How Will We Live and Move?
As economies reopen and people end their self-isolation, we need to start asking a lot of questions about how we’re going to live and move around over the next few years. Living is fairly straightforward, (get up, eat, try to work, complain, stream too much TV, go back to bed, wash, rinse, repeat) though challenging for many. We are to continue to keep to ourselves as much as possible, physically distance from others when out in public, wear a mask when physical distancing is difficult and not congregate in large groups.
As spring turns into summer (debatable in most of the north east of the continent owing to an incredible lack of spring-like weather) thoughts turn to summer vacation. There’s been some signs of borders slowly reopening. But will people want to travel outside of their country, or even outside of their home districts?
Countries may have ‘flattened the curve’ in new cases of COVID-19, but really, nothing has changed. There’s no vaccine, there’s no treatment per se for the virus other than the relief of symptoms and it remains a deadly pathogen. Wherever one travels, the risks will be shared with the population you’re joining; if cases are still on the rise, your risk will increase of getting the virus.
But we travel to congregate, to go to Yankee Stadium to cheer and jeer as a group. Theatre patrons share the gasps, laughter and tears of a great show. Wandering the streets of the world’s great cities is annoying because of the crowds and thrilling for the same reason. Watching the sun set over the Santa Monica Pier or marvelling at the skyline of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower is a shared experience.
How are we to share in the future? How do we even get there?
It’s highly unlikely that people will want to travel on commercial airlines for the time being. Sitting in close quarters for four or five hours with strangers and their unknown history of self isolation is a risk many will not undertake. Aircraft can’t just be repurposed into little pods where individuals can be isolated. Similarly, trains aren’t built to carry the majority of passengers in compartments. For continental travel, there’s only one real solution, and that’s to get there by automobile.
What does this mean in terms of automobile development? We can look for accelerated programs for self-driving vehicles. If you really want (or need) to travel from New York to Los Angeles, or from Vancouver to Toronto, you’re going to spend long days on the road. Vehicle comfort will become paramount for long distance travel. Low noise levels, supportive seats, exceptional fuel economy and easy to use connectivity will be attributes that the road warriors of the next few years will demand in their vehicles.
Self Driving – Our Future?
Elon Musk has boasted about (but keeps delaying) an autonomous drive across the United States without touching the steering wheel. Tesla is close, but as they have discovered, as well as many other manufacturers and start-ups, the human brain is pretty good at parsing what’s a hazard and how to react to it. Computers, as of yet, not so much. We don’t always do it well, and I’m all in favour of as many driver aids as possible. After all, more than 35,000 people died in traffic fatalities in 2019 in the United States alone. Imagine an aircraft seating 200 people crashing every day for 175 days in a row. Would that be acceptable for the aviation industry? Pilots are highly trained, experienced and incredibly focussed on what they do. But amateurs are in charge behind the steering wheel, and they are us.
The conditional autonomous driving aids we have currently can ease the burden of long distance travel. A mid-2000s Infiniti G35 could run along a highway on a sunny, dry day at highway speeds without the driver touching the steering wheel or accelerator. G.M.’s Super Cruise receives nothing but praise on how it handles highway driving. Mercedes-Benz and BMW’s autonomous driving modes are getting better all the time. Porsche has had a traffic stop and go mode available for years. These systems will keep getting better.
Careful shopping will be paramount
In the meantime, if you’re shopping for a new vehicle, you’ll need to carefully evaluate how you’re going to use a new vehicle over the next few years. Perhaps it’s changed, but maybe not. Will you be taking long trips? Do you need to take long trips? Will most of your driving be local, and not do very much of that? Will it be business as usual (“the virus is not going to be the boss of me”) and you’ll still need the towing capacity of a Chevy Suburban to get your vintage Chris-Craft from storage to the cottage?
Whichever vehicle you choose, take a moment to consider things like what fuel prices might be in a year from now, or how your driving needs will change between now and next year? Making sure this very important purchase fits your life is more important now than any time in the last 30 years. It may be some time before we can truly share on a grand scale with each other again, but we are built to move and move we will.