Why the age of individuality is over





Grant Gibson


The V&A’s latest exhibition, Cars: Accelerating the Modern World, has much to recommend it. The first thing visitors see even before they get into the show is an E-Type Jaguar – still in my opinion one of the most beautiful objects ever made. This particular model though contains a surprise: the old classic has been converted to run an electric, emission-free engine.


It sets the tone neatly because Cars emphatically hasn’t been created with the petrol head in mind. Yes, there are some delightful designs, including the Tatra T77, which introduced the notion of streamlining to an unsuspecting public; the Ford Mustang Fastback, a muscle car for the masses; and, rather wonderfully, the Patent-Motorwagen No 3 created in 1888 by Karl Benz and the first production automobile ever made. 


However, the show is as much concerned with the profound effect the car has had on society, as it is the object itself. So, visitors see how, for example, Fordism changed the manner in which our products are manufactured. There’s plenty too on our changing attitude to oil consumption and how rapidly petrol created a new world order, making certain nations very wealthy, very quickly. And it also illustrates adroitly how the car permanently altered nations through roadbuilding programmes. “No matter the political regime, forging a robust car industry and highway network became an almost universal nation-building strategy”, opines one of the information panels. 


If there is a flaw in this show, it is that transport’s future is only briefly alluded to as visitors are leaving – this is in the shape of the Pop.Up Next prototype, created last year by a combination of Italdesign, Audi and Airbus. So, it’s worth asking in an age which is, often painfully, attempting to wean itself off the combustion engine: what can we expect next? 


Credit: California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries


Well, a combination of sharing, autonomy and electrification would appear to be the most obvious next step. Electric and hybrid cars are becoming increasingly commonplace of course. Tesla’s Model Y - its first compact crossover - will be launched next year and could hit the market at a (sort of) reasonable £36,000. For those of you interested in this kind of thing, it will be able to do 0-60mph in a rapid 3.5 seconds and has a range of 298 miles. 


Cars like this will help reduce noise and pollution but won’t lower levels of traffic. However, things are changing as generations shift. While the boomers were obsessed by cars and consumption, Millennials raised under the spectre of climate change and 2008’s banking crisis are taking a very different approach. For them, it makes no sense that people spend so much money on an object they barely use which subsequently sits dormant on the street. John Zimmer, Co-Founder of the ride-hailing service Lyft, writes in his essay ‘The Third Transportation’ that the average vehicle is used only 4% of the time and parked the other 96%. On that basis alone, individual ownership doesn’t seem viable. Sharing schemes have to be the way forward. 


Meanwhile, self-driving cars should prevent accidents and significantly bring down the death toll on our roads. They may also allow designers to have a little fun, as Dominic Wilcox, who possesses one of the industry’s more inventive minds, illustrated in 2014 with a project for MINI and Dezeen. He envisaged a future where autonomous vehicles won’t crash making many of the safety features of a conventional car redundant. That being the case, he hypothesised that they could therefore be made out of completely different materials, such as stained glass. It’s a beautiful, lyrical piece of thinking. 


Credit: The Stained Glass Driverless Sleeper Car, Dominic Wilcox


It seems our cities will become quieter, safer, less polluted places. With fewer cars there will be more public, walkable space and room for new housing where car parks once stood. People are beginning to feel the effects of this new thinking in Oslo - in 2015, the City Council called for a full ban on cars in the city centre. But after objections from local businesses who were worried about falling sales and delivery problems, they instead elected to remove parking spaces and in doing so, make it harder for the motorist. Increasingly the city is giving priority to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport, and has added new trams and metro lines, reversing a century of received planning wisdom. As Hanne Marcussen, Oslo’s Vice Mayor of Urban Development, told Fast Company earlier in the year, “I am certain that when people imagine their ideal city, it would not be a dream of polluted air, cars jammed in endless traffic, or streets filled up with parked cars”. Quite. 


If we did have the chance to start again, what might a car-less city look like? If plans for China’s Xiongan New Area, a little outside Beijing, are fully realised we may be about to find out. Goals include integrating existing historic villages into the new city as well as restoring the Baiyangdian Lake - China’s largest body of fresh water – along with planting more trees to create new forests with the aim of ultimately establishing a National Park. The authorities plan to provide a fast, efficient transport network and promote a low-carbon lifestyle by using energy saving materials and techniques in its construction. Cars are to be eschewed. According to President Xi, the new city will become “a demonstration area for innovative development...and should prioritise ecological protection and improve people’s well-being”. Time will tell. 


Credit: The Xiong’an New Area, China Briefing


Whilst potentially it will be an incredibly creative period for transport designers and planners alike, it leaves traditional manufacturers in a state of flux, and it has been fascinating to watch some well established brands diversify. MINI, for example, has started to become a developer, creating co-living spaces in cities like Shanghai. 


Other predictions? The vast amounts of data our smart cities generate will produce more and larger data centres, which are set to become an architectural typology in their own right. Almost certainly these huge buildings will be situated where they can get easy accesses to sustainable sources of power and cooling (so near the sea). At the same time the need to process information from sensors without delay – to prevent cars crashing into each for example – suggests new, smaller ‘edge’ data centres will take their place. In a sense data will operate a little like our major food retailers have – with larger out of town centres catering for the big shop and smaller local, convenience stores for smaller items consumers need instantly. 


As the V&A exhibition proves, cars have shaped the twentieth century, elevating a sense of individualism that towards ultimately led to the election of neo-liberal figures like Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher. Whatever the future holds you sense it has to be more egalitarian. 


Grant Gibson was once the proud owner of a Sinclair C5.