Long Read Overview

Title: The Car in 2035 and Beyond
Author: Stephen Bayley
Approx. Reading Time: 11 minutes

Long Read

The Car in 2035 and Beyond

The motor industry is conservative: the general arrangement of the car with its four wheels, seats in-between and motor at one end or another has not changed in one hundred and twenty years. I would say the last great innovation on wheels was not a car, but Robert Plath’s 1991 patent for a carry-on wheeled suitcase.

Everyone senses a moment of crisis: environmental anxiety, new energy sources, trade wars, changing travel habits, AI and consumer fatigue (especially in cities) will all alter our assumptions about and expectations of the private car. In some areas, ownership of a car is already stigmatised. To say “I have got a Porsche” is, in sensitive enclaves, similar to saying “I have a criminal record”. We will become cleaner and more decent and civil! New technologies will create new opportunities and change possibilities. Or will they?

True, ADAS has been around for a while. This stands for AI-powered Advanced Driver Assistance. You probably know the sort of thing: lane-change warnings, parking sensors, self-parking. These have existed as separate systems for many years now. They just need to get stitched together and sat-nav needs to get accurate to inches rather than quarter miles and— SHAZAM— we will have the promised autonomous cars. To this bold proposition I say: “Whoa, Tiger”.

Yet even today car folk spend more time in the future than you may imagine. By the time a conventional new car is launched, its designers have already designed the replacement of its replacement. Thus, with an eight-year product life-cycle, designers today are already in 2035. Or put it this way: the brand new car you buy today was conceived in 2003.

This peculiar corruption of space-time makes predictions dangerous. They are often predictably boring or hilariously wrong. Or, at least, a long time coming.

The promised flying car has not yet taken off. One of the first was envisaged by no less than Henry Ford himself who said in 1940: “Mark my words: a combination airplane and motor-car is coming. You may smile, but it will come”. We are still smiling. It did not take-off. Yet the vision persists at Uber. Next year? I don’t think so.

In 1909 E.M. Forster wrote his short story “The Machine Stops”. It’s a gloomy tale. People live underground, paying tribute to a remote and scary technical entity known as The Machine. They no longer travel because they use video-conferencing and text. Sound familiar? Those disenchanted with the system are stigmatised as “unmechanical”, just as social-media-refusers are today stigmatised as neo-Luddites. And then do you know what happens? The Machine Stops. When the hot server farms in the Arizona desert melt because there is no more diesel or gasoline to power the generators that power the air-con they greedily devour, our machine will stop too.

I will go on. The economist John Maynard Keynes said by about now we would all be so rich, no-one would have to work. He was wrong too. The Poet Laureate of Dystopia, J.G. Ballard, predicted by about now, private cars would not be allowed on public roads. Instead, “enthusiasts” would use them under psychiatric supervision in enclosed “motoring parks”. Ballard was more nearly right: the only place you can actually use even a fraction of the potential of your Ferrari 488 Pista is on a track day.

As Sir Henry Wootton, the translator of Vitruvius, knew: “A man without knowledge of things past falls into a beastly sottishness”. To understand the car in 2035….and beyond, it’s necessary to have an understanding of the complex technical ambitions and psychological realities which gave us the modern automobile. Tom Wolfe said that cars are “freedom, style, sex, power, motion, color….everything”. But they are more than that.

Ford’s Model T made the ordinary American a “man enthroned”, according to E.B. White in his 1936 essay “Farewell My Lovely”. Twenty years later, Hertz was offering enthronement for $7.85 a day. The Hertz ads said “Rent it here, leave it there”, the ultimate proposition of an American culture based on mobility and ease.

Does anyone remember driving gloves? They solemnised the rite of driving, adding tactile delicacy to the matter of holding the steering-wheel, the prime interface between man and machine. And we had driving shoes and car coats. Mr Toad had, as I recall, a deerstalker and goggles too. People used to dress up to “go for a drive” just as people used to dress-up to get on a ‘plane. But to be doleful about the future of travel itself: the jet ‘plane promised to democratize the luxury of air travel, but instead it universalized mediocrity, spreading suburbanism across the planet.

Some say we are nearing the end of The Age of Combustion and the car is entering its end-game paradox: as cars become less useful in congested cities and thwarted by eco-angst and legislation on the open road, their specification and performance are uselessly enhanced. Yet human imagination continuously demands vistas of escape, real or metaphorical, and the car provides them.

But by 2035 concepts of travel itself will have changed. Perhaps it is true that the mark of an advanced society is not that the poor have cars, but that the rich use public transport. Certainly, mobility will no longer be limited to or defined by the idea of a road journey. Henry Ford’s “gasoline buggy” was designed to facilitate escape from the crushing tedium of life on a mid-West farm. But now that liberating machine has become oppressive. Once you felt free if you owned a car, now you feel free if you don’t.

Macrocosmically, globalisation and over-tourism have destroyed destinations making one version of travel futile. A road trip today is a harrowing ordeal, not a romantic adventure. Microcosmically, the use of a private car in a city ceased to be sensible about twenty years ago. In any case, geo-fenced grocery deliveries by robo-cars will mean you never have to drive to Sainsbury’s again.

Unless, that is, you might actually want to.

Why? Because the great truth of consumer behaviour is that rationality plays no part in it.

Cars became popular for reasons sunk very deep in the unventilated pools of the human psyche. They say the autonomous electric car will set us free. But the driver-less car of 2035 will, in every sense, lack soul. And people like soul. The astonishing difference between a Ferrari V12 engine and a Citroen air-cooled flat twin resulted in beautifully different designs. But electric motors differ only in size.

Tell me, when did you last see someone moved to tears by a battery? (Unless it was a Tesla customer watching his car combust as the lithium-ion cells demonstrate the dramatic effects of thermal runaway).

And autonomy ignores the psychological reality of car ownership which is, if we are honest, based on concepts of pride and prowess and personality. Having Google drive you home when you have been over-served at a party might be a health and safety convenience, but who would want Google to determine the vectors of a romantic road trip? A driver-less car will be no more involving than using an ATM.

The debate about the car in 2035 is as much social and cultural as technical. Of course, (partial) electrification and (partial) autonomy are already realities and these will in future affect the design of cities and human behaviour as much as they affect the design of the car itself.

Our horse-less carriage carries assumptions about mobility based in the nineteenth century. Ponder, for example, all the various meanings of “steering wheel”, that thing you caress with your driving gloves: it speaks of authority, of an imperial mentality, of a personal destiny directed by the deft manual movements of a sole proprietor. Soon, the steering-wheel will disappear. But what will take its place?

“The screen will replace the steering-wheel. You’ll watch the news as you travel. Or movies.” So says Norman Foster, an architect so committed to a tech future that he designed the glass “Infinite Loop” for Apple as its Cupertino HQ. In theory, Kata Rubinyi an urban planner in California, says you could eat and sleep in your autonomous car. If you did, your home might not need so many bedrooms nor so large a kitchen. But Rubinyi also assumes you are still a commuter in 2035. Of this I am not convinced.

The evolution of the steering wheel tracks the arc of the car itself, from ungainly nineteenth century contraption to today’s decadent, flawless, obsolete indulgences. Before the wheel there was a tiller, a hang-over from the horse-drawn carriage. The 1898 Panhard was the very first car where a circular wheel replaced a horizontal bar. In the Flash Gordon era, American manufacturers experimented unsuccessfully with left-right wrist hoops for guidance, a little like an Airbus’ fly-by-wire sidesticks.

Lately, the steering-wheel has assumed greater technical significance than mere guidance of the front wheels: other functions have, following the early arrival of a push-button for the electric horn, migrated there. It has become a demonstration of ergonomics with soothing textures, satisfying radii and meaningful bulges, all to assist the satisfying mechanical craft of changing direction. At least as determined by a humanoid.

In a Formula One racing car, the circular wheel has evolved into a foam-covered trapezoid that is a mission control centre. Lewis Hamilton monitors a wheel-bound LCD screen for real-time data, using tiny knobs and buttons to adjust—with his gloved hands— the differential settings, air-fuel mix, brake balance and miscellaneous configurable performance maps.

A generation ago I might excitedly have predicted that this portfolio of techno-porn would transfer to road cars, but this will not happen because, when it arrives, the fully autonomous car will be guided by other means. The steering-wheel will go the way of the tiller.

Satellite signals from outer space, car-based radar and camera data will replace manual inputs in the matter of steering. The steering wheel will become as redundant as driving gloves. And designers are pondering what to do next.

If compact electric motors replace huge hot metal lumps, changing the fundamentals of a car’s appearance, the autonomous vehicle need no longer be dedicated to an individual driver and his filthy, power-based erotic fantasies.

If this happens, it will change you and the way you live. Just as cars once created suburbs, they will now change the shape of cities. AI will mean there is no future need for traffic signals, directional signs or any of the ugly clutter of street furniture. Sat-nav has already caused the demise of paper maps. The print edition of Michelin Rouge can surely, alas, not survive much longer.

Crash barriers will not be needed because your intelligent car will have made a moral decision not to mount the pavement and obliterate pedestrians. A human driver makes a million minor unconscious moral judgements in any journey. Run an amber light? Park on the kerb? No problem. A machine can make more judgements more quickly than you can.

But there are cultural problems here beyond the scope of technology. In 2018 Nature published the largest-to-date study of machine ethics, in conjunction with MIT’s Media Lab. The survey showed that, in an impending collision, it was a general human response to spare humans over pets and to favour individuals over groups. And in Oriental cultures with a legacy of Confucianism, there was, if an accident was approaching fast, a tendency to favour saving the old rather the young. You would not want your intelligent car with code written in Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University to drive itself anywhere near your kids’ school.

What will robo-cars do for us? Robo-cars used for ride-sharing will be in continuous use. Therefore, the need for city-centre parking will disappear. By some estimates, about 30% of central Manchester is presently devoted to surface parking: that valuable land can now be put to better use. Meanwhile, people will no longer want to go on trips to the country to see cows and fields because urban farms (and green residential towers inspired by Milan’s Bosco Verticale) will blur the distinction between town and country.

Then there is the matter of materials. What’s new? The much satirised Soviet-era Trabant had a body made of Duraplast, a hard plastic made from recycled cotton waste from the USSR and phenol resin salvaged from the filthy DDR dye industry. Admittedly, it looked like a chea suitcase, but today’s BMW i3, by consent the most complete and intelligently thought-out full-electric car on the market, is made of CFRP (carbon fibre reinforced plastic). Its interior uses a mash-up of bamboo.

But power sources are the nagging question for the car of 2035. When Credit Suisse predicts that by 2040 there will be an annual demand from the world’s population of electric cars for 3.7 TWh (that is Terra Watt Hours) of battery life requiring a hundred Tesla-type Gigafactories, the ones they have in Reno, consuming 3m tons lithium …. well, when Credit Suisse predicts this, we can be very glad that there is life left in the old dog that is Internal Combustion.

For example, Mazda has now refined a technology it calls Skyactiv-X, a spiffy name for the Homogenous Charge Compression Engine. This uses a version of diesel compression ignition to gain efficiencies of 30% over conventional heat engines.

In any case, claims for electrical virtue are exaggerated where they are not completely misunderstood. Some predict it will be twenty years before the charge-density of batteries makes electrical autonomy viable. In any case, all those millions of tons of lithium come from territories economically colonialised by China, thus, under the whim of a Communist dictator.

Additionally, a “clean” electric car uses electricity acquired from coal, gas or nuclear sources. And while hydrogen-powered fuel cells work elegantly, exhausting only water as waste, hydrogen is expensive to transport and store, at the same time requiring enormous amounts of energy to compress the gas into volumes suitable for 2035’s cars.

John Heywood is Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. He predicts that by 2050, 60% of cars and light commercials will still use internal combustion. He says only 15% will be full electric. He told The New York Times in 2017 that the real gains in vehicle economy will come from downsizing and better aerodynamics. Besides, a visit to a filling-station allows you to transfer 10mw of energy in less than five minutes (as well as get your hands dirty). Achieving that with a Tesla would require a cable too big to hold. When Professor Heywood asked himself if in future he should be teaching his students about German internal combustion or sustainable electrochemistry, he answered himself: “Both !”

Perhaps the semantics of the 2035 car will no longer be tightly focused on selfish notions of enthronement, ownership and dominance, but a utopian one of shared space. Cars may become ever more like mobile architecture: spaces to be enjoyed. But what will replace the fascination and romance?

Well-designed screens will have their allure, but the thirst for style, power and control may not be easily quenched. Norman Foster continued: “And when you arrive, after a pacific journey staring at a screen, you’ll get into your classic car and indulge yourself on the track.”

J.G. Ballard’s prediction was, perhaps, not so very wrong.


Stephen Bayley
September 2019

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Long Read Overview

Title: The Car in 2035 and Beyond
Author: Stephen Bayley
Approx. Reading Time: 11 minutes