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The Future of Cars: The Readout

Friday 9 April 2021

At our Summit on 26 March, we invited guests and Tortoise members to discuss the big questions surrounding the future of humanity’s favourite vehicle

We hope you were able to join us for our summit on the Future of Cars. The five sessions featured 14 invited speakers and countless more contributions, covering everything from the power mix in Sweden’s EV (electric vehicle) charging grid to car sharing in the age of Instagram. We also voted on the best car ever.

For those who couldn’t make it, all five sessions are in the Tortoise app and on the website for you to watch and share. Below I’ve picked out some of the key points to emerge from each of them – points we think are worth investigating further. If there are things we’ve missed or didn’t get to, please do hit reply and let us know. 

Session 1: EVs need clean energy to provide clean mobility. How do we make that happen? (with Polestar)

With Fredrika Klaren of Polestar, Kerry McCarthy MP and John McDonald Brown of Syzygy

  • Battery EVs can deliver a 50 per cent cut in carbon emissions over their lifetimes compared with petrol or diesel cars, but only if charged with renewable power.
  • So recharging renewably is vital for realising their full environmental potential.
  • Norway and Sweden are two countries where virtually all grid power is fossil fuel-free.
  • Elsewhere the share of renewable energy used for EV charging can be low, and in some countries lower than the national average.
  • One reason: the business case for building car-charging infrastructure isn’t always compelling, encouraging operators to buy the cheapest power regardless of source.
  • Establishing a buoyant second-hand market in EVs is vital for getting more of them on the road (and is part of Labour’s new EV strategy for the UK).
  • If there are 8-10 million EVs in the UK by 2030, their batteries will provide large-scale storage to help flatten power demand spikes.
  • If those batteries can be combined with much wider use of domestic solar panels, that promises “a whole new world of embedded generation”.
  • Getting to net zero in the production of EVs is still a huge challenge and the industry needs to level with consumers on this. It has a problem with transparency.

Session 2: How do we charge 10 million cars? (with bp)

With Fiona Howarth of Octopus, Andrew Carter of Centre for Cities and Tom Callow of bp Pulse

  • Charging systems left to grow organically will supply some regions much better than others and the UK is a case in point. Charging point density ranges from 1 per 23 cars to 1 per 270.
  • So there’s a case for strategic development of the charging infrastructure to make sure no-where gets left behind. 
  • That said, organic development of networks can work better than top-down uniformity. Equity is more important, and having enough energy in the aggregate is more important than the number of charging points.
  • EV users are dividing into hares and tortoises in terms of charging habits: hares who probably don’t have off-street parking and want fast-charging at service stations, and tortoises who can charge slowly and cheaply at home overnight.
  • But people are generally moving towards fast charging even though it’s a lot more expensive than slow.
  • Hares can get 70 miles of charge in seven minutes on the forecourt – which is roughly the time we’ve all been spending filling up with petrol.
  • A mere taste of EV driving can lead to ownership and solar panels on your roof; this is something that can “open your eyes and change your mindset”.

Listen to our audio readout for this session here…

Session 3: Driverless – no hands, all hype?

With Matthew Avery of Thatcham Research and Dr Jack Stilgoe of UCL

  • 70 per cent of consumers think you can buy autonomous cars already. It’s not true: full autonomy is probably at least a decade off, but level 3 (assisted driving technology which requires you to be ready to take over) could be in use on UK roads this year.
  • That means scrolling through your phone while in slow moving traffic as long as you’re in an approved vehicle, of which there’s only one so far – the latest Mercedes S series.
  • Self-driven valet parking is also a possibility right now. The technology exists and airport roads, for example, aren’t public roads, which makes it legal.
  • The idea of earning money with your self-driving car when you’re not using it yourself – ie that when you buy a Tesla “you’re buying a future robo-taxi” – is for the birds, at least for now. It’s marketing, to establish a counter-narrative to the more familiar one of depreciation the moment you drive off the forecourt.
  • Technologically, the first 80 per cent of getting to full autonomy is easy. The next 10 per cent – dealing with pedestrians – is hard. The final 10 per cent – dealing with unforeseeable anomalies – is very hard indeed.
  • But the UK government wants to move fast towards regulatory approval for autonomous driving. Insurers like it because it will make the roads safer on balance. So this is a question of when, not if. 
  • Even more it’s a question of ‘where?’ What’s possible in Phoenix may not be possible in Norway. On the other hand, AI training on Norway’s Arctic roads could produce smarter driverless cars than easy training in cities laid out on flat grids.

Session 4: The best car ever

With Ginny Buckley, Peter Grimsdale and Rebecca Jackson

  • The Nissan Leaf paved the way for mass market EVs and so its place in history is assured.
  • The Citroen DS was an engineering and design miracle decades ahead of its time in 1955.
  • But the Porsche 911 grabs hold of drivers’ imaginations, and the seats of their pants, and won’t let go. Rebecca’s choice won our first poll and our second, although Ginny’s argument for the Leaf did move the dial in her favour and Peter’s for the DS prompted multiple off-ballot votes for the 2CV.

Session 5: Are we at the end of our love affair with cars?

With Edmund King of the AA, Brendan Cormier of the V&A and James Taylor of Zip Car

  • Millennials in London are managing without, but the answer to the question seems to be no: 63 per cent of respondents in a recent AA poll said they’d be lost without their cars. 20 per cent had named them.
  • Research on car sharing has revealed a species of driver called NIMFS – Not In My Front Seat. Drivers like to keep control of that space beside them.
  • Most converts to car-sharing seem to be coming from public transport rather than car ownership, which augurs ill for congestion – as does the prospect of zero-occupancy cars (see Session 3 above).
  • Car sharing could play a big role in giving younger drivers their first taste of EVs and cars in general, because tariffs include insurance which is often otherwise prohibitively expensive without a black box / Big Brother on the dash.
  • Car sharing apps are gamifying car use…
  • … but could end ownership as we know it, especially if it’s true that “if you can’t repair it you don’t really own it”. 

This summit was in partnership with

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