Passenger might one day go the way of landline telephones. Everyone was dependent upon them until, somehow, mobile phones became ubiquitous and landlines began fading away. Maurie Cohen, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environment Science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, says the analogy is a good one.
"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 said in an interview with The Atlantic Cities. While automobiles remain embedded in communities around the world, they're likely to follow other icons in transportation history including the sailboat, steamship, canal system, carriage and streetcar. All of these technologies became pervasive and were gradually replaced by the next generation transportation modes – similar to what's happening with phones.
As for what's next, there won't any "cataclysmic moment," Cohen said. "Like any other technology that outlives its usefulness, it just sort of disappears into the background and we slowly forget about it," he said. That's what telephone communications are going through now – your grandmother might still use her landline, but for how long?
Transportation technology change does take a long time – perhaps longer than 100 years. Automobile history was preceded by steam-powered vehicles and the first internal combustion engine. Early car prototypes blew up, wreaking fear on the public. Cars had to become trustworthy and the infrastructure had to follow – roads, gas stations and repair shops – to allow cars to become widely accepted. We saw a video on this very subject just the other day.
There are several signs the era of cars is passing. New vehicle registrations have plateaued in the US even as the population grows. Twentysomethings are less likely to own cars because many just don't care about them, unlike Baby Boomers. So what's next for transportation? Autonomous cars, smart transportation systems, car sharing, and the growing popularity of biking and pedestrian traffic in urban environments are useful indicators to look at.
Cohen thinks it's wise to watch transportation trends in China. While cars were largely developed in the US to fit the American landscape of wide-open spaces and brand-new communities, China faces entirely different conditions. What works in one place might not work elsewhere, Cohen says, and we could see a replay of how the car never worked as well in Florence as it did in Detroit.