it were to result in a step down in the cost of manufacture and operation - say a car costing pounds 3,000 new and pounds 10 a week to run - a further jump in car affordability would bring a new wave of social consequences.

The most significant social changes of the coming century, though, will not come from mechanical technology at all. We are seeing the rapid development of electronics and, in particular, the collapse of costs of telecommunications. If a single mechanical technology caused the seismic social change in the second half of the 20th century, so one electronic technology will bring the corresponding change to the first half of the 21st.

See the parallel with 1946, the half-way point. The car's physical technology was developed but we could hardly envisage its consequences: the growth of supermarkets or out-of-town office developments. Today, we have the basics of electronic technology in place - the PC, the modem, on-line services and so on. But we can only glimpse the liberating - and limiting - force of the world of bits and bytes.

Just as the car broke down class barriers, so the screen will break down national ones. If you have the skills, it will not matter whether you live in Belfast, Bangalore or Bangkok; you will be able to sell your services on a world market.

But those who do not have the skills will be excluded in just the same way as people who do not drive have been. It took us a long time to grasp that there would be losers as well as winners in the motor age; and that a society geared exclusively to the motorist imposed costs on everyone else. We need to anticipate the inevitable downside of the electronic age and to use the lessons of the past 100 years to protect society against its harsher effects.

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