Plug in, turn on, drive off: the future of cars?

Saturday 30 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Student Union Lunchtime Debates

Driving is a fact of modern life, but concerns about the environment and the uncertainty of future oil stocks have raised the question of whether cars will have a place in the future. The automobile has gone from symbolising individual freedom and the American dream fifty years ago to being associated with pollution and urban gridlock today, and many critics look forward to seeing it consigned to history like the horse and cart before it. But can technological innovation give cars a future?

Technologies like automated highway systems, driverless cars and vehicles powered by alternative fuels have been feasible for some time, but have not yet been implemented at scale. In the late 19th and early 20th century, long before concerns about carbon emissions, electric cars were considered to have advantages like being easier to drive (no gear changes) and less vibration, noise and smell. But the short range afforded by batteries and the low price of oil seemed to conspire against the electric car. Today, however, the Tesla Roadster can travel 200 miles on a single charge, and at one quarter the cost of petrol-driven equivalents. Nonetheless, significant changes to infrastructure are required to bring these new cars to our roads en masse. We would need a network of charging and battery swap stations. Our energy infrastructure itself might have to be restructured to cope with the increased demand for electricity. Is there the money and willpower to make such sweeping changes?

More broadly, on top of concerns about congestion and worries about safety, changing cultural attitudes put the use of cars per se in question. Politicians make a virtue of cycling to work, while the media attack petrol-heads as selfish and irresponsible. Meanwhile local government schemes encourage us to walk not drive, join car pooling schemes, use energy-efficient public transport: anything but get in our cars. Will we stubbornly stick with gas-guzzlers until the oil runs out? Or should we give up on the freedoms and thrills that motoring has brought in favour of more ‘sustainable’ forms of transport? Or, alternatively, might innovation give us futuristic cars to fulfil the hopes once represented by our fine four-fendered friend?

Listen to session audio:


Paul Chadderton
director, corporate affairs, Jaguar Land Rover; advocate, car industry

Peter Curran
documentary maker; broadcaster; publisher; specialising in arts, culture and pop music; recorder, Revolution in the Head

Professor Dale Harrow
head of department, Vehicle Design, RCA; identified by BBC's Top Gear as eighth most important person in automotive industry

Alexander Horn
economics editor, NovoArgumente; consultant (logistics, production and organisation), German automotive industry

Timandra Harkness
journalist, writer & broadcaster; presenter, Futureproofing and other BBC Radio 4 programmes; author, Big Data: does size matter?

Produced by
Timandra Harkness journalist, writer & broadcaster; presenter, Futureproofing and other BBC Radio 4 programmes; author, Big Data: does size matter?
Recommended readings
Why we need to continue investing in transport

Further, faster, cheaper, better – ever since the invention of the wheel, human progress can be measured by increases in the speed, affordability and ease of mobility

Philippe Legrain, Independent, 8 October 2010

The Future of the Car

From hybrids to self-driving vehicles: A sector hit hard by the downturn is hoping to exploit changing urban landscapes,

Financial Times, 5 October 2010

Their Moon Shot and Ours

China is doing moon shots. Yes, that’s plural. When I say “moon shots” I mean big, multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing investments.

Thomas Friedman, New York Times, 25 September 2010

Is the motor car driving the world to destruction?

Two Billion Cars, like many modern green tracts, mixes demands for restraint with celebrations of techno-solutions to the problems we face. And as always, the restraint wins out.

Austin Williams, spiked, 28 August 2010

Unaffordable at Any Speed

President Obama's electric car subsidies are snobby and foolish.

Charles Lane, Slate, 30 July 2010

Electric car subsidy spared government axe

A promised £5,000 subsidy towards the cost of buying a low-carbon electric or hybrid car is to be spared the spending axe, the government announced on Wednesday

Brian Groom, Financial Times, 29 July 2010

A ‘cycling revolution’? On your bike, Boris

When cyclists are continually told that their mode of transport is saving humanity from doom, it’s no wonder so many of them are annoying pricks.

Brendan O'Neill, spiked, 23 July 2010

Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability

At present, there are roughly a billion cars in the world. Yet within twenty years, the number will double to 2 billion, largely a consequence of China's and India's explosive growth. Given that greenhouse gases are already creating havoc with our climate and that violent conflict in unstable oil-rich nations is on the rise, does this mean that matters will only get worse, or are there hopeful signs that effective, realistic solutions can be found?

Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon, OUP USA, 12 March 2009

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