It’s the end of the car as we know it

It’s the end of the car as we know it

Cars have changed the world, and not just by making it easier to get around. These vehicles have shaped everything from how fast we can travel to how we design cities. But now, more than a century after it was first invented, the car is facing a reckoning.

The key technology behind most passenger vehicles — the fossil-fueled internal combustion engine — is taking a devastating toll on the environment. Cars account for more than half of total transport greenhouse gas emissions, emitting tailpipe pollutants that impair local air quality and contribute to climate change. These vehicles also pose an immediate physical threat to the people in or around them: In the United States, about as many people are killed in traffic accidents as firearms to do, i more than a million deaths appear on roads every year around the world. With the rise of the automobile came the rise of automobile-centric infrastructure — infrastructure to which he contributed racistclassicist and socially isolating the choice of urban design, all at the expense of investing in public transport.

Vehicles with internal combustion engines remain the dominant mode of transportation in the US and account for the lion’s share of new cars sold today. However, there is evidence that these vehicles may be reaching the end of their journey. The new generation of electric vehicles can not only reduce carbon emissions, but are also easier to drive and maintain. While EVs only do 3 percent of new vehicles in the US right now the government is investing billions of dollars to encourage more people to buy them. These efforts include funding national charging network and the development of the US supply chain for electric vehicles through the Inflation Reduction Act revamped EV tax credit. President Joe Biden wants half of the new cars sold in the US to be electric by 2030.

But cars are in the midst of a transformation that goes beyond EVs, says Bryan Appleyard, the book’s author The Automobile: The Rise and Fall of the Machine That Created the Modern World. The advent of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft has blurred the lines between owning a car for personal and professional reasons, and has also made it easier to avoid driving a car. The percentage of young people getting driver’s licenses has dropped nearly 20 percent since the 1980s, according to the Federal Highway Administration data.

At the same time, advances in artificial intelligence and computer vision have fueled the development of vehicles that are far more technologically sophisticated than their predecessors. Their next-generation software leaves much more of the driving experience in the hands of tech companies and developers, and much less in the hands of individual car owners. Eventually, car companies hope to turn these vehicles into AI-powered machines that drive themselves.

“Modern machines are inherently useless,” Appleyard told Recode. “They have to be connected. There is no point in using a computer that is not connected now. That relationship is not yours – you do not control it. Cars will be like that.”

As Appleyard sees it, the end of the car as we know it could be on the horizon. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Rebecca Heilweil

When the car first arrived, it competed with the horse and carriage. It’s basically a computer with wheels. What’s next for the car?

Bryan Appleyard

The car started as a curiosity. People were amazed by it — and afraid of it — and then it gradually became a rich man’s toy. The turning point was the Ford Model T, which became available to almost everyone. It was sold all over the world. The next step was taken by General Motors and Alfred Sloan, who turned the car into a consumer object. What has happened since then is that the car has become almost unnoticeable. It just became part of the environment, where we just assumed that a lot of people had cars, that they would get around in them, and that was it.

I guess with billions and maybe trillions of dollars being invested in self-driving cars in Silicon Valley, cars have basically moved from Detroit to Silicon Valley. They will eventually come up with something, although it turns out to be more difficult than they thought. With the success of ride-hailing companies like Uber, we are moving into a world where the satisfaction of the car itself and the internal combustion engine will be left behind.

Rebecca Heilweil

The vehicles of the future will be electric, but electric vehicles themselves are as old as international internal combustion vehicles. Why didn’t they fly when they were first invented?

Bryan Appleyard

There was no certainty that the internal combustion engine would win. There were steam cars and steam buses and so on, and there were also electric cars. In 1900, only 20 percent of the 5,000 automobiles in the US were powered by gasoline. The rest were electric or steam powered.

One of the things about steam cars is that they are incredibly fast. One in Florida reached 197.7 miles per hour, which was unimaginable at the time. No gas station came close to him. People were at home with a couple because they were used to trains.

Electric vehicles are as old as cars.
Bettmann Archive

The electric car was more complicated. In marketing terms, it was marketed to women because it was seen as a simpler car, and women were considered simple creatures at the time. It was very rudimentary. He flipped the switch and off he went, but they didn’t have the battery technology we have today, so the range was pretty poor.

Rebecca Heilweil

Your book explains that when the automobile first appeared, it was seen as a luxury item. Then it became more common as production increased and prices fell. How does that story play out with electric vehicles?

Bryan Appleyard

The Nissan LEAF was Nissan’s take on what an electric car should be. The assumption was: it would be a small city car. It was a very successful car and very well made, but it was boring. No one will get excited driving in this LEAF. Elon Musk’s genius is that he saw that what would really drive an electric car was a really fast, exciting car. Musk successfully observed that electric cars shouldn’t be boring and slow – that’s it.

It’s the end of the car as we know it

The EV1 was an early electric vehicle produced by GM in the 1990s.
David Butow/Corbis via Getty Images

The EV1 that GM produced in the 1990s was a gem. Everyone loved it. It was a pure electric car, easy to drive, perfect for city driving and so on. It was a remarkable success, and they did it because they felt it was the right thing to do. And then they changed their minds. They only rented the cars to people — they didn’t sell them — so when they broke the contracts, the owners had to return them. So the very good EV that General Motors built before everyone else just ended. Somehow they dropped out of the race, and that was a fatal mistake.

Rebecca Heilweil

Now that electric vehicles are becoming more popular, what do you think will happen to all the infrastructure that was built to serve internal combustion vehicles?

Bryan Appleyard

The beauty of the internal combustion engine — that kind of electromechanical magic of the internal combustion engine — requires super-refined engineering. An electric motor is just an electric motor. It will destroy jobs, both in manufacturing and services because they don’t need much servicing. I suspect that removing gasoline from the picture will fundamentally change things as well. It will change the way the industry works, but also the way it works on the user side.

Rebecca Heilweil

As you said, the auto industry is moving from Detroit to Silicon Valley and taking jobs with it. What are the consequences of that?

Bryan Appleyard

Silicon Valley has now taken over. So why do they do it? They do this to grab another source of information, which is where you drive, how you drive, what you do while you drive. However, at this point, everyone says they won’t build a self-driving car. But they will succeed, and then the question arises: How much do you care about your car? How much do you care about driving? People will care for a very long time, but will the next generation?

Meanwhile, these transportation services are transforming the world. For the first time in both Britain and America, young people’s applications for driving licenses are falling. They don’t care. They don’t want a car. They don’t see the point of the expense, so they constantly grab a ride or rent a car for a day.

Rebecca Heilweil

Will we own the cars we drive in the future?

Bryan Appleyard

If I buy this iPhone, its software is not mine. Software controls the cloud. Just like with Tesla, Elon wants to pick the right thing and put it in your car without you knowing anything about the software. There’s a problem: modern machines are inherently useless. They must be connected. There is no point in using a computer that is not connected now. That relationship is not yours – you do not control it. Cars will be like that.

Rebecca Heilweil

Is this the end of the car, or at least, the car as we know it?

Bryan Appleyard

The horse is a magnificent thing and has lasted five or six thousand years as a trade animal. A car is the same thing. It was a wonderful, extraordinary thing. Now we find fault with him. They changed the world more fundamentally than any other technology. They changed the world physically.

This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Apply here so don’t miss the next one!



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