The world has been in lock down and in a way, so has this blog. Luckily not because of Covid, rather due to a lot of other things going on. But as the world slowly returns to some kind of normal it’s time to take up writing again, and I’ll do so with a bold prediction: one of the winners of this pandemic in the area of transportation will be the car.
Before the pandemic (in something that now feels like ages ago but is less then six months in the past) we spent Christmas and New Year’s in Australia, where I took the above picture. This relatively brutal work of art in downtown Sydney seemed like a good illustration of the state of the petrol car in late 2019: unpopular, out of fashion and blamed for many of the wrongs in the world. At the time I thought I would use it as illustration to a post on whether our beloved cars were truly becoming a thing of the past. But as we’ve all come to learn over the last weeks, things can change very quickly and quite dramatically, and today I’m quite convinced that it’s the demise of the car rather than the car itself that will soon be forgotten.
Irrespective of whether you’ve spent the last weeks under a severe lock down or under a policy of greater openness, one of the things most of us come out of this crisis with is a feeling of discomfort around mass transportation. We still know surprisingly little about the virus and all the ways it can infect us, but it seems pretty clear that it’s quite contagious, and logic therefore tells us to avoid places with limited air supply for longer periods of time. That rules out certain types of transportation, and also forces us to rethink our travels, both professional and private. 10-hour flight to Asia with 300 others in a cramped cabin? Not if I don’t have to. And given the social distancing measures airlines will be forced to take will undoubtedly reduce the number of passengers, this will lead to higher ticket prices. It therefore seems safe to assume that long-distance travel will diminish.
However, all problems are not solved just because we avoid flying to other continents. A cruise ship in the Mediterranean is not very far away but proved to be one of the worst Covid traps at the beginning of the pandemic, and the pre-Covid, increasingly popular trend of long train travel suffers from some of the same issues. At least in the short term, the trend is towards vacation in your home country. Here in Switzerland, AirBnB stats tell us that whereas foreign bookings are down 90% for this summer, domestic bookings are very much up.
If we don’t want to fly or take the train, the remaining options have two or four wheels. And whereas the former can be an alternative for commuting, any form of bike is quite lousy for transporting children, dogs and luggage. That’s of course where the car comes in. You could argue this will only be a short term change in habits until we have a vaccine. I wouldn’t agree. Firstly, we don’t know if and when that will be. Secondly, I believe much in our lives has been altered beyond Covid. Thirdly, this is most probably not the last virus pandemic we will see. Therefore, at least in the mid-term, the trend towards more vacation at home is probably here to stay, as is the wish to get there with as little infection risk as possible.
The automotive sector is among the most severely hit following Covid, and that may well be justified. 35 million Americans have lost their job in the last six weeks and they certainly won’t line up to buy a new car, which also goes for many people in other countries whose income is now less secure than it used to be. Logically therefore, this also means that the whole electrification trend will stall somewhat, as will the political bashing of petrol cars, as politics is now about social distancing rather than fuel emissions. We will thus be left with our existing, conventional cars for longer.
Electrification is however not the only area where car technology is developing fast. In the coming 5-10 years, car manufacturing will come to look very different to today, as I’ll come back to in a later post. That could truly revolutionise many aspects of cars and car brands as we know them today, including the cost of manufacturing, and might in the end change the whole concept of personal transportation. But with the long bills we’ll all have to pay for this crisis, both on a personal and a public level, I’m willing to bet you that we won’t be driving in Elon’s high-speed tunnels or fly in our private air planes in the foreseeable future – it feels much more likely that we’ll still be driving cars, hopefully still with some thrill of driving!