Automotive & transport

The end of the road for automobiles?

The image of cars is in trouble and especially in France where cars are linked to social inequality rather than a sense of freedom. French people are more likely to spend on their houses, entertainment or IT, than they are on their cars. In fact, owning a car now takes up 14% of average spending and is often seen as a burden more than a sign of prestige or pride.

In France, people under 30 account for less than 10% of customers for cars and the average age at which people buy their first new car (as opposed to a used car) is now 55. Carpooling (co-voiturage) is most popular with those in their early 30s.The younger French are disinterested in cars as objects, and more focused on cars as services - getting themselves from A to B cheaply.

While France has had higher than average road accidents and fatalities, as well as heavy pollution in Paris, the trend is towards public transport, carpooling and peer-to-peer sharing. For example, BlaBlaCar has 10 million members in 13 European countries including France and Autolib has 170,000 subscribers in Paris alone.

Car sales in the EU fell by nearly 25% between 2007 and 2013 and there is no reason to expect them to recover. While the price of cars has actually dropped compared to average wages, most people think they can’t afford to replace their car. This may not mean they can’t, but more they choose not to make it a priority.

A market research firm, Thema, suggests the French see cars as a “clumsy assertion of social status”, as well as a tangible sign of social inequality. This explains why typical French cars like the Citroen and Renault tend to emphasise practicality rather than luxury or high fashion. The French also buy fewer luxury models like Mercedes or Audi, than other countries.

So-called “estranged drivers” are not necessarily all the same social class and there is a new gap opening up between those who love cars and those who don’t.

Manufacturers are well aware of the trend and many have partnerships with car-sharing services - supporting the new service-orientation - as well as making desirable cars for people who still want them as status objects. When driverless cars come on to the road, it will be interesting to see whether people continue to attach any object value to them or whether they become just another functional service like a taxi or bus.

Ref: Guardian Weekly (Aus), 9 November 2014, ‘France falls out of love with the car’ by JM Normand.
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Search words: car culture, co-voiturage, car-sharing, BlaBlaCar, Autolib, young, sales, public transport, ownership, France, Paris, costs, youth, pollution, status, Citroen, Renault, Mercedes, Audi, function, driverless, image.
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Connected cars

The EU has decreed that all new cars sold in Europe by 2018 be fitted with connectivity, most probably in the form of a SIM card, so cars can call emergency services in the case of an accident. In theory connectivity will also allow cars to contact breakdown services in case of mechanical failure. This will surely be music to the ears of companies such as Apple and Google, who plan to launch CarPlay and Android Auto to tap into the associated opportunities.

A survey by McKinsey has found 27 per cent of iPhone users would swap car brands if a rival offered better in-car connectivity. Connectivity could be used to stream music services (a service called Rara already offers in-car access to 28 million songs for 325 pounds per year), access real-time traffic data or find vacant parking spaces in cities.

Naturally, connectivity comes at a price, both monetary and mental. BMW, for instance, is charging almost 2,000 pounds for a full connectivity option so drivers can dictate emails, send texts, update posts or find and book a table at a local restaurant. But first privacy, hacking and safety concerns must be met. (See story below, Distracted driving: Keep your mind on the road).

Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK), 16 August 2014, Dial into the car of the future, by C. Thomas.
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Search words: EU, connectivity, SIM, breakdown, Apple, Google, CarPlay, Android Auto, McKinsey, iPhone, Rara, BMW, privacy, safety, hackers.
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Distracted drivers: Keep your mind on the road

The utopia of driverless cars is still a little way off. In the meantime automotive and technology companies are selling us a vision of the future where we can drive and still be fully connected. Hands-free phones are standard, but the latest temptation is sending and receiving texts without looking at a screen or using your hands. Some high-end cars even allow drivers to book restaurants and theatre tickets without (in theory) moving their gaze from the road ahead. This is a terrifically bad idea.

In 2011, distracted drivers killed 3,300 people in the US and in 2013, US authorities recommended that the display of text messages or web content be banned in cars. Numerous studies have highlighted the severity of the problem, including a 2002 UK study by the Department of Transport’s Research Laboratory, which found drivers using hands-free phones reacted more slowly to events than drivers who were slightly above the alcohol limit.

In 2005, an Australian study reported drivers using hands-free devices were four times more likely to crash than drivers focused solely on the road. Last, a 2008 US study found talking on a hands-free phone was more distracting for the driver than talking to a passenger.

The key messages here are attention and the law. The assumption is that, if people don’t take their eyes off the road when using these devices (which they do) it is safer - but it does not make it totally safe. The problem is not removing hands, but removing or dividing attention. Human attention is finite and multitasking always splits mental resources.

You might be able to drive and glance at a screen, but what happens when something unexpectedly happens in front of you? In regard to the law, this is another case of technology speeding along much faster than the legal system.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 20 July 2013, ‘Just hang up and drive’ by J. Hecht.
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Search words: hands-free, alcohol, accident, distraction, law, attention, web content, driverless cars.
Trend tags: Connectivity, distraction

Telematics insurance

Car insurance companies have traditionally relied on crude demographic data (usually filled in by the customer themselves) to calculate insurance premiums. Age, sex, occupation and home location are ranked alongside car type and engine size.

Now new technology is shifting the market towards personalised discounts, based more on how a car is actually driven. This offers safer drivers access to discounts while insurance companies can weed out dangerous or higher risk drivers. This is generally done using telematics - little black boxes that relay data to the insurance company, or apps on drivers’ phones.

In the US premiums are moving towards the distance driven – a pay-as-you-drive model - while in Europe, and especially the UK and Italy, premiums are based on how people drive – too fast, too hard and so on.

The technology has other advantages, such as making drivers more aware of their own driving style (theoretically making them safer drivers) or alerting insurance firms to potential insurance fraud. While privacy is crucial, it looks increasingly as though individualised premiums are the future of car and other forms of insurance.

Ref: The Economist (UK) 23 February 2013, ‘How’s my driving?’
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Search words: insurance, driving, distance, US, pay-as-you-drive, privacy, fraud, telematics, discounts, premiums.
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Where will self-driving cars take us?

The number of cars on the world’s roads is set to double in the near future.This has consequences for natural resources and climate change - and human safety. In an average month, 108,000 people die in car accidents and this figure is forecast to rise to 150,000 by 2020 (World Health Organization).

In 90 per cent of cases, car accidents are caused by human error rather than mechanical failure. Removing humans from the driving seat would therefore, in theory, be a good idea by making traffic flow more efficient and reducing pollution too. Cars could also park themselves or simply continue to drive around by themselves looking for another ‘ride’. If drivers no longer need to drive, they would be free (and safe) to do other things, such as work, read newspapers, watch movies, or look at funny videos of cats.

When will driverless cars be something you can buy rather than just read about? The smart money says between eight and ten years’ time, although the technology might be introduced in phases. For example, GM is looking at extending its cruise control system, primarily used on freeways, to allow hands-free driving in slow city traffic. Ford is looking at something similar, called Jam Assist. Neither option is likely to be expensive, say, US$3,000. You can bet that companies, such as Volvo - synonymous with safety - are already looking at ways of removing control from drivers if they or the conditions are unsafe.

Most interesting is surely what happens when fully autonomous cars become the norm. This will focus attention on car design (less need for dashboards and controls), urban planning (easier long commutes, less road space used due to increased traffic efficiency) and what we want cars to be for. In many cases people don't want to drive at all, it is personal mobility they’re after.

Removing the wheel from drivers might result in some unexpected developments too. No longer needing to drive might shine the spotlight on driving for sheer pleasure rather than practical mobility. Widespread adoption of autonomous cars could also largely negate the need for traffic lights and road signs, as well as allowing older people to remain physically connected.

Chances are it will only be a matter of time before a major city bans manual driving. But if a self-driving car killed a human being, there could be a sudden and unexpected change of direction.

Ref: Economist Technology Quarterly (UK), 1 September 2014, ‘Look, no hands’. Anon.
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Search words: Ford, Jam Assist, Volvo, autonomous, cars, urban planning, mobility, self-driving, accidents, mortality, human error.
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