James May

James May

Come what May

This month, I was going to pen an incisive and thought-provoking piece about the curious smell of the screenwash in my mate’s new BMW 3-Series. But what the hell, it’s the new year, so I’ve decided to stick with a straightforward knockabout subject: the future of transport.

But in case you’re expecting a tiresome rant about integrated strategy, or whatever it is the lefties are always going on about, let me reassure you that I’m talking here about the distant future of transport; a future so remote that we can think only in terms of broad concepts rather than nut’n’bolt practicalities. I find this sort of thing very exciting. In fact, these thoughts have just dragged me out of the puborama, and that normally requires something really momentous, like a kebab.

Weird – I went to the pub intending to do the crossword in The Daily Telegraph, but left with a lucid vision of what will happen long after I’ve qualified for my harp.

Anyway, let’s begin by sorting out what the long-term future of transport isn’t. Firstly, it isn’t public. Public activities have been in decline for generations. We used to have public baths, but now everyone has one in the house. I used to go to the public library, but now I go to amazon.com. Even the public house is under threat as more people turn to fruit-based drinks from France and consume them at home.

If a finance company can ring and offer me a credit card ‘tailored to my individual needs’, there is no reason why I should tolerate a mode of transport that sets off from somewhere other than where I live and arrives at somewhere other than exactly where I want to go, especially if it requires me to snuggle up next to a bloke with ox-felling halitosis.

No, the future of transport is personal.

Which so far has meant a car propelled by internal combustion, something that clearly needs improving. And despite what some people might try to tell me, the electric car isn’t nearly a big enough leap forward for my liking.

Electricity is notoriously difficult to store, tricky to generate cleanly in any appreciable quantity, and a remarkably inefficient way of transferring energy. And even if all these problems could be overcome, electric cars would still make a really irritating noise.

Not bio-fuel, either. This is fine if you live in Brazil, where there aren’t that many cars and millions of spare acres in which to grow rapeseed. But farmland is too precious in places like Europe and the Far East. It’s needed for golf courses. And we should forget any notion of growing bio-fuel crops at home in ‘Dig for Victory’ style – space is at such a premium where I live in west London that it’s as much as I can do to grow a small bay tree at either side of my front step, and I only do that so I can say ‘Oh no, the bay leafs are at the door’.

“Bio-fuel is fine if you have millions of spare acres. But farmland is precious in Europe. It’s needed for golf courses”

So that takes us to the fuel-cell car, which so far looks quite promising. Providing hydrogen can be produced cleanly and stored safely, it’s a zero-emissions vehicle. But even the fuel-cell car fails in one important respect – it’s still a car.

The car has served us well, but its time will pass quite soon. Those who predict global gridlock in 50 years fail to realise that humankind’s insatiable quest for movement will not stop at the new Fiat Panda any more than it stopped at the first dugout canoe. Of course, space is an issue, so rather than try to preserve that which we have, why do we not simply look to where there is still an inexhaustible supply of it? It is time to lift up our heads and cry hallelujah.

The long-term future of transport is not only personal, it’s also in the air. The air offers us movement in three dimensions and, with the exception of the odd Boeing 747 or Fujifilm promotional blimp, it’s completely empty. Look from the window of an aeroplane next time you’re coming in to land and see just how little of the landscape, in pure percentage terms, is covered by roads. And yet we sense that we already have too many of them. Now look back up at the sky and see how vast it is. We can have all of that.

God knows how we will get up there freely and individually, and without a British Airways refreshing moist towelette and packet of pretzels, but we will because it is the obvious way to go. I’m not thinking of small helicopters, personal airships, flying cars or anything else that has been tried before, I’m imagining whizzing around in compact capsules elevated by some means not yet known to us. I’m imagining going from London to Manchester in a dead straight line and without even having to stop at the toll booth on the Midlands Expressway.

I realise that the physics demand something of a leap of faith, but let’s face it – the logistics make complete sense. I couldn’t find a parking space on my road tonight, but there’s room for at least four levitating personal transport capsules on my roof, which is so far used only to store bird shit. And the air is already there for us to use, in the same way the sea was. We just had to invent boats.

Who will take us to the skies? Not transport reformers, because they still see the bicycle as part of the future rather than as an early manifestation of an urge that led naturally to the Porsche Carrera GT. Not the environmentalists either, because they’re too busy growing things. Usually on their faces.

I believe it will be our motor industry. They have the facilities, they have the research and development departments, they have an audience, a ready market, all the really brainy people and, most of all, the incentive. All they need to do is stop thinking of themselves simply as car makers and start thinking of themselves as – and this is how their own marketing people would put it – providers of personal transport solutions.

People tell me that new technology is spoiling the fun of driving. It isn’t. It’s leading us to the stars. I can’t wait.

 

James May, Column

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