Driving in my car

Important lessons were learnt from Shell’s “Powering Progress Together” forum on visions of transport for 2040.

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As aims go, it’s a bold one. Speaking at Shell’s “Powering Progress Together” forum on visions of transport for 2040, panellists expressed numerous views on how the market should change, how emissions can be reduced and the role of electronic vehicles, whether autonomous or driven by people. The long-term visions are understandably diverse.

In the shorter term, reassuringly, there is a lot of common ground. The advent of electric vehicles looks like a solid prospect – although as Edmund King, president of the AA, pointed out, there are immediate practical difficulties as the AA’s own research suggests only 48 per cent of drivers (at least in London) could charge their cars overnight on a driveway. “But let’s keep our eye on what the solution should be, and the solution should be getting people around in a way that is more conducive to them and beneficial to
the environment.”

Reduced to those basics the way forward, then, appears obvious. The question is how exactly to achieve it. The National Grid, represented by strategy manager Belinda Littleton, certainly wants to do what it can to help get charging points onto petrol companies’ forecourts nationwide. Shell has made an excellent start with ten Shell Recharge sites in the UK taking around 30 minutes per vehicle on fast charge, and more are planned. Over the coming months, Shell will be bringing Shell Recharge to approximately 30 additional sites across the country, and in 2019, will be introducing 150kW super chargers – which deliver an 80 per cent charge in just ten minutes – to some of them.

Initially it’s looking pretty positive, commented Littleton. By the end of 2018 there should be around 850 charging stations in her own borough alone, serving around 500 cars, so everyone will have more than one charger; unfortunately, with growth in EVs forecast at ten per cent compound, that luxury is not going to last for long. There will be a clear need for change, whether this is a change to charging at the destination (numerous supermarkets already have charging stations and this will need to increase) or further changes.

Infrastructure work will have to happen: lamppost charging is a possibility being trialled for EVs but the current car culture won’t be sustainable in an electric future. “Long-distance driving rather than the every day eight miles is going to be difficult – that long-distance drive to Cornwall, we’ve been thinking about how the whole country needs to have certainty around how they can charge.”

This may mean breaking journeys up, it will certainly mean faster charging technology than currently exists – and also concepts like car sharing need to come to the fore (although as is often pointed out, the difference between answers to the question “should car sharing be more popular to reduce congestion and pollution” and “OK then, would you share your personal space with one of your colleagues every day?” is generally pretty pronounced). Given that part of the vision for autonomous vehicles is to have them unowned and shared, like a large and tailored bus service, the preference for personal space is going to make change less than straightforward.

On the plus side, things could change very much in the favour of the driver. A vehicle that generates its own electricity through the turning of the wheels could end up producing a surplus and selling it back to the grid, something that simply doesn’t happen now. Whatever happens it will mean changes to infrastructure; already there are signs of major car parks accommodating charging points and if EVs take off in significant numbers these will only increase and spread to shopping centres and other places in which people are likely to be parked for a while. Companies like NewMotion are already starting to put such charging stations in where needed.

The panellists were speaking very positively about the prospects of cars and ownership of them changing beneficially; there would, however, be practicalities to overcome. Michael Hurwitz, director of transport innovation at Transport for London, said the objectives are very clear, but added that they had to be inclusive. Summoning a shared driverless car by a smartphone app sounds terrific, “but we’ve got to cater for the 15 per cent of people who can’t use a smartphone as well,” he said. “Every day about a million people have to move around the country and they have the challenge of mobility. We have to think about everybody.”

His office is open to innovations that take all of that into account, he said, and it will test ideas that match the criteria. Back in the immediate world, the plan is to ban petrol and especially diesel by 2040, possibly beforehand. Hurwitz agreed there needs to be a target or nothing would happen; another suggestion to help these targets along was making public transport free of charge – he had yet to see a business plan that made this viable.

The existing generation may appear reluctant to accommodate changes like these and sharing their cars as they like the way they live now. The AA’s King said the attitude is a little like NIMBY-ism. “It’s all ‘not in my front seat’ – people feel that if they want to have their car radio on loud, they should be able to have it. There are things we could do in terms of design to change elements of it but ultimately people don’t want to share their journey.”

Another thing that has to improve is the public’s perception of safety in the autonomous vehicle arena. Fatalities have happened but they happen in cars people drive as well, in far greater numbers, and it’s accepted as a dismal but inevitable fact of life. “It’s often quoted that human error is a factor in 95 per cent of crashes, maybe among other factors,” said King. “With a partly autonomous vehicle we can reduce a lot of errors, so autonomous emergency braking and other controls – some smaller cars have this emergency crash resistance, so if you’re about to crash into another car it will stop. You don’t always have to get rid of the driver to use technology to increase safety.” It would be wrong to underestimate the complexities, though. He pointed to one particularly congested roundabout in Vietnam, where a command to an autonomous vehicles to keep 2m space around themselves would simply make sure nobody ever crossed it. There’s a generation of suspicion of automation to overcome.

The hope is likely to be the next generation; younger people, numerous surveys suggest, are less inclined towards car ownership; they don’t take it for granted that they have to learn to drive and the appeal of travelling a long distance without a defined reason appears limited to them. Their world view appears likely to accommodate a greener future with AVs and EVs aplenty, but there is more to motoring than cars owned by consumers.

The commercial sector, whether in terms of delivery vans or heavy goods has to be part of any long-term plan. One thing that has changed dramatically in the pattern of driving in recent years is the proliferation of couriers and delivery vans on the roads. The e-commerce boom has become the courier’s jamboree which is great for their business but not so grand for the environment when all of the vehicles are puffing out noxious fumes. Grahame Bennett, head of fleet engineering at the Royal Mail, spoke about companies needing to work together; it is the height of absurdity that delivery trucks and vans can move around duplicating each other’s routes with spare capacity and not consolidate; one audience member pointed out that the reality of the situation was that even the same company had delivered multiple items to his home in separate deliveries, by courier, on the same day. Catherine Weetman, representing the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, stated that road freight alone accounts for 23 per cent of global carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, there are logistical problems. By all means the government is dissuading people from buying diesel models as they are notorious polluters, ironically the reverse of what people believed them to be when they bought them a few years ago (and as one dealer at the conference pointed out, clean diesel models have been around for a long time now but adverse publicity has made them virtually unsellable). Baroness Brown, deputy chair of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, noted that change has been slow to come just at the same time as a lot of vehicle manufacturers have a lot of petrol cars to shift before they move onto hybrids and electric vehicles, even before the market considers abandoning car ownership all together and sharing autonomous services. A cynical view perhaps, but one that fits the facts.

For all that, it’s worth bearing in mind that technology has a knack of surprising people. Twenty years ago isn’t that long but if, in 1998, someone had said phones should evolve beyond voice communications devices and act as personal music centres and high-definition top-quality cameras as well, it’s doubtful they would have had many listeners. Forecasts about the motor industry and particularly the emergence of alternative fuels and autonomous, shared models may yet go the same way; overtaken by something we simply haven’t thought of yet, or indeed something we have. Solar vehicles, hydrogen-powered vehicles and other alternatives may yet deliver an unexpectedly viable alternative. The trick, as Shell sees it, is to be ready for multiple versions of the future.