Last month Wards Auto published a story pointing out that the world's motor vehicle count was now over 1 billion. As could be expected, registered vehicles in China grew by 27.5 percent to 78 million last year.
Don't worry; the U.S. is still well ahead in the who-has-the-most-cars race with 240 million registered vehicles, but I am afraid that the Japanese have fallen into second place. The thought occurred, that if we squeezed a bit, all seven billion of us currently inhabiting the earth with a little organization might be able to climb aboard a car, truck or bus and go for a simultaneous ride - just before the fossil fuel age comes to an end.
I was curious as to whether Wards could draw any profound conclusions from this milestone, but other than mentioning that it took 24 years to go from 500 million to a billion vehicles and that the global vehicle fleet grew by 35 million last year, there was little of note. Those 35 million new gas tanks that hit the road last year should give peak oil doubters some insight into why it will become increasingly difficult to keep up with new demand for oil.
This milestone, however, is a good opportunity to ponder just where transportation is going in the next 25 years and beyond. There are of course many unknowns to this question, but trends are already in place.
The most important development affecting the automobile over the next quarter century will be the amount of economic growth that can take place in an era of shrinking natural resources - minerals, food, water, good climatic conditions. While some corners of the globe should be able to grow for a while, these situations are likely to have very short half-lives. For most of mankind, the next 25 years and beyond will be an era of contracting economies and smaller pies.
In the United States, we have reached the stage where there is a motor vehicle for every 1.3 people and at least one for every licensed driver. This situation is unlikely to obtain in an era of little or no economic growth, limited employment opportunities and undreamed of energy costs. It is highly unlikely that there will be anything approaching 240 million registered vehicles in the U.S. 25 years from now. From the vantage point of 2011, it seems probable that many will not be able to afford to own and operate personal motor vehicles of the size and types we have today
The configuration and energy consumption of vehicles are likely to undergo more changes in the next 25 years than they have in the last 100. After all, the car and truck of 1910 was not all that much different than what we have today. Given what we now think of as high gas prices, vehicle manufacturers are falling all over themselves in efforts to produce much more fuel efficient vehicles.
In the U.S. we are now facing standards requiring that cars achieve an average of 54.5 MPG 15 years from now. First will come all sorts of weight reductions, such as eliminating spare tires, and adding more plastic and aluminum parts. Engines will become more efficient and car bodies will become more aerodynamic. All this will be good for another five or maybe 10 miles per gallon, but to get to savings envisioned in the new regulations, we are going to see a widespread change to more hybrid or all electric vehicles. The most efficient of these vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius, are already meeting the standards envisioned for 2025. Although these changes will be costly, it does not take much arithmetic to conclude that if energy costs are three or four times higher than they are today then mileage will become the key factor by which motor vehicles are judged.
Detractors of these new mileage standards are usually people who have little grasp, or prefer not to think about where real energy costs are going to be 15 years from now. They point out the advanced materials required to build a low-weigh, high mileage, vehicles will be so great that it will push cars beyond what many, if not most, can afford. There is probably a lot of truth in this if one thinks of cars only in the manner that most of us do - hulking things with 4,6, or more seats that are in most cases rarely used.
The message here is that an all-purpose motor vehicle that can move 6-10 people 300 miles in exquisite comfort in any weather is what we will no longer be able to afford. Specialized motor vehicles ranging from electric bicycles and tricycles through one or two passenger cars can be manufactured and operated for a tiny fraction of the average car on the road today. The folks over at Volkswagen say they are about to announce a single seat electric car that will be powered only by renewable energy. They have already demonstrated a two passenger car capable of 260 miles per gallon. In short the form factor for cars and trucks has got to change to something more efficient.
Many in America love the iconic full-sized pickup, yet a quick survey will reveal that most are being driven around by one person with nothing in the back - at great expense to the future of the global oil supply. Wouldn't it be better if those who really needed to move the occasional pickup sized load had something equivalent to a micro tractor-trailer that would not require that thousands of pounds of useless steel be dragged around behind one person going to the store.
Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.