This prediction sounds bold primarily for the fact that most of us don’t think about technology – or the history of technology – in century-long increments: “We’re probably closer to the end of the automobility era than we are to its beginning,” says Maurie Cohen, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “If we’re 100 years into the automobile era, it seems pretty inconceivable that the car as we know it is going to be around for another 100 years.”
Cohen figures that we’re unlikely to maintain the deteriorating Interstate Highway System for the next century, or to perpetuate for generations to come the public policies and subsidies that have supported the car up until now. Sitting in the present, automobiles are so embedded in society that it’s hard to envision any future without them. But no technology – no matter how essential it seems in its own era – is ever permanent. Consider, just to borrow some examples from transportation history, the sailboat, the steamship, the canal system, the carriage, and the streetcar…
“The replacement of the car is probably out there,” Cohen adds. “We just don’t fully recognize it yet.”
In fact, he predicts, it will probably come from China, which would make for an ironic comeuppance by history. The car was largely developed in America to fit the American landscape, with our wide-open spaces and brand-new communities. And then the car was awkwardly grafted onto other places, like dense, old European cities and developing countries. If the car’s replacement comes out of China, it will be designed to fit the particular needs and conditions of China, and then it will spread from there. The result probably won’t work as well in the U.S., Cohen says, in the same way that the car never worked as well in Florence as it did in Detroit.
In our modern world, 100 years is a long time for a technology to hold on. While I imagine there is some technology that would be better than cars, it is harder to imagine the complete overhaul that would have to take place to replace the car. What happens to all of the roads and asphalt? What happens to the garage which has become a more prominent feature of houses? What happens to cities that based their planning around the most efficient pathways for cars? What about the oil industry and auto makers?
Cohen also notes that change could come from China. What if end up in a world where certain countries use a replacement technology for cars because of its efficiency, their larger populations, etc. while wealthier countries like the United States retain their use of the automobile?
Of course, Cohen is correct to note that it is hard to see the future from the present. This may seem like a very silly discussion looking back several decades from now…