Like many boys, I became a car nut in my early teens. I can remember the very first exposure that initiated me into the vast universe of automobiledom. It wasn’t a shiny, sleek car body or throaty exhaust note but a line drawing in an old textbook I found in my school library. The image showed the optimized aerodynamic shape for an automobile.
Of course in my youthful naivete I was easily seduced by the idea that a known perfect solution to a problem seemed to exist. Using this ideal shape as a starting point I started sketching my vision of ‘the perfect car’. Hundreds of attempts and several years later, I matured enough to accept that perfection is not attainable in reality.
Compromise begins from the moment the car’s potential market is defined. Assumptions have to be made about what buyers might want, or how they might use the vehicle. Or if no particular market is targeted – say we want to invent the ‘everyman’ car – then it has to satisfy everyone’s needs. It has to have the interior space of a van, the exterior size of a subcompact, the off-road ability of a truck, the performance of a supercar, the comfort of a luxury car and the cost of an econobox.
Clearly, these are mutually exclusive properties. Even price is a compromise all on its own. Do we make the car cheap to buy, or make it a bit more costly so it’s equipped with features that make it cheaper to own over the long run? I gave up, it’s impossible.
And that’s when it started to get fun!
Since the perfect car is an impossibility we might as well specify outlandish performance criteria for it, with no restriction of any kind. In that case, the perfect car has unlimited storage, while being infinitely small. It goes anywhere, and travel is instantaneous and soothing, and it’s not just cheap but actually pays people to use it. It also never breaks down, never gets stuck in traffic, never pollutes, and never hits anything. Now that’s a perfect car!
Somehow, by adding these fantastical performance expectations to the design criteria, the real-world image of the perfect car has come more sharply into focus when accounting for some recent developments in technology. And it reveals that we seem to be on a path towards that ideal, though we still can never reach it.
Crashes and pollution, for example, are likely to reduce with the advent of fully autonomous vehicles, and with cars built and powered using green energy.
While those technologies remain somewhere on the horizon, a present trend which addresses some of our ‘perfect’ requirements is the growth in car sharing services. These allow users to order up only as much car as they need, only when they need it, sort of like an infinitely re-sizeable car! A rationale which can also apply to old-tech rental cars, cabs, or transit. Though car sharing is close to our ideal because it enables owners to make money from their cars if they offer them on a sharing platform.
More ‘perfect’ requirements can be addressed with online meeting and collaboration tools, allowing us to work from afar in real time, offering that instant and easy ‘travel’ that we also imagined earlier. Though to be fair, that only moves electrons. Moving tangible objects that easily will require the development of large scale teleportation, which remains a fantasy even in this marvelous age of transparent TVs and shoes that order pizza! Until that day, cars will remain an indispensable component of the transportation mix.
This ‘cars plus’ vision is the line of thinking that has lead me to create Wheelist, which remains at its heart my stubborn attempt to conceive the perfect car. The evidence seems to indicate that furthering my goal requires these technological changes, combined with behavioural ones. Online shopping is an example of both. In that same vein, we can open up the door to even more optimization if we make lifestyle choices like buying local produce, and living and working in the same neighbourhood. These choices then unlock shorter-range transportation options like bikes, scooters, (electric or not) and of course walking. How else are your shoes gonna order that pizza?
All this means the poor schlub you see walking down the street may not be hopelessly destitute, but rather an inspired soul using the perfect automobile solution for his needs at that moment. No different than a supercar or 4×4 owner would be inspired for whipping their rides around a challenging course.
The old one-size-fits-all vision of relying on cars to open up new worlds for the average Joe has worked well enough in the past but that solution was never perfect. Because it can’t be. The limits of that strategy have been reached, particularly in congested urban centres. The next step in the endless path to perfection requires change, adaptation, and more transportation options.
Which conveniently aligns with the Wheelist motto; Revolution. Progression. Motion.