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For almost as long as I can remember, people have aspired to own a car. They have pursued and purchased specific marques because they perceived them as cool and desirable. But this pattern of behaviour no longer seems to hold true in the West, with people now mostly opting for utility along with a number of other telling attributes.
The big questions we now ask are:
- Will it get me from A to B in reasonable comfort?
- Will it carry my family and all our stuff?
- How safe is it?
- How reliable is it?
- How much does it cost?
- What is the cost of ownership?
- What does it do to the gallon?
- Does it have a good air-conditioning system?
- Will the entertainment system link with my phone?
- Are there enough drinks holders?
Who cares about brand and design anymore? Cars are designed using the same CAD package and all look alike, and the components are produced by the same plants and merely assembled by the automotive companies, which have become system integrators.
In short, cars are no longer cool, no longer technology. They work all the time under all conditions, and so people commonly perceive them as boring necessities rather than luxuries.
If there is a future for cars, it is a subliminal one. Cars are going to go driverless - yes, driverless, just like elevators, trains and, for a good deal of the journey, modern aircraft.
We can already see the proof-of-principle demonstrators coming out of numerous universities, military projects, and companies such as Google.
What are the implications? How about 90 per cent fewer vehicles on the road and no parking lots; almost no traffic accidents; greater fuel economy; less money and fewer resources wasted; and more up-time for you and me.
Who still enjoys driving? Only a few pistonheads, it would seem. Arguably, we would sooner get on with some work or relax, rather than get tensed up and tired driving on overused and overcrowded roads.
But what do people now aspire to? How about smartphones, laptops and tablets - the iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry et al? These are the new cool, the new technology and the window to an exciting online world offering new freedoms in the same way cars did in the physical world from about 1910 onwards.
So, how long will the new cool last? When it stops being technology. When it all works all the time, every time, trouble-free, and when all the products look the same.
With tablets and smartphones, we're still in the cool stage, but it won't last for ever. Certainly on the issue of a consistent look, we seem to be there as all phones look like black slabs of glass, but we still have some way to go before they achieve complete reliability.
Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.