/ Motoring, Technology

What should driving look like in 2040?

Future cars

Petrol and diesel cars are on their way out – but what else can we bring in?

In an effort to help clean up air quality in the UK, the government has banned the sales of all new petrol and diesel cars after 2040. The idea is that by 2050, almost every vehicle using UK roads will be zero emission – basically electric or hydrogen propelled like the Toyota Mirai.

We know from a recent poll carried out on Which? Conversation that there are a range of reasons why you’re not rushing out to buy an electric car:

Whether you agree with the petrol/diesel ban or not, it made us think what else might be in the proverbial pipeline. 23 years is, after all, quite a way off.

Perhaps you think the future is proper autonomous cars. Or perhaps vehicle subscriptions replacing ownership, flying machines, tunnels that transport cars (yep, tunnels move you, you don’t drive in the tunnel).

Or do you foresee much less futuristic measures such as more congestion charge and car free zones?

Rise of the machines

When I went to the 2015 Frankfurt car show, the theme was connectivity. There was a lot of future star gazing and claims that cars in Europe will be largely autonomous by 2050.

I’m not sure how I feel about autonomous cars. Mostly because I enjoy driving, and partly because I’m hesitant at the moment to relinquish full control to a car.

But I can see the benefits of autonomy. Cars that require no input to move themselves. That might sound obvious but it opens realms of possibilities – being able to call your car to your location regardless of where you are. Or even a car that drops you off at home and then finds a car parking space that’s a while away.

Or if your car is low on electricity (or even hydrogen, depending on what you think the fuel of the future might be), you can make it toddle off to your nearest charging point when you’re not using it and it returns when it’s full. Sorted. Right?


Alternatively, you could swap ownership of a car to a subscription. In my mind, it would work by signing up to a car brand. Then you simply programme in your journeys, and a car from that brand will take you where you want to go, or call it on the spot, Uber style, and wait for a car to turn up.

The pros: no maintenance costs, no need to have a driveway or parking.

The cons: potential waiting times, maybe fines for leaving a car dirty. Accidentally leaving something in the boot suddenly becomes a lot more problematic and it would be a bit of a pain to transfer, say, a child seat from car to car.

Going up?

Of course, there’s the prospect of moving up in the world – perhaps building on tech like this Flyboard.

Perhaps a safer option would be autonomous drones large enough to transport people. But if people like myself are hesitant to trust a self-driving car, a self-flying drone will require quite the leap of confidence.

Going down?

But anything flying will naturally be affected by bad weather – so how do you eliminate that?

Elon Musk’s latest idea is to dig. The ‘Boring company’ envisions large tunnels being dug under cities, cars being lowered to it on lifts and then transported at high speeds on sleds.

Claimed benefits: alleviates congestion, potentially super quick journey times, tunnels are weatherproof, no practical limit to how far we go down/how many layers of tunnels are created.

The problem: Boring company states tunnels are so expensive that the cost of creating them has to come down by a factor of ten to make them viable.

Boring says this will also help with Elon’s Hyperloop initiative, where people use high-speed pods to be whisked quickly from one point to another.

What do you think?

Do any of these ideas appeal? Do any seem vaguely feasible? Or do you think our future is simply a nationwide sprawling quagmire of congestion charge zones and battling over local EV points?


Electric cars are flavour of the month but I suspect there will be more pressure to keep them out of city centres. I found this link on another forum where the plans for the future are being discussed: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/aug/04/fewer-cars-not-electric-cars-beat-air-pollution-says-top-uk-adviser-prof-frank-kelly

Maybe we should be discussing what should happen in the next few years rather than in 2040 because we know what technology is available now. How about 2020 vision?

Certainly one way to reduce pollution in towns and cities is, as we’ve discussed before, to restrict/limit fossil-fuelled vehicles access, in particular at peak times. High traffic volumes, sitting in stationary queues, continually starting and stopping, produce excessive pollution that we could significantly reduce now if we imposed restrictions. So why do we not do this? Simply making a congestion charge is not enough; that just allows many to pay to pollute.

I assume that by 2040 most new cars will be safer with collision avoidance systems, which should in theory ease the flow of traffic as there would be fewer accidents. At present the motorist has to suffer tolls, thereby increasing emissions drastically, (as does excessive speed) and at least the toll on the Severn crossing is due to be axed next year. The Dartford crossing has done little by going “Smart” to alleviate the queues, especially since it was built drivers were promised there would be no tolls from some date in the future. That date has passed and the tolls are still in place. Future governments are going to find ways of taxing the long suffering cash cow motorists which could probably bring a “tax as you drive” system introduced, a fair system in my book. Technology will have advanced considerably by then and whether it be electric or hydrogen as a fuel of choice only time will tell. I find it amazing, given the cost of solar panels, they aren’t fitted to all new builds in a effort to produce natural energy and subsequently support some of the power to recharge electric cars if it were “banked”. Home occupants who do not drive would be happy if the power produced ran their home for free and could be reimbursed for any excess. I probably won’t be around when this all happens, but if I am it will be very interesting to watch new developments, especially in the transport system which appears to have been put on the back burner at present.

I agree about putting solar panels on new build housing, Richard, and would extend that to all new buildings. I have been looking at new housing and there seems to be little effort to orientate new housing to for maximum performance of solar energy if panels were fitted at a later date.

HAS says:
8 August 2017

2040 is a way off, technology changes may impact significantly the internal combustion engine, and what actually transpires may be very different to what is being proposed. I would not want a pure electric car unless development means long battery life in terms of distance and the battery itself. You still have to generate electricity to recharge the battery. A hybrid system would seem to be the way forward, better battery life recharged on the go from an engine with significantly improved emissions without being entirely dependent on battery power. In the meantime I will enjoy our two Mini Cooper S’s, one supercharged, one turbo!

It’s not so long since leaded petrol was phased out, which made it possible to use catalytic converters on petrol cars. Prior to that, petrol vehicles pumped lead and a variety of toxic organic chemicals into the environment. Diesel cars may be phased out but it seems unlikely that we will have diesel HGVs any time soon. Maybe it might be possible to decrease the particulate emissions by diesels and further improve nitrogen oxide emissions, currently done by injection of urea solution.

Michael P says:
9 August 2017

Hm, will there be any petrol / diesel available after 2040? Surely we must run out of it some time. Then what?

Robert says:
9 August 2017

So have car manufacturers given up on making exhaust free of pollutants. Is this impossible it also would be more cost effective re charging points every where and getting stuck in a traffic with a electric car?

EV is the future, less complicated, and powered from largely the sun and wind in the future, not to mention there better to drive than normal cars and I have had 3 Porsche 911s!

I calculated that to power the EVs if they are used at the current level as all personal transport would require the equivalent of around 13 more Hinkley Point C nuclear generating stations. I doubt wind and solar (which are intermittent) could fill that gap. Tidal storage is a useful addition, reliable, and would provide plenty of jobs during its construction.

Hopefully by 2040 someone will have re-thought this fanciful “policy” and we will have a better solution than using individual vehicles for many journeys.

I recently took the train for a journey of 50 miles by car. That involved four trains on the outward journey and three on the return, and took a very long time. More recently I made a fairly short journey that involved two trains and a bus. All worked fine, though trying to find out about where and when to get the bus was challenging. I am making efforts to use public transport, but it is a challenge, and public transport creates pollution too. In the past year I’ve been the only passenger on a park & ride bus.

Perhaps the best solution would be to work on ways that cut down commuting.

Autonomous vehicles all the way.

In a few years we will wonder why we ever allowed people to control cars themselves, much the same as we don’t expect pilots to fly the plane manually, or computer users to know how to write programs.

We want to get from A to B and should not have to control everything from lighting and heating to indicators, brakes, steering, speed, positioning, route, and so on.

Cars are getting smarter; let them take the strain!

We might then need autonomous pedestrians, children and cyclists for the brave new world to ensure no inadvertent technological oversights occur.

Most of out trains are controlled manually, despite having far more safety precautions than roads, and so are most light aircraft, shipping, despite their operating environments being more extensive than narrow strips of tarmac.

The thing I can’t work out with autonomous vehicles is how overtaking is executed and controlled. Perhaps it isn’t, so when we are stuck behind a slow-moving sugar beet excavator we shall just have to put up with it for several miles.

Overtaking is one of the easier options to deal with, interestingly, because it’s essentially a more predictable situation than many others. Dealing with a cow jumping over a gate or fence and landing on the car is a far harder issue to account for and – yes; I speak from experience. Life is tough in the sticks.

Had to laugh at the BBC’s inept attempts to evoke reactions to the proposals by interviewing random people in Manchester. One bloke asked (in between working out where to put his feet as he walked) “Er…what if a car has to decide between hitting a child and and old woman?”, proving once and for all how wonderful our UK education system really is.

I think we all know what it is like when the driver(s) being overtaken don’t want it to happen and increase speed to block it; bad driving, I know, but it happens. So my query about overtaking is around when an overtaking vehicle has to rapidly tuck back in and the vehicles behind have to accommodate that by easing off but not so much that tailgating occurs. That takes experience and good road skills. Until all vehicles are autonomous, or at least inter-communicating with each other in that section of highway, I would expect the separation of vehicles to be better managed by an automatic system, which I would intuitively imagine to imply longer distances between vehicles, However, much of the support for these systems seems to come from the advocates of platooning where there are closer headways. Or I am I mixing up two separate technologies?

Dunno John, but being in a vehicle going 70mph on the motorway must be more thrilling/petrifying than any theme park ride.

Keep an eye on the undertaker, the motorbike you can see in your rear-view mirror weaving in and out of traffic, the break lights in the distance, a drifting car ahead, a vehicle that has just stopped where there is no hard shoulder……

You won’t get me in a driverless car any time soon. 😱

Motorways and dual-carriageways might be the easy bit – at least there is separation from the oncoming traffic.

Most roads in Norfolk are single carriageway roads with cross-roads and right-hand turns, plus a fair amount of agricultural traffic. Like you I wouldn’t choose an autonomous vehicle but would be a bit worried about those coming the other way or trying to cross in front of us.

Presumably they are fitted with devices that can read the traffic signals and the gantry signs on motorways that tell you which lane to get into before accidents or roadworks. I’m not going to worry about it too much as our driving days will be over before this hits the streets round here.

Black ice, negotiate a flood, miss a pothole, be aware of a child who might leap out into the road, overtake near a junction, give way to an ambulance, park in a crowded car park, predict a vehicle’s hasty entry into a main road (watch the wheels), …all perhaps tasks that software and hardware might eventually manage, but that many drivers already learn to deal with – and more. We have crowded roads yet still enjoy driving. We don’t have autonomous railways (except in very specific places) even though they cannot deviate from a chosen path, aeroplanes retain manual control, extensively on smaller types. So I remain sceptical about the likelihood of seeing this in my lifetime (particularly if I am impacted by a trial version) and wonder just how much trial and error will be error?

I am all for progress, but wonder whether the possible outcome is worth the journey. I’d like to see us concentrate on reducing traffic, and pollution, by reducing the need to travel – commuting – by encouraging work places to be nearer homes and spread more uniformly throughout the UK. I’d like to see public transport improved to take away the need for much personal travel. I think there are better priorities for our brains to address before we deal with driverless cars – much-increased electricity storage technology has huge potential to generate far more income than driverless cars are supposed to achieve.

Hmmm…I know quite a few drivers who have immense difficulty parking, let alone dealing with black ice, negotiating a flood, missing a pothole, being aware of a child who might leap out into the road, overtaking of any description, giving way to an ambulance, parking anywhere, at any time, let alone in a crowded car park, predicting a vehicle’s hasty entry into a main road – the list of what human drivers can’t do or do incredibly badly is endless. Autonomous cars can’t arrive quickly enough for me, anyway.

The reason we don’t have autonomous trains is mainly to do with Unions. And the safest landing I ever experienced was in a 727 in dense fog and was done on full automatic.

And I”d be very willing to place a large bet that the number of errors made by AI controlled vehicles will be dwarfed by the truly dire ones initiated by their human masters…

Before someone very kindly points out my spelling mistake, I do know the difference between break and brake, honest I do. 🤓

I need a new keyboard as letters keep getting missed or transposed (being such a fast typist), and I have to keep going over them.

Interesting you say that. My trusty Tactile Pro gave up the ghost, recently, and I’ve acquired a new Cherry. Nice enough, but I type extremely quickly probably comes from being a pianist) and the space bar reacts more quickly than the period (full stop) key, which means I’m now finding that the ends of sentences have a space prior to the full stop . As demonstrated here.

That’s the trouble with technology Ian – you cannot rely on it and must use manual intervention. 🙂

Ah – but I forgot to mention that were I to have harnessed to power of Apple’s Siri to dictate my lines , the punctuation would be inserted seamlessly. I just enjoy typing…

Human beings, being what they are, have many travelling needs when using the railway. A guard doesn’t just collect tickets. Disturbances have to be sorted. medical problems dealt with. Advice on where to get off, where to store luggage, where the toilet is and why it isn’t in use. Why the reserved seat is being occupied, helping someone alight and making sure the doors are open until this has happened and generally being a reassuring presence on the train. Even crowd control on a commuting train. The driver, up front, can’t do this, especially if there isn’t one.

I agree that guards are certainly needed, Vynor – without doubt.

I am not convinced of the need for train guards since the driver can, in modern trains with highly sophisticated systems and sliding doors, easily manage to open and close the doors safely. However, I do think there should be a second safety-trained conductor/supervisor on board, in amongst the passengers and not concealed within the vacant cab at the rear of the train and out of contact with passengers as the guard frequently has been. I think the additional supervisor should be at the ratio of one to every four coaches unless there are through connections when the ratio could be reduced to one to every six coaches. If the demand for travel on a particular train justifies running eight or twelve coaches then the money is there to pay for the additional staff. I appreciate this might not seem sensible when the entire train might have to return almost empty to its starting station, but the crew have to return as well so it’s just part of the overall equation.

I also think there should be a risk assessment in place, and publicly visible, for all stations regarding the number of platform staff required to deal with heavy passenger flows and access for disabled people. This should take account of the timetable, any special risks in the station’s design and layout, and curvature of the platforms which can impair the driver’s vision [but equally impaired the guards’ vision]. The staff ratio could then be assessed for each portion of the day and per platform according to the tidal flow.

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The interesting thing is that the adverts would not be aimed at the owner or occupants of the vehicle but at other road users. I cannot see what benefit the owner would get in return for paying nearly US$200 a year. The information doesn’t tell us if the digital license plates would be compulsory. I can’t believe that wouldn’t contravene the American Constitution or one of its Amendments in some way but I must assume that has already been tested. Vehicle tracking devices have been available for some time and I cannot see what advantage there is in the tracker being within the license plate. It seems to me like a solution looking for a problem.

Wouldn’t work here, anyway; too many ‘not spots’. But having tracked down your ‘internal US website’ I note it also runs articles such as “Democrats Just Legalized Murdering Their Own Children In New York” and has several contributions from Fox News.

Don’t think it’s worth worrying about.

Showing that a car is not taxed or insured might help identify those motorists who break the law. I know someone who forgot to take his car for the first MOT for more than 4 months after the due date.

Agreed. But low tech solutions, e.g. via the display of approximately issued stickers or other paperwork, would also work effectively.

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I think we have to accept that it is difficult to give credence to pieces that purport to be factual but are really just reportage from unknown sources and where the start and finish of quotations is not clear. As I mentioned previously, the story lacks detail on significant aspects that would help to explain how the scheme operates. At the moment I cannot see why anyone whose vehicle is not fully taxed and insured should spend money on a device that would declare that for all to see. Presumably there is an official document from the Michigan state legislature so if I get time I shall look for it. Whether the scheme will transfer to the UK is pure conjecture.

Thank you, Malcolm. I have read numerous press articles about the Michigan State decision to allow vehicle owners to have digital licence plates but have not yet found an official publication setting out the full details of the scheme. It seems to be very expensive with a high initial charge and a high ongoing annual charge. Apart from easier licence renewals and payment of tolls I have not seen any particular advantages for the driver.

Such a scheme could not become compulsory in the USA unless all states adopted it since vehicle licensing is a state function and the movement of vehicles from one state to another would be restricted if there was not a universal scheme.

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I can’t see it crossing the Atlantic, Duncan, so I have lost interest in it. It hasn’t even gained much traction in the USA.

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Only as a novelty I suspect, a bit like personalised number plates. The DfT and DVSA would have to allow them first, but I suppose if they can get an income stream from them they might say ‘yes’. It would be possible distraction on our congested roads that would concern me.

What bothers me is the way innovations are immediately hi-jacked by so called entrepreneurs and other money- makers to make as much profit as possible at the expense of the consumer.
One good example of this is the subscription rip-offs operated by some EV recharging point providers. At the outset the government should have introduced legislation making it mandatory that all these outlets should be able to service all EVs, in the same way petrol stations can serve all ICE vehicles. Imagine the uproar if petrol stations introduced subscriptions and only serviced a limited variety of vehicles!