A world without cars. Will a very real dream soon be here?

Por: MA. Clara Franco Yáñez
Master en Asuntos Internacionales, por el Instituto de Posgrados en Estudios Internacionales y del Desarrollo en Ginebra, Suiza

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In a way, we have been picturing a world without automobiles for many decades, at least at a level of science fiction fantasy – in futuristic series and movies where cars had been replaced by every conceivable form and shape of airplane, when not outright spaceships. Now, with the increasing commercialization and normalization of drones for a great variety of purposes, as well as the combined novelties of electric cars and self-driving cars, the picture becomes more serious. Recent, popular posts on social media speculate about the many, often positive, consequences of a world without cars – positive because the authors of such posts are often assuming a better, affordable alternative to cars, to which everyone also happens to have access. A more realistic assessment of a world without cars, however, requires not only taking a look at the potential negative consequences, but also analyzing different alternatives, some more feasible than others. Would such a “world” be forced on us due to a sudden lack of fossil fuels, or are we rather talking about a smooth transition into a better, cheaper and more sustainable substitute, one which everyone can afford and access?...

Being from San Luis Potosí, a city whose economic and productive foundation is today heavily based on the automobile industries, I can only imagine how much unemployment would rise, if the automobile industry as we know it today were to disappear relatively suddenly. The same applies to cities such as Aguascalientes and Puebla, where a substantial percentage of jobs depend on automobile industries as well as the hundreds of connected industries producing parts of cars, repairing or cleaning or giving maintenance to cars… along with the many people who work as taxi or Uber drivers. Such sudden changes could also happen if cars don’t disappear but rather the need for them is greatly reduced, for example if a single self-driving car could be shared by very large numbers of people. What would that mean for the auto industry as we know it today?

Before Tesla came along, the automobile industry had stayed relatively stagnant for years, even decades. Every new model featured mostly marginal improvements, related to either aesthetics, on-board gadgets and other minor novelties, or safety improvements, without fundamentally altering the model of what a car is: a large piece of steel and plastic, man-operated and running on fossil fuels. Tesla’s electric cars helped us imagine, for the first time in decades, an automobile not only radically different but also realistic, and economically feasible (something that earlier attempts had failed to achieve). Now, it seems that learning to drive an electric car will only happen during a short window of time before self-driving cars take over entirely. Learning to operate a Tesla appears to be only a very temporary step towards self-driving cars and, not long after, a world without cars.

What we imagine next will depend on what exactly are we picturing as the alternative to cars: self-driving drones? Bicycles? A very efficient and improved network of public transportation?... Some immediate positive effects could be the reduced pollution and noise in the cities – provided, once again, that the alternative to cars does end up being cleaner than today’s vehicles, and that the energy they use is produced sustainably. Would the alternative to cars be affordable to everyone, or would the after-car times be times of further inequality, where a few rich people can afford something as advanced as transport drones while large masses are left with no alternatives? And what exactly will happen with today’s millions of actual cars, their parts and pieces? Will cities be designed entirely differently?... There is also another possibility: that only some parts of the world will effectively be without cars – those places with advanced enough economics to afford the alternatives, or with a technologically advanced enough context –, while the developing world will continue to see traditional cars for decades to come.

Returning to the issue of jobs related to the auto industry: just as much as thousands of jobs could disappear relatively quickly if the automobile industry disappears, perhaps other new jobs would appear, related to whatever alternative to cars ends up existing. Just as entire industries have died in the past because of technological changes, other newer industries have appeared as well. Reiterating the earlier point, any speculation about what “a world without cars” might look like, must consider at least two different alternatives, as well as take into consideration both the positive and negative sides to such an important change in our societies.