Retrofuturism: looking forward to the driverless car

by David Cockrell


I was recently reminded of Retrofuturism when I read an American perspective on how the autonomous car and Transport-as-a-Service. These promise to revolutionise the way we live, where we live, how we live and how we commute to work. It spoke about the freeing up of garages to become homes; in other words, the process of inserting a pre-fabricated home pod in, plug it in and you have yourself a self-contained property to sell or rent.

For us Brits, most people’s garages are filled with the junk they cannot cram in cupboards, wardrobes and lofts. For others it might be a home gym, already converted into another room such as home office or cinema room. With property prices in much of the UK very high, converting a garage into a room is far cheaper than moving and paying additional Stamp Duty, removal fees and an increased mortgage.

Personally, I can’t wait to be chauffeured to and from work daily without the stress of driving 60 miles per day with two thirds of that spent on the M4. I’ll have the option to continue working, reading, relaxing or perhaps playing chess against the cars onboard computer. Reclaiming two and a half hours of dead travel time per day, five days a week leads to many possibilities. Perhaps I could learn a new language in my newfound time. I would also expect commuting times to decrease because of the regulation of speed, fewer crashes and enhanced route planning augmented by Smart City developments in transportation and monitoring.

This leads to an interesting point regarding work – I assume I will still mainly working from the office and that commuting will remain an important part of work life, but will this change too? Perhaps, but working from home alone each day in a semi-monastic way is not for me. Some of us actually thrive on our interactions with work colleagues. You simply can’t get the buzz or pick up things by osmosis as you do in an office environment. Managing teams is much easier face-to-face.

With my short term, future gazing hat on, Transport-as-a-Service seems immediately appealing. It eliminates the need to own a car, an expensive asset that sits unused for 90% of the day. This will free the streets of parked cars and make the urban environment more appealing, not to mention much easier to navigate by foot or with a bike.

But is this really practical for a family of four, for example? Us humans are often spontaneous creatures, deciding on the spot, based on weather and the availability of friends and family to go off and do things on a whim. How does this fit with Transport-as-a-Service? What is the lead-time to requesting a vehicle and it getting to your home? How is supply and demand modelled? Where are these giant carparks of vehicles waiting for work at different times of day or night? You would assume during the day demand modelling would dictate where the supply of vehicles will be based, but what of night? Do they litter the streets in high demand areas or return to large tarmacked spaces in the suburbs or rural areas weighting for the new day? Is the more realistic view that a two car family may have an autonomous vehicle they own or lease and then request another as Transport-as-a-Service on demand?

I saw some research produced by the University of Manitoba in a presentation by Shell at an IoT conference that stated some interesting facts:

  • One fully autonomous car could replace 11 cars
  • There would be 200m fewer vehicles in an autonomous world
  • Reduce transportation costs by 75%
  • And most crucially, significant reduction to the 1.2m road deaths per annum


Maintenance and refuelling

The fact that an autonomous car could be maintained remotely is great. One of the biggest frustrations of drivers would also be irradiated – that of refuelling. This may require automotive manufacturers to reinvent the fuel cap and location if humans aren’t involved. Will filling be done from underneath the car or via a roof mounted slot possibly similar to what is used by military planes in air-to-air refuelling?


What of carparks?

So what of car parks, the areas of land devoted to the parking of automobiles and the fate of the operators who own these locations and derive revenue from parking? Well, I guess many of these parcels of land will be converted into flats or mixed use sites, or perhaps urban parks. I note that the multi-storey Kings Mall carpark in Hammersmith, London has halved in size to make way for luxury flats. Could this be the start of a trend that will be furthered by autonomous car adoption or just the basic economics of an underutilised carpark making money for its owner in a new way? Will NCP Carparks evolve to become a residential or commercial real estate company in the future?


Is this the death knell for ‘pay & display’ & resident parking permits?

On-street parking and ‘pay & display’ will also become a less important feature of our streets, with vehicles completing one job before going off to undertake the next. With this and the fall in actual car ownership through Transport-as-a-Service, we should see revenue reductions for Local Authorities and Councils as less people need to ‘pay & display’ or park their car on street near their homes. This revenue drop will leave a shortfall that will need recouping by some other means.


Is it goodbye to many service stations?

Purchasing fuel for your vehicle is one of the most stressful parts of being a driver. You will note that the heading of this section included the old phrase of Service Station. Remember those old films and public service broadcasts showing helpful attendants filling your car with fuel, taking payment and often undertaking other useful services such as washing windscreens and doing tyre pressure checks? This level of service was lost by the UK driver in the 1960s. Perhaps we could fill our cars with fuel in other, automated ways. The military do air-to-air refuelling of jets using male and female connects. Could we have the same on our roofs, completed with ducts placed underneath the vehicle? Why don’t we go the whole hog and get a drone to do it whilst parked in the office carpark. Is that really such an outlandish idea?


Futurology from the 1950s & 60s

While it seems we had a more positive outlook to the future in the 1950s and expected the technical advancement to be far greater, we are finally catching up with our forefathers’ expectations. You only need to watch Disney’s Magic Highway U.S.A. (1958) or see the drawings of Syd Mead. They are the forgotten, positive tomorrows of that era with a focus on transport for leisure purposes as families than we have.

That said, all car commercials have big open expanses, adventure and free time, rather than the drudgery that is most driving experiences sitting in crawling traffic travelling to on from work on motorways and the main arterial roads. The Magic Highway foretold in-vehicle navigation and autonomous vehicles. Other concepts included ‘Heavy Freightways’ for truck trains, motorways designed for good vehicles to carry railway volumes of goods with multiple trailers. This is basically the Australian Road Train concept, but rather than transporting the goods in bulk from A to B, the road train would stop and collect a trailer’s worth of goods from different locations.

A windscreen mounted radar, live traffic information sent to your car and a rear view mirror TV screen in the dashboard are all shown. Gas Turbine, Jet or Atom powered cars and maglev as previewed never became a true reality. The Gas Turbine car does exist and a few early examples from the mid-1960s are still in working order. The quick removal of strand vehicles from motorways was something featured that we still haven’t got right today, but perhaps in the future we will.

Our retro futuristic vision seemed to promote the key themes of speed, safety and comfort. Putting speed aside, I firmly believe that the themes of comfort and speed will be realised with the next generation of connected, driverless cars. Watching the urban landscape and family life change around this development is an exciting prospect, promising to bring us that much closer to realising the utopian dreams of the ‘60s.