Oh, By The Way? The Era Of The Private Car Is Over

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1931 Studebaker commemorating U.S. Route 66 in Arizona (via user Finetooth on Wikimedia)

1931 Studebaker commemorating U.S. Route 66 in Arizona (via user Finetooth on Wikimedia)

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As a reader of this blog -- a blog about cars -- chances are good that you own a car yourself. That's not unusual: today, many Americans depend on automobiles to get to work, to run errands, to see friends and loved ones.

But as Emily Badger at The Atlantic points out, tomorrow will likely be a very different story.


Pretend for a moment that you're a farmer at the dawn of the 20th century. You've got all the seeds you need for the next growing season, all the plows, hoes, and other accessories, too. You'd be out in the fields now, except for one problem: you've got no horse.

That's a major catastrophe. How can you run a farm without a horse -- or at least a mule -- to do the heavy lifting?

A hundred years ago, that would've been a real head-scratcher. Today, however, the answer is obvious: head down to John Deere and buy a tractor.

From our perspective in 2013, the transition from horses to horsepower seems seamless, but it didn't happen overnight, nor was it accidental. It was a complex process that leveraged emerging technologies to address rapidly changing needs in the farming sector.

Put another way: farmers didn't just switch to tractors because tractors were more efficient than horses. Farmers switched to tractors because those farmers had to produce exponentially larger amounts of food for a population that was abandoning rural life for bustling cities, thanks to the Industrial Revolution. And because the farmers' plan worked, increasing numbers of people could leave farming altogether, which forced tractors to become bigger and faster, fueling a vicious circle of dependence.

Something similar is happening to the car as we speak.


Technological shifts often seem to come about simply because newer, better technology emerges. But technology doesn't just happen; it evolves to meet civilization's ever-changing needs. Badger offers a timely example:

Look at how the cell phone has evolved to replace the landline. Our need for cell phones didn’t arise in a vacuum. Work practices changed. Commuting times got longer, creating the need for communication inside cars. Batteries got smaller. Cell phone towers proliferated.

And so it is with cars. 

In the late 19th and early 20th century, cars were underused, undervalued. They were something of an oddity, and more than a little feared. 

It's no surprise that when they really took off, they did so in the U.S. -- a new country spanning an entire continent, with vast distances separating population centers and a rail system that couldn't feasibly serve every corner of the nation. Nor is it a coincidence that much of the auto boom came around the same time as World War I, when the U.S. military needed technological advantages like motor vehicles to stay ahead of the enemy.

(Many of the technological innovations and inventions we take for granted were first spearheaded by the military. In fact, you're using one right now: the Internet.)

A century later, the private car is dying. Older Americans may still appreciate the vehicles parked in their driveways, but as we've seen time and time and time again, young people just don't care.  

But there's more to it than that: young people aren't blase about cars simply because it's harder to get a license nowadays, or because they can't afford them (although those are contributing factors). It's because cars are no longer necessary.

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Comments (19)
  1. Sure, in cities with established robust public transport systems. However, there are many many areas of the country with huge amounts of people where commuting on a daily basis without available robust public transport makes personal vehicles a must have.

    It will take massive capital and the political will to spend it to change this. And while the kids might not care to own a car, they do care to earn a pay check. When the one necessitates the other, they'll change their tune. But hey, I hope you're right, I rather like having the option not to drive wherever I need to go.

  2. Agreed. At least, here in North America, the motorcar is a symbol of personal freedom. Also, for folks living in rural areas, the automobile is the ONLY way to get from place to place, since buses no longer serve small towns, for the most part. We lived in a tiny village for 20 years, and if you didn't have a 4WD truck or car, you were pretty much stranded in the wilderness. This is still true for many rural and sparsely populated states, where public transit is impractical and impossible to justify on a financial basis.

  3. Sorry but getting rid of even 50% of the cars isn't going to happen anytime in the next 30 yrs.

    But tech will supply the answer in lightweight, very eff composite bodied cars and subcars mostlt powered by electric drive with optional generator but rarely needed as most will have 100-150 mile range.

    And in 5 yrs or less EV's will cost less than gas cars do, even in economy sizes. They already beat the pants off BMW, etc in the sport sedan class with the Tesla both in performance and luxury.

    The fastest US production MC is the Lightning EV at 235mph IIRC.

    But EV taxi's, trains, bus rapid transit, subways too are the future. The only thing that doesn't have a future is vehicles power by oil as they cost too much to run.

  4. jerry you mention in two sentences speed and performance which probably won't be very relevant in the future.
    With the young generation of today showing little interest in cars future consumers will have no reason to substitute speed and performance for their own inadequacies, our love affair will have ended and cars will become like fridges. Some say this is already happening.

  5. Performance includes economy, safety, speed equals money, sales, safety especially when it only takes 4hp for 70mph. So you don't think that is relevent?

    How about crossing the country on $30 of fuel? Now that is performance ;^P

    Anyway you need to keep up with, pass traffic so you need at least 85mph just to be safe.

    I disagree that young people don't like cars, many just are not willing to spend the amount it costs to own and especially insure them.

    Give then cool, eff, low cost to run vehicles and they'll like them. They certainly like mine as I gewt mobbed where ever I go on it by them . I should also add women really love such 2 seat vehicles.

  6. Speed equals sales by todays standards,you are harbouring old concepts by your own admission's i.e. cool cars that attract the opposite sex and "your" idea of ideal speeds and performance.I agree with the efficiency point of performance but was trying to point out future consumers will likely view their transport differently than we have previously. A parallel comparison would be owners today are no longer mechanically knowledgeable or self maintain their cars while fifty years ago they were and did. Due to increased cost,environmental issues and changing social needs the next generation will not be relying on their choice of car to boost their image like previous generations of which we are part of.There are alredy signs of this happening.

  7. If I lived in Washington DC with its vast system of public transportation and enormous expense to park a car, I would not bother to own one either. But I live in a small town in the rural southeast US, where public transportation is either getting a friend/neighbor to haul you around or hitchhike. Bicycling in my area is a poor option because there are inadequate leash laws and dogs still love to block a bicycles path.

    I'd be happy to see the transition, but IMHO, it won't hit rural areas for quite a few decades.

  8. Little by little city's are introducing car sharing, e.g. cambio.be and http://www.carpooling.co.uk/ plus many, many more. You save a fortune on insurance and car maintenance and for example, with the 'cambio' idea the vehicle does not belong to you, you just 'borrow' it for either a few hours or a few days. Works very well but you have to organise your schedule in order to book, it goes without saying.

  9. Most millennials live with their suburb loving parents way out of reach of usable public transport. They WILL need a car if they want a job. there really isn't any way around it.

  10. Public transport can never solve more than a small fraction of the transport problem, not least because most people have come to expect the freedom and versatility of using their own car. Any alternative must meet that demand. The technology is now in place to allow the evolution (yes, it will be a slow, progressive process) towards a system of what I think of as autonomous taxis, so cheap that private cars will only be owned by the dedicated wealthy for sport or entertainment - rather like horses are now. Many projects are working in that direction, and should be strongly encouraged.

  11. Not gonna happen until people start to move into crowded cities again...

  12. So speaking as a young person, I couldn't imagine a life ehre a car wasn't a necessity and a major part of my every day life. I live in a very spread out city where I couldn't bike to school, or really anywhere for that matter, let alone walk. Maybe in a city like NYC or LA where public transit is very strong and everything is within a few miles, but until then I'm going to be driving everywhere in my privately owned car.

  13. "Garbage in, garbage out" is the aphorism. In this case, saying farmers "abandoned" horses for tractors to feed cities is a misinformed interpretation. Rather, farmers started using tractors for a myriad of reasons: cheap fuel, low maintenance, higher profits are just some of the reasons. As late as 1910, about 90% of Americans still lived on farms- so it wasn't only city folk spurring mechanization. Rather, it was the uniquely American belief in progress and technological know how that brought changes to the farm. In other words, the author confuses cause with effect. Farmers weren't growing more food for more city people; instead, they grew more food for more profit, which spurred more folks to move to the city, to higher paying jobs.

  14. Don't forget the technology overlap that is required for the smooth adoption of new technology. Cars sharing space with horse and buggies were notorious for scaring the hell out of horses. DVDs are the only technology that I know of that yanked the carpet out from under the status quo.

  15. Beam me up Scotty.

  16. Would you believe it? I don’t actually own a car!

    There are a handful of really neat cars I love.
    But, hey— I’m a-okay with having public transportation to use. :)

  17. There will always be private cars... and soon, once ion lifting technology has been scaled up, we'll be able to do away with wheels, navigate in a three dimensional space... no earthworm trying to cross the road will ever again needlessly die in the baking sun because of our despicable need to pave the planet into an asphalt parking lot.

  18. As long as there are suburbs in sprawled-out cities like my hometown, there will always be a need for personal vehicles. Where I live, your work and leisure options are severely limited without access to a reliable vehicle. The argument works in some urban areas and places with excellent mass transit, and it's refreshing to visit places where a car is an inconvenient option. But with mass transit being actively resisted in many places because of cost and other factors, I will need personal transportation for a long time to come.

  19. That is fine for people who live downtown, but both suburbanites & rurals will still need their own transport vehicles. You can't get groceries into you home digitally, sure you can order them, but somehow they have to get from the store to your refrig & pantry. Mom's will still take kids to soccer games, or dance classes, etc. Dad's will still take the family to dinner once in a while. So the demise of personal transport is still a long way off. What is critical, however, is how that personal transport is powered. ICE engines are very complex, wear intensive, wasteful & polluting, while Electric Cars have many advantages including way less expensive fuel, virtually no maintenance & use advanced batteries that recharge fast at high voltage.

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