Hating cars is easy, fun, and fashionable. I get it: they run into people, you might say. They contribute to noise pollution, they turn the planet into a festering ball of hot atmospheric gas. You might argue they're relics of a time gone by, easily and rightly disrupted by newer and better technologies.
This tweet from the always insightful Mike Monteiro a few days ago has been lingering in my mind:
We don’t need driverless cars. We need carless humans.— Mike Monteiro (@monteiro) July 18, 2015
That's wrong. We don't. I mean, we do, sometimes — the world's densest urban centers aren't capable of handling large volumes of cars efficiently, nor will they ever be. These places should belong to pedestrians and to mass transit, because everything is close together and there are lots of people continuously moving from the same points A to the same points B. But by the same token, car-hating is a fundamentally urban point of view: when you can walk to the grocery store and take a subway train to the doctor, the notion of a car — particularly one you drive and own yourself — can be a confusing concept. Still, it's a concept that makes sense virtually everywhere else on Earth, where destinations are measured in miles, not blocks, and neither Uber nor a car-sharing service are economically viable for would-be users.
But let's step back for a moment and think about all the great reasons to keep cars around, because those reasons really aren't hard to find.
They are monuments to design. On this point, I'm surprised that a design-minded individual like Monteiro doesn't cut cars some slack, because they can be beautiful. They present a sufficiently large canvas for a designer to really stretch her legs, constrained only by road regulations and the physics of wind. Just looking at a Citroën DS or a Mercedes 300SL or an original Mini Cooper can be inspirational. Even designers who don't work on cars full-time dip their toes in the automotive world on occasion: take Apple's Marc Newson, for instance, who once penned a cute concept for Ford.
There's also the Toyota Pixis Mega, which is so darned cute that you'd need to have a cold, dead stone of a heart to hate it.
We're only a decade or two from ending avoidable collisions. Modern pre-collision systems use radar and cameras to not just warn drivers when a collision might happen, but also to take action if the driver fails to respond in a reasonable amount of time. They're not perfect, but I can tell you from road-testing a 2016 Lincoln MKX recently that they're already very, very good (it's a world of difference from the more primitive system in my 2010 Lexus HS250h).
And these systems will get much better with the addition of vehicle-to-vehicle communications — debuting on cars next year — and even more advanced sensors. With the maxed-out sensor arrays employed by Google's self-driving car, for instance, they've yet to cause an accident in a couple million miles of testing. Even primarily driver-controlled vehicles of the near future will be able to take advantage of these technologies: take Audi, for instance, which will be incorporating its Traffic Jam Assistant into production cars that can automatically stop, put on the hazard lights, and call 911 if it detects an unresponsive driver.
Emissions are going away. Electrification of the auto industry isn't coming as quickly as anyone would like (except for the petroleum industry, I suppose), but it's coming — the writing is on the wall. The technology now exists to make electric cars go several hundred miles on a charge and to make those charges faster and less annoying. Many major automakers have either hinted at plans for a high-range EV in the near future or have shown one.
That's not to say that internal combustion tech is at a standstill in the meantime, though. (With federal emissions requirements getting tighter, automakers don't have a choice.) Second-generation extended-range electrics like the new Volt can push 50 miles without sipping any gas, which is enough to cover many suburbanites' daily commutes. And across the entire auto industry, greenhouse gas emissions are at historic lows while fuel economy is at a historic high, even as cars become more powerful and capable. Here's some key data from the EPA's 2014 trend report illustrating that:
Cars can go anywhere. Virtually every other form of transportation — train, plane, Segway — is limited either by its point-to-point nature or its lack of ruggedness. Cars, on the other hand, are as rugged as you want them. Like this fluorescent green Mercedes G 500 4x42, for instance:
Elon Musk. If one of the most ambitious futurists on our planet (and eventually, on other planets) thinks that cars are a part of our future, we probably should, too.
I think that even Musk's competitors in the auto industry would agree that no single person has done more to push electric vehicles into the mainstream consciousness than he has, showing normal human beings — car enthusiasts and otherwise — that you can own a practical (and insanely fast!) family sedan that releases zero greenhouse gases and burns no fuel with practically no downside. With the upcoming Model 3, he'll be able to push that same vision down to a reasonable price, assuming everything goes well for the company.
They bring immense joy to people. Pleasure, even in the absence of practicality, can't be overlooked.
Every time you see an uprated car on the road — a Ford Focus ST, a Volkswagen GTI, a BMW M4, a Honda Civic Type-R — you're looking at someone who doesn't just look at driving as a necessary evil, it's something they enjoy. In aggregate, it's millions upon millions of people.
Furthermore, the infrastructure for these cars already exists. If we banned every private passenger car on the planet, you'd still need that road infrastructure for cargo, for ambulances, for police. Even in the most extreme vision of the future, it can't be reclaimed for other uses, unless you want to go full sci-fi and envision these kinds of vehicles being replaced by hovercraft.
That's not to suggest that I think we should abandon mass transit — quite the opposite, actually. We desperately need both, and we need a stronger commitment from government agencies at every level to make sure that trains reach more places, subway systems don't break down, and electric cars can travel over bridges that aren't in danger of collapsing. As the world grows more urban, car use will naturally decline anyway — as long as we move swiftly to shore up our transit systems and promote ride sharing. Even car companies, which stand to sell fewer cars, are getting on board with it.
Carless humans? Sure, in very select places. But as a civilization, we are now inseparable from the automobile, which continues to advance as quickly as any technology that touches our lives. And if you're still unconvinced, get in a Tesla Model S P85D and smash the accelerator. I dare you not to smile.