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Opinion: are cars at risk of extinction in the future?

Doomsayers are predicting the car will go the same way as the horse by the next century. Will it happen?

Published: 15 Apr 2024

In 1924, exactly 100 years ago, a newspaper called the Folsom Telegraph made a bold prediction: that horses would cease to exist within a century. By 2024, it forecast, the world would be horse-free.

The cause of this Great Horse Extinction? The humble motor car. “If horses would decrease in the same ratio as in the last 10 or 20 years,” prophesised the paper, “it might be easy to tell when the last horse would give up his stall to an automobile.”

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It was far from alone in foreseeing a gloomy future for the horse. The Twenties was the true dawn of the automobile age, the car emerging as a machine to transform the lives of millions, not just the monied few.

As enlightened citizens of 2024 – and with 2023 thankfully not ending in the Folsom Telegraph’s predicted horse genocide – it’s easy to mock our forebears’ naivety. In your face, the Folsom Telegraph! We’ve still got horses! Doing the Grand National, acting in prestige period dramas, they’re everywhere! We’ve not killed them off!

Only, we kinda have, haven’t we? Exterminated horses, I mean. Sadly there’s no definitive account of UK horse numbers in 1924, but thanks to the horse census of 1917 (really), we know there were 2.7 million horses in Great Britain that year. Today? Around 850,000 horses in the UK. Which is quite a way from equine extinction, but still a 70 per cent decline in a century. Over the same period, Britain’s car population has increased by some 16,500 per cent. It’s been a poor century to be in the horse game.

Not least because, of those remaining horses, how many are doing anything useful? Back in the Twenties, horses were powering the nation, or at least the muddier corner of it: pulling wagons, ferrying goods, producing job lots of pungent fertiliser. Nowadays in Britain, horses can mostly be filed under ‘expensive, temperamental leisure accessory’.

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Today, in 2024, plenty of commentators predict the same long-term fate for the automobile. Within a century, maybe far less, cars will – they say – be reduced to irrelevance: expensive, temperamental leisure accessories for fogey hobbyists.

Future car enthusiasts, fear not. Auto extinction, not gonna happen. Because here’s the issue that’s really plagued horses over the past century: their total unwillingness to evolve. The horse today, very much the same it was 100 years ago. Lack of ambition from the big lad, if you ask me.

Cars, meanwhile, have been putting in the hard yards, eternally evolving and adapting to a changing world. And they’ll continue to do so, long after Britain’s final horse has been turned into a final giant tube of commemorative Pritt Stick. If humans are still around a century from now (and let’s be honest, doesn’t feel a safe bet at the mo), so will cars be. Now there’s a prediction that definitely won’t look daft in 100 years’ time.

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