Autocar at 125: what will the next 25 years bring?

When contemplating the car’s future, we tend to concentrate on the buzz subjects about which we have talked for some years: electrification, connectivity, car sharing and autonomy. They’re vital topics: working together they promise greater efficiency, safety and convenience than we’ve yet known.

But there are more surprising, less publicised matters heading for radical change, too. In the brave new tomorrow, what will happen to conventional car ownership, for instance? Or insurance costs? Or the simple enjoyment of classic car ownership? Will we still be able to drive freely on the road and obtain (or afford) the fuel we need? Will the fossil-fuel cars we decide to retain attract more punitive taxes than before? One of the fascinations of studying Autocar’s past quarter-century is knowing that all of the above matters – and many more – will be decided before we’re even halfway through the next.

If all new cars are required to be electric from 2035 or sooner, as seems overwhelmingly likely, many of the above decisions will have to be made within the next 10 years. It makes Autocar’s next few years about as different as they could be from the benign and comparatively unchanging period through which we have just lived. Testing times are coming. Here are some of the key points at issue.

Autonomous driving

Don’t ask if it’s coming; it’s already here. Lots of cars can drive down a motorway at a controlled speed between the boundaries of a lane. The difficulty is – and will remain – how to deliver full, safe, hands-off driving in all weather, traffic, light and location conditions. Latest guidance seems to be that Level 4 autonomous driving is very difficult to achieve and the top-tier full Level 5 at least a decade away. Then the issue becomes integration: when it comes, how will it fit into the world of the cars we already have?

Changeover years

We’re accelerating rapidly towards the moment car buyers will be forced to ditch internal combustion and embrace electric. But how will the law change on the way? Will ICE cars be penalised more and more towards the cut-off date? Will there be dispensation or subsidy for zero-CO2 synthetic fuels? (Shell and BP are among those working hard on them now.) Will people who want to buy ICE cars until the last minute – in order to maintain the old order as long as possible – be able to? We will know all of these things within the next decade.

Classic car ownership

There are at least 500,000 classic car owners in this country, and many more people (who are also voters) derive a living trading in them or keeping them going. Millions more aspire to own a classic. But today’s values assume a high degree of usability. A workable system will be needed, post-electrification, to cater for the Ford Mustang or MG B owner who drives a mere 2000 miles per year and won’t take kindly to being punished financially for his harmless hobby. Those who use high-value classics as investments need to know something of the future. No word yet from the authorities, but it must come soon.

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ICE ban timing 

A consultation on the date for the banning of new ICE cars has concluded, but there’s no indication yet of the chosen date or when it will be revealed. It seems that 2035 – 15 years hence – is the most generous likely date, but car makers urgently need to hear more so that they can start planning.

Motorsport’s future

Electric motorsport is developing fast. Electric karts are popular, Motorsport UK is planning electric-only events and Formula E has won plaudits for its use of city centres and impressive support from manufacturers enthusiastic to signal approval for electric propulsion. But try watching an epic Formula 1 race from the past without the sound. We suspect you won’t bother for long. Noise increases drama, and drama will be needed in the electric age. Delivering it is yet another challenge.

Conclusion

The next decade, even more than the next 25 years, will prove critical. Our legislators are imposing enormous curbs on us without outlining how we will live, work with and use our cars. It’s like being signed up for a high-level game without being allowed to see the rules. Clarity is needed – now. Autocar clearly sees its role in this. We must spot changes, assess their relevance, identify experts and dispense their best advice. Challenges lie ahead, but Autocar isn’t daunted. After all, it has already faced 125 years of them.