Landing at Schiphol airport this week to attend a Blockchain conference, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a fleet of all-electric (Tesla) taxis waiting silently to pick up passengers. Airport authorities in Amsterdam have recently decreed that emissions from conventional engines are far too high and only electric taxis will be permitted at the taxi stand. This is not surprising since, no restrictions will come into force next year in Frankfurt that gas or diesel engine cars will not be permitted to enter the city.
Such is the awareness about the health hazards of nitrogen oxides emitted from diesel engines that drivers in Germany will soon have to change their engines or buy new electric cars in order to comply. Needless to say, electric vehicles have an instrumental role in driving the transition to a low carbon economy and European cities look forward to a future dominated by them.
This will certainly make it easier to live and breathe in the major cities, especially so in Malta where emissions are high. The question is raised – can we afford to plan for an all-electric transition given the thousands of ageing oil burners roaming the streets? Having registered a 7.5% of GDP increase in the third quarter of the year, this augurs well to afford the extra millions needed to plan how to cut emissions.
The other cherry on the cake is the good news about government debt. This is on a firm downward trajectory thanks to economic growth, declining to 48.1% of GDP from a high of 73% in 2012 due partly to private consumption. This is projected to remain the main driver of growth, while capital investment is to increase mainly on the back of the frenetic growth in construction. Net exports are expected to contribute only modestly to GDP growth, as domestic demand fuels more imports.
Apart from car emissions, there are other headaches arising out of our race for economic growth. Employers face a lack of trained staff, whereas on, a positive note, this Christmas retailers are making hay while the sun shines due to improved consumer confidence and a growing disposable income. Black Friday last month was the best ever for retailing.
Even the latest Central Bank report is upbeat. The fly in the ointment is the rapid growth in vehicles which, as stated above, is partly the result of affluence. Close to 380,000 ageing vehicles (almost one for each resident – mostly imported second-hand) clog the narrow streets and this is making commuting a daily nightmare. Welcome to the streets in Istanbul.
Government is daringly allocating €100 million to upgrade the roads but this is only a palliative. The solution is not an easy one. Car emissions are exacerbated by an increase in tourist arrivals (now planned to reach three million) which creates a bionetwork of a carcinogenesis cloud. Malta is not Beijing. Noble efforts have been made to remove registration tax on electric cars (not hybrid) but they are still expensive and the island has a limited number of charging bays.
The concept of a robotaxi pool is still alien and Uber does not operate here. As stated earlier, car ownership is endemic. The good news is that we read about the future use of self-drive cars and the prediction that this will make car ownership less popular.
If robotaxis become mainstream, then there will be a drastic drop in the number of cars on roads. Driverless cars are the future and firms like Tesla in Silicon Valley are investing heavily in such technology. Still, there is no denying that conventional car manufacturers, like Mercedes, GM, Ford, Volkswagen, BMW and Toyota are keen to join the gravy train. They aggressively invest in auto tech which they hope will enable them to be among the first to produce autonomous cars.
By 2025, one anticipates that Europe will witness a number of fully tried and tested autonomous vehicles. The question is – are we ready in Malta to face this revolution? Will our town planners embrace the challenge of fewer cars on the roads and design new flyovers and super highways to meet the future demand for novelties powered by Artificial Intelligence (A.I)? In the USA, there is a massive interest towards autonomous vehicles which has slowed the design of conventional vehicles running internal combustion engines.
It is a race to the bottom. Europeans want to replicate Tesla’s adventure with a dream to develop its own technology and software that leads to the manufacture of safe and efficient electric cars. Tesla are experimenting with autonomously driven vehicles – all fearlessly relying on the use of multiple sensors and advanced computers to transport passengers from A to B in comfort.
All this at one third of the cost of traditional car ownership. Many now see technology firms as being better placed than carmakers to develop and profit from the software that will underpin automated driving (The Economist, 2016). Is this the death knell for future car ownership in big cities? In the UK, Jaguar Land Rover’s announced its policy to hire 5,000 more people to enhance its expertise in autonomous and electric technology – 1,000 of which will be electronic – and software engineers.
It goes without saying that autos of a bygone age such as the legendary Ford “T’ cars, once a superlative feat of mechanics, have given way to electronic marvels on wheels. Armed with sensors like Mobileye they now have the capability of parallel parking, seeing and heeding oncoming traffic, predicting merge time and gauging accurate speed. Readers may ask; Is this fantasy land or a true prediction of what may hit our roads in the medium term?
Transport technology will use A.I, allowing people to borrow cars temporarily and drop them off where they want. Car ownership will gradually become merely a status symbol for enthusiasts/collectors but the general public will disown cars and gradually endear itself to cheap rides on shared cars. It is a joy not having to bother where to park. Needless to say, park and ride schemes will die a natural death.
It’s easy to imagine where these trends point: imagine how autonomous cars won’t need drivers and, could theoretically come to your door. In fact, some predict that Europeans will only buy autonomous, electrical powered cars by 2035 and that this labels fossil fuelled vehicles as dinosaurs.
With this sobering thought that promises clean air and blue skies, it will warm our hearts and make us hope for a better Christmas to come.