Don’t want a car? You are not alone

Owning a car is losing its shine as climate change—and our response to it—rev up.

Now that Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres lives in London, she no longer owns a car.

While serving as the UN climate change chief in Bonn from 2010 to 2016, she drove a hybrid Toyota Prius. But in London—a “fantastic city” for public transport—a car would be more of a hindrance, she said. 

“It would be frankly just completely useless and expensive, and inconvenient for me to have one,” she told a discussion on the future of urban mobility at this month’s UN climate talks.

Figueres can see a time—perhaps not far off—when owning a car will no longer be desirable, especially for city dwellers. Already cars are less of a status symbol among millennials than they used to be, she thinks.

“In the next generation, there’s just not that angst, not that competition, not that peer pressure to own a vehicle, because it just doesn’t make sense anymore,” she said, noting that applications for driving licences are going down around the world.

But even if having the biggest, fastest, coolest car becomes spurned as an aspiration, people will still need to get around.

Figueres predicts that this essential service will be provided in the future by a combination of public transport, electric cars, driverless and shared vehicles.

“What you want is the convenience of moving yourself from point A to point B in as efficient a way as possible,” she said. That should be done in a way that produces low, or ideally no, planet-warming emissions.

Chinese automaker BYD (Build Your Dreams) will play a key role in meeting Beijing’s goal of having 5 million electric cars on China’s roads by 2020, Figueres said, noting that the vehicles will cost an affordable $8,000 or so each.

In Europe, Volkswagen—amid the fallout from fraudulent diesel emissions tests—announced a 34 billion euro ($40 bln) spending plan this month that accelerates its efforts to become a global leader in electric cars by 2025.

Reuters reports that while electric and autonomous vehicles are seen as the keystones of future transport, pioneers such as Tesla Inc. have still to work out how to make money on them because poor charging facilities, high battery costs and limited driving ranges are keeping a lid on customer demand.

New electric normal

Personally, I would like to buy an electric car—but the cost and inability to go very far in them puts me off for now. I live in Barcelona, a compact city with pretty good public transport, and work from home so I rarely drive our family car, except to go out of town.

The buzz around electric cars today feels similar to the turn-of-the-century hype around watching films and television shows on your computer or phone. Back then, the internet and software often didn’t work well enough, but now it’s what most of us do.

Frank Mühlon, head of ABB Group’s global business for electric vehicle charging, said the tipping point for electric cars is widely forecast for around 2040 or 2050, but he sees it happening faster.

Once driving an electric car becomes “the new normal”, “then the costs will go down just because of economies of scale,” he told the mobility event in Bonn. “When we reach that point, it will go extremely fast… It’s like squeezing a ketchup bottle.”

Norway’s capital Oslo—which has an ambitious target to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 95 per cent by 2030—will start an experiment next year in which autonomous vehicles pick people up from home and take them to their nearest public transport.

Already last year, trips by public transport outnumbered car journeys, and nearly all the revenue from tolls on the city’s ring road are invested in public transport, said vice-mayor Lan Marie Nguyen Berg. Boosting the use of bikes is also creating jobs in activities like food delivery, she added.

Fewer things

The need to live more sustainably on the planet is bringing about a cultural shift towards “dematerialising our things”, said Figueres. This is already advanced when it comes to music and information—and is likely to rev up in transport too, leading to a drop in car ownership, she added.

The buzz around electric cars today feels similar to the turn-of-the-century hype around watching films and television shows on your computer or phone…now it’s what most of us do.

Cutting down on physical stuff—something increasingly made possible by technological advances—will mean less transportation of goods and people around the world, helping reduce the need to ship fossil fuels, and bringing down pollution and climate-changing emissions.

But not everyone will win from this transformation, particularly in the short term, Figueres said. The impact on jobs will be “absolutely massive”, she said, noting there are 400,000 truck drivers in the United States alone.

People whose employment disappears must be given training to do other jobs or helped to take early retirement, as part of what is often called a “just transition”, she said.

In the next 40 to 50 years, she added, more and more humans will need encouragement to devote themselves to things that machines cannot do, as we move towards what she called a “much more advanced civilisation”.

They surely won’t miss learning to parallel park.

 Megan is a correspondent with the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the editor for Zilient.org, based in Barcelona. This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org.

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