Whatever happened to the driverless car?

 

Is that a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a flying car.

Doubtless egged-on by the hype lavished on driverless cars, wild promises of levitating family autos are all the rage again.

Yup, the prospect of flying to meetings in your own car instead of a helicopter is right back on the agenda.

Terrafugia Flying Car Prototype on Road

See – here is the TF-X, Terrafugia’s bid for aero-motoring immortality. A deeply unsexy prototype that could become a sleek, er, road-legal helicopter-cum-plane.

fly-car-rendering

Call me a bit skeptical but to my untrained eye the TF-X visualised in the pics displays all the aerodynamic qualities of a Corgi toy attached to a lolly stick. Those skinny wings might lift a super-flyweight body – but not something that would conceivably get an NCAP collision rating for a family vehicle.

Since the first object you encounter on the project’s web page is a button labelled “$ Invest”, it’s a safe bet that there’s a long way to go and a lot of cash to burn before ‘une brique volante’ lands in a back garden near you. Ad astra per pecunia you could say.

(And by the way, what’s with the utterly crapola and mega-depressing, round-the-back-of-in-industrial-unit-next-to-the-dumpsters destination of the TF-X in the promo? Failure of imagination or a teeny hint that flying cars won’t fit in normal workplace parking bays?)

But each to his own, I say. It’s your money. If you’re excited enough to invest, be my guest. Really, if you think that road-legal helicopters have a future, I think someone might have a Moller M400 Skycar to sell you.

With driverless cars, at least there are a few potential benefits – like having multi-user vehicles that deliver themselves to drivers. The reason flying cars have remained a pipe dream since the 1950s is they’re basically a solution looking for a problem.

On wait! Silly me. Of course, we’ll soon have self-driving flying cars. Where else could today’s utterly fabulous technology lead us?

The title of this article? Oh, that’s just irony.

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No friends for electric cars

That fizzling noise in the marketing-o-sphere is the sound of something terminal happening to Electric Cars 1.0.

By now, the UK’s roads were supposed to be filling rapidly with the silent swooshing of a juiced EV market. Instead, the EV scene is flatter than an iPhone 4 battery at 2.30 in the afternoon.

Leasing companies are lining up to tell their customers not to waste any more time on mains powered motors.

“Slow burning” is how the kindest commentators in the fleet car sector are describing battery-powered cars’ potential. After all, what is the commercial point of acquiring them for fleet use?

On a coalface-to-wheel basis, EVs emit more CO2 than dozens of more-capable combustion models. Functionally, they’re pants. In return for costing a small fortune to buy, their pathetic range is designed to keep a driver on tenterhooks most of the way from London to (nearly) Swindon – or Newbury if it’s cold, dark and raining.

Cargo cult

QuadRanting has always averred that current EVs are simply a cargo cult response to the withdrawal of the cheap liquid fossil fuel that enabled the Age of Happy Motoring; facsimiles of real cars.

Driving an EV is not a happy thing to do. The EV-makers’ latest throw of the dice – the Tesla S – is said to be good for 300 miles on a charge. But so what? Buying the additional 140 miles-worth of batteries adds £15,000 to the price of the 160-mile base model, which already costs thirty grand.

You could buy an equally roomy, year-old, ex-demo Passat or A4 with 12,000 miles on the clock for that £15k and then, if you wished, spend the £30k you’d saved by avoiding the Tesla on approximately 230,000 miles worth of diesel.

OK, so the Tesla’s a luxury car but, again, so what? If the answer to EVs’ shortcomings is to make toys for rich boys at the meagre rate of 12,000 units a year, that’s the biggest ‘sod off’ to the herd since Marie Antoinette urged starving commoners to switch to cake.

Trick question

So, if EVs are neither cheap nor cheerful nor plentiful nor environmentally sound, what are they for? It turns out that the answer to that question is the same as the response the trick question on QI: nobody knows.

The makers, who are being sucked into a monster whirlpool of overcapacity and disappearing demand for combustion cars in Europe, can barely give their pricey, heavy, range-crippled EVs away.

Nissan has sold 12,000 Leafs so far instead of the 44,000 p.a. it was counting on. It is planning to sell a ‘budget’ version of the car next year at a £4k discount to the current tag of £30,000 after we taxpayers chip in for the £5k Government subsidy per car.

Look dearie, if I wanted a budget Nissan that’d only do 70 miles before needing a good rest, I’d buy a knackered £950 Micra with two gallons of petrol in its tank.

Plain stupid

That’s the circle that EVs in their current form cannot square. If the proles are being priced out of conventional cars by the global debt implosion and peak oil, it’s plain stupid to try offering them super-pricey, barely functional EVs instead.

The future of mass vehicle ownership is in 2-wheelers and microlight cars – a shift the manufacturers are resisting as furiously as you’d expect of corporations with billions tied up in the wrong products.

Even so, I reckon we’ll see the first Ford scooters and GM microlight prototypes before 2020. Of course, this will require a complete rethink of road rules and infrastructure design to accommodate millions of lightweights among the legacy of conventional cars.

Ironically, by then Europe will have shovelled trillions of euros into perpetuating the current, doomed automotive infrastructure as it tries to stimulate its way out of GD2. It’s going to be interesting.

Non-market for EVs continues non-growth

Electric cars are a fascinating subject.

Their existence is predicated on the eventual demise of mass-market, gasoline-engined motoring.

But since EVs cannot do the job of ICEs, they are actually proof that the car industry is nearing the end of its allotted timespan.

That isn’t me gloating, by the way. Without the automotive industry, oil would be little more than  inedible black fossil goo rather than being the basis of the bright, fun, complex existence we enjoy today.

Ordinary cars are cheap to buy, cheap to refuel, hugely practical and immensely enjoyable. They rule the world they allowed us to build.

EVs are expensive and just as energy-hungry and polluting, on a coalface-to-wheel basis, as their conventional counterparts. Their limited and unpredictable range makes them impractical to own and nerve-wracking to use.

On that basis, the fact that around 1,400 EVs have been registered in the UK since January 2011 is quite an achievement – even if nearly all of them eventually turn out to be demonstrators owned by the manufacturers.

But when you factor in the mind-blowing level of private and public investment in EV design, development, marketing, charging infrastructure and so on, the handful of genuine private sales achieved so far can only be described as super-pathetic.

Nevertheless, British Gas bravely fronted up for EVs in Fleet News this week, demanding that the Government continues to bung £5,000 incentives to EV buyers in the hope that these unwieldy and unloved solutions-in-search-of-a-problem will eventually reach some kind of critical mass.

British Gas’s pledge to run just 0.8% of its fleet on electricity by the end of next year (up from 0.04% today) won’t bring critical mass any nearer. In fact it merely illuminates the chasm between the fantasies of EV-boosters and reality.

And as Gareth Roberts’ article pointed out, BG has a vested interested in pushing batcars because it’s the preferred installer of charging points for 70% of EV suppliers.

At some point investors are going to get tired of throwing money into the black hole that is the reality of trying to make EVs into a mass market phenomenon, especially as a recent report commissioned by the Department for Transport (and stating the obvious) suggested that electric vans may never be cheaper to run than diesel versions

For the remainder of the car’s time on earth, the vast majority of people will drive on petroleum. Since the alternatives will never be as affordable or as practical, the exit from petrol-powered car-ownership will be into non-car-ownership.

Even when oil is priced out of the reach of 99% of people, it’s likely that the privileged few who still own cars will prefer to run them on gasoline rather than electricity.