On the day this piece was commissioned, the CEO of the world’s largest automobile company stepped down voluntarily, citing the evaporation in public trust in his brand. This was a company that had worked for well over half a century to become one of the most established and most respected corporations in modern industrial history.
Volkswagen’s dilemma could prove to be a pivotal point in the history of the automobile. It revealed the dream of endless, ceaseless improvements in technology and engineering to be a façade: things won’t always get better. VW’s woes don’t necessarily mean that the system is entirely broken, but they do serve to show technology’s flipside; it can be subverted to help big corporations gain a greater share in places where legislation is strict and unyielding.
Disappointment is mixed in with the hubris. Prior to the scandal, new technology was the panacea that underpinned a global industry worth somewhere north of $700bn every year. Car buyers were conditioned to annual improvements and a not-too-distant future of emission-free motoring and burgeoning autonomy, making traffic swifter, cleaner and safer. It was all going to be OK. These were compelling visions. The trans-continental network of chargers that will supersede the petrol station; electric cars that glide silently, with arrays of sensors that read the road and the surrounding traffic; cars shaped from sleek, lightweight carapaces with endlessly reconfigurable interiors, awash
with screens to entertain and communicate.
So will this rose-tinted futurism simply evaporate or will the future take on a different hue? Right now, there appear to be very few winners, either corporate or public. The cost to VW – one of the largest automakers in the world – will almost certainly set back investment in new technology. And the car-buying and driving public has realised that certain forms of emissions are just not going away – in fact they may even be increasing.
The car industry has always relied on established narratives to sell its products. Broadly speaking, they are the narratives of our lives – and how cars facilitate them while also conveying status and identity – and the narratives that underpin the car companies themselves. They are frequently compelling, with slogans and catchphrases we are invited to absorb and apply. They shape society and identity, whether we like it or not.
There are also two narratives about the future of the car: evolution and revolution. While the former has been dealt a blow by Volkswagen, it can’t be written off completely. Every carmaker commits millions to R&D and efficiency targets are, for the most part, the parameters that shape the industry. Yet evolution will never have the same appeal as revolution and the idea that our relationship with cars is perpetually on the brink of a radical re-think. For car companies, the trick is to provide a path between these two extremes, continuing to offer slow, steady innovation while also showcasing the ways in which mobility could change the world we live in.
The agent of change in all of this is the concept car. Traditionally, the industry has used conceptual designs as a way of showcasing future directions in styling and technology. Concepts range from elaborately hypothetical design studies with zero potential for production, to lightly disguised previews of production cars that are already signed off and ready for market. At some point, the industry realised that naked futurism was only credible up to a point. Technological advances in design and production and a slow but steady awareness of car design amongst consumers meant that fanciful visions were no longer inspirational but actually infuriating, most especially if they differed wildly from what was in the showrooms.
So how do our imagined futures of the all-electric, autonomous car fit into these narratives? In the wake of the VW scandal, industry analysts pointed to Tesla, Apple and Google, three disruptors in a world still ruled by centuries-old companies, as potential long-term winners. More than any other manufacturer, Tesla has applied itself to the structural underpinnings of the car industry, creating and owning a charging network and controlling all aspects of supply, sales and distribution. To drive a Tesla is a futuristic experience, precisely because it is so removed from how we expect a car to feel. No other manufacturer can remotely update their global fleet overnight, seamlessly downloading software updates that unlock new features and functions. New models promise ever-greater levels of autonomy – or at least the potential for autonomous driving.
Apple and Google are the outliers. Utterly detached from the established brand hierarchy (albeit engaged in a prominent status tussle of their own), both are strongly rumoured to be entering the car market. Google’s efforts are very much in the public eye. The roads around the company’s Mountain View headquarters are home to its fleet of 50 test cars, soft, rounded bubble-shaped machines with a friendly face designed to put clear water between any historical signifier of automotive status. Apple’s involvement is far more clandestine, as one might expect from the company, but its deep pockets, loyal following and design and engineering integrity have given it credibility.
The tribulations of the old school could help usher in the new. At the very least, industry watchers speculate whether VW’s woes will accelerate the cause of electric cars, by reducing the economic lustre of diesel and spurring on new investment into the forthcoming electric infrastructure.
It’s that latter impediment that has preserved and sustained the status quo for so long. The motor industry isn’t just about cars and driving, but about road signs and highways, slip roads and car parks, petrol stations and tyre warehouses, classified ads and insurance, car blogs, magazines, TV shows and stadium events. It’s culture, intertwined with modern life in practically every country of the world, from Sweden to Saudi Arabia. Removing the tightly wound tendrils of car culture appears to be all but impossible.
As a result, there is another form of futurism that conjures visions of the city of tomorrow and how today’s brands can stay relevant within it. Historically, the motor industry has stayed resolutely detached from the responsibility of providing and maintaining a highway system; infrastructure is the role of the state. Today, we are told the next frontier is the interaction between personal transport and the public realm. Audi’s Urban Future Initiative is a typical case in point. The programme, which grew out of a 2010 award scheme, invites architects to make a bold prediction about mobility in a chosen city. In the last five years, the company has invited Höweler + Yoon, J. Mayer H, Alison Brooks Architects and others to render up shiny visions of tomorrow. In 2014 the brief expanded to include teams of architects, ethnographers, scientists and planners. It’s a valid approach but kowtows too readily to the city’s submissive role in all this.
Our cities have spent the best part of a century being scoured and reshaped to please the automotive agenda. The last decade might have seen a slight shift in focus but there’s still a presumption that four wheeled, internal combustion powered transportation – be it private, public, shared, leased, loaned or stolen – will be the dominant way of getting around for decades to come. And it’s very hard to argue with that analysis.
The most likely scenario is that the ‘future’ will arrive in increments. In 2017 Volvo’s IntelliSafe Auto Pilot will begin trialling on 50km of specially designated roads around Gothenburg. The system uses GPS to recognise which stretches of road have been allocated to the test programme, and the 100 private drivers involved in the scheme can then sit back and let the car – an adapted version of the XC90 that’s already on sale – do the rest. Volvo has gamely agreed to accept all liability from any accidents that might occur, setting an important precedent.
The technology behind autonomous cars is essentially already here. Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, Lexus, Infiniti and many others all have discrete systems that can accelerate, brake and steer a car without any human intervention.
The hurdle is legislation. It seems unlikely that the automotive industry will step forward and take collective 2 3 responsibility for the injury, compensation, penalisation and death that follows the motorcar. Global traffic deaths currently run at around 1 million people a year, before the impact of pollution is factored in (the World Health Organisation estimates than ‘in 2012 around 7 million people died – one in eight of total global deaths – as a result of air pollution exposure’).
Technologists insist that autonomous cars could turn these horrific figures into a footnote in history but it would take decades to equip the global fleet with the requisite technology to allow a switch to be flicked overnight. Instead, systems and infrastructure will be added piecemeal to our cars, houses and car parks. Carmakers hope this will slowly ‘bake in’ the profitable desire for cars. Yet even this isn’t a given. As car companies are acutely aware, the social signifiers of driving are on the move. Like any consumer goods that offer broadly similar functions across price points, cars are marketed according to desire. The unconscious map of the automotive brand landscape is perhaps an even more important landscape than the towns and cities we actually drive in. Very few companies are capable of mapping it with any certainty, which is why so much fieldwork is being undertaken. It’s not just a case of ‘here be dragons,’ but here be whole demographics for whom the concept of car ownership and the once concrete certainty of prestige and status mean next to nothing.
Tesla’s ‘revolution’ is very conservative in many ways because it depends entirely on the personal car continuing to be considered as a status object. You can be sure that every other premium brand on the market is developing an all-electric model to recapture the ground Tesla stole with its head start, but these new cars, impressive as they may be, will simply reinforce existing systems. If we’re lucky, we will swap out road rage for range anxiety and we might finally stop coughing, but we will still be sitting in traffic, albeit glued (legally) to our screens.
Every year, the world’s car shows host a clutch of impressive new concepts, groomed for the imaginary roads of tomorrow. Without fail, they promise tantalising new ways of travelling, such as being whisked along a highway in a cocooning, screen-filled environment like that proposed by Mercedes’ F015. These are counterbalanced by smaller and smaller systems for individual users, like Toyota’s i-Road personal mobility systems, designed to bridge the gap between driving and walking.
One scenario sees full-size autonomous cars confined to certain highways, taking us from home to work and play by automatically parking themselves at the entrance of cities, gliding into robotised garages to re-charge. Then the so-called ‘final mile’ devices take over, handling that irritating and unpredictable chunk of journey from station to office or car park to store. Can status and identity still be incorporated into this world? Undoubtedly. And new narratives will emerge to help lead us down these new paths.
Jonathan Bell is currently editor at large at Wallpaper*, where he was formerly technology and transport editor. He specialises in writing about automotive, architectural and transportation design.