Owning a car will soon be a thing of the past | John Harris
John HarrisMon 23 Oct 2017 06.00 BST
The idea that we will surrender our prized motors can look far-fetched. But as cities clamp down on vehicle use, technology is putting a utopian vision in reach
If ours is an age in which no end of institutions and conventions are being disrupted, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the most basic features of everyday life seems under serious threat. If you are fortunate enough to live in a house with a drive, look outside and you will probably see it: that four-wheeled metal box, which may well be equipped with every technological innovation imaginable, but now shows distinct signs of obsolescence.
To put it another way: after a century in which the car has sat at the heart of industrial civilisation, the age of the automobile – of mass vehicle ownership, and the idea (in the western world at least) that life is not complete without your own set of wheels – looks to be drawing to a close. Top Gear is a dead duck. No one writes pop songs about Ferraris any more. The stereotypical boy racer appears a hopeless throwback. And in our cities, the use of cars is being overtaken by altogether greener, more liberating possibilities.
The sale of diesel and petrol cars is to be outlawed in the UK from 2040. But only 10 days ago Oxford announced that it is set to be the first British city to ban all petrol and diesel cars and vans – from a handful of central streets by 2020, extending to the entire urban centre 1o years later. Paris will ban all non-electric cars by 2030, and is now in the habit of announcing car-free days on which drivers have to stay out of its historic heart. In the French city of Lyon, car numbers have fallen by 20% since 2005, and the authorities have their sights set on another drop of the same magnitude. London, meanwhile, has shredded the idea that rising prosperity always triggers rising car use, and seen a 25% fall in the share of journeys made by car since 1990.
Last week, highlighting the increasingly likely arrival of driverless vehicles, General Motors announced that it will soon begin testing autonomous cars in the challenging conditions of New York City, apparently the latest step in the company’s rapid and handsomely funded move towards building a new fleet of self-driving taxis. Earlier this year, forecasters at Bank of America tentatively claimed that the US may have reached “peak car”, acknowledging that “transportation is costly and inefficient, making the sector ripe for disruption”. Their focus was on ride-sharing services, car-pool apps and the collective use of bikes: what they were predicting had the sense of a reality that is already plain to see.