WHN #2: Is the future car free?
On The Pod This Week
This week Sam and James are joined by Onojie Idemudia, the comedian and chef behind Jokes & Chow, to chew over the outlawing of the American Bully XL, the strange story of a missing fighter jet and Keir Starmer’s trip to Paris and his hints about rapprochement with Europe.
Then we get down into the nerdy details of the future of transport, as Sam makes the fatal mistake (and one he won’t be repeating soon) of asking James if he has anything to say about e-scooters, bikes, and electric cars.
Apparently, we *are* running out of Helium. Or that’s what sporadic news articles over the last fifteen years have been saying.
Good try Onojie, but don’t bother with Facebook Marketplace. You can buy a jet here instead. We’ll be shocked if anyone does, but let us know if you’re a listener who just couldn’t resist.
The Big Story: A car-free future?
Around the world this week, cities and activists celebrated International Car Free Day by closing roads to vehicle traffic and letting the humble pedestrian reclaim the streets. But is it just a utopian dream? Can we ever live without cars? Maybe not – but the next decade or so is going to see a lot of changes to the role that cars play on our roads and in our lives.
So we asked WHN’s own self-confessed transport nerd James O’Malley to fill us in on three big changes we should watch out for over the next few years.
The rise of micro-mobility
The e-scooter has been the vehicle of choice for your local yobs for years now, so it might surprise you to learn that – technically – they remain illegal on our streets. Essentially, the problem is that they’re too car-like for the pavements, because they have a motor, and they’re too un-car-like for the roads, because you can’t pay taxes on them or get insurance.
However, this is all set to change in the next year or two. Following 20 or so rental trials around the country, the expectation amongst transport experts is that the government will finally legalise them. And this could be great news for getting around.
Scooters are great for ‘last mile’ journeys, such as getting from your home to the train station.
Scooters use less road space than cars, so if we can switch more people to scooting to work, that’s less congestion and more space for the people who need to drive.
Scooters even offer advantages compared to the humble bike, because you can wear a business suit and turn up to your important business meetings without looking like a sweaty wreck (just don’t let your important business colleagues see your scooter).
A massive political fight about road pricing
We all know that eventually, we’ll all be driving electric cars. Exactly how long the transition will take is unclear (you’ll have to ask Rishi Sunak after his performance earlier this week). But one thing we do know is that once transition happens there is going to be an almighty political scrap.
Why? Because at the moment motorists pay taxes on fuel and on their cars, based on carbon emissions. But if emissions are zero and most people can charge up from a plug at home, it’s going to leave a big hole in the Treasury’s coffers. So unless we decide we don’t need as many hospitals or schools, we’re going to need a new form of tax to pay for public services.
Unfortunately then, there’s only really one option: Road pricing, so that motorists will pay based on how much they drive, or where they go – like heading into London’s congestion zone or on the Motorway in France.
And if you’re thinking “that sounds like it’ll be controversial”… Yep. If you thought the debate over London’s ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ) was feisty… You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Driverless cars are happening for real this time
Whisper it, but driverless cars might finally be on the way. In the United States, subsidiaries of both Google and General Motors are testing “robotaxi” services in San Francisco and Arizona respectively. And Tesla owners in the States can spend upwards of £6000 to unlock what the company calls “Full Self Driving”, where you can literally type in your destination, and have the car drive you to where you need to be.
In all cases, the technology is far from perfect. Tesla still requires drivers to be sat alert, at the wheel, ready to take over. And the robotaxi services have received criticism for snarling up junctions and obstructing traffic.
But crucially, they are slowly getting better – and the robotaxis have pretty exemplary safety records with only a few minor bumps and scratches over hundreds of thousands of miles.
There’s also companies testing autonomous technology here in Britain. Today in Edinburgh, it’s possible to catch the AB1 bus route from Fife to Edinburgh Park, crossing the Forth Bridge in the process. And though there is technically a human driver behind the wheel, they’re really only there in case of emergency. Some clever software on the bus does the rest.
So while there is a long way to go until the tech is commonplace, don’t be surprised if we start to see more cars, buses and lorries driving themselves in the not too distant future.
James O’Malley is a journalist, writer and broadcaster. He’s Head of News at What’s Happening Now, so there’s a real risk he’ll start boring on about transport every week if we don’t stop him.
James’s recommendations for further reading: