Are we all going to drive around in bubble cars? Renault would love it. Just look at that vehicle: a magnet system like high-speed trains to glide above the road, multi-directional, modal so you can add another pod and another – hook up with your mates without slowing down – and presumably when you're sitting in there, lovely friendly voices tell you things you may or may not want to know.
There's probably more chance of the Renault bubble happening than of flying cars – who doesn't feel, even now, just a little let down by the knowledge the Jetson's cars were as fanciful as Fred Flintstone's "pedal" cars? The sixties have a lot to answer for, and one of them is the idea that we can predict the future at all.
Real cars then and in the previous decade looked like aeroplanes. Why? Because research had revealed American car buyers liked the idea of flying a plane. Preferably a rocket-style plane, like Chuck Yeagar, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound.
Now, none of our cars look like planes but they do all look like each other. Which is a relatively new thing: it's not so long since American cars looked different from European cars which looked different from Japanese cars. Now they're all the same, and it's not really because everyone wants to drive a car that looks like it might be a BMW. Aerodynamics is the culprit: when you're heading for that sound barrier you don't want inefficient drag. Not that car manufacturers can put it quite like that. It's about fuel efficiency.
And now, or sometime soon, according to Renault, it's going to be hovering bubble cars.
Almost all the car companies seem to think our future is in sleek pod-shaped devices. I don't know, did any of them see Invasion of the Body Snatchers? (Got to admire that Mercedes with the wagon wheels, though: daring to be different.)
In fact, the futurist pitch isn't much different today from what it was with all those big-finned Cadillacs and Buicks of the 50s. Hovering bubble cars today conjure a future we're all very familiar with, even if we may never live in it, thanks to Anakin Skywalker's podrace on Tatooine and a thousand lesser efforts.
Why are the car companies telling us these things? There's an immutable rule of car company futurism: concept cars never turn into real cars. For every great idea, there are a thousand stupid ones. Such is life.
But there's more to it than that. Car companies are desperate to hold on to what they've got, which is understandable because what they've got is a pretty big thing. It's an idea: hard-wired into the minds of billions of people is the belief that the best way to get around is in your own motor vehicle.
But it isn't true. Not now, for many people. Not in 10 years' time, for most people. Not in 20 years' time, for hardly anyone. It's almost like all those wonderful bubble cars of the future have another purpose: to distract us with the promise of shiny things.
Simon Wilson: It's not climate change, it's a climate crisis
Simon Wilson: Why National is our biggest climate change threat
Costco vs the climate emergency: planning the future of Auckland
I KNOW, predicting the future, it's rash. But somebody's got to do it, because we need planning.
And even though we don't really know what the future will give us to ride around in, we do know it won't be like the cars we have now. One day soon, something disruptive will destroy the vehicle industry as we know it.
It will happen because it has to. We're running out of room on our roads. It's true in empty little countries like New Zealand, but we aren't important enough to drive disruptive change. But it's also true 10 times over in big cities and big countries, where consumer demand really will drive change.
We've got a health crisis, caused in part by lack of activity. We've got enormous population pressure on cities, where most of the world already lives, and fast-growing demands for them to be better to live in. Privately owned cars don't really fit.
And I'll mention it just once: the planet will burn up soon if we don't stop driving cars with internal combustion engines.
We know the change is coming. We just don't yet know how. But we also know that when it comes it will be quick. Smartphones changed the whole world inside 10 years, and that wasn't the first time it's happened.
Futurist Tony Seba, who has visited New Zealand, uses two photographs of 5th Avenue in New York to tell a great story about this. One was taken in 1900, and shows the street full of horse-drawn vehicles: dozens of them. There's one single motorcar. The other was taken in 1913, and shows the street full of cars. There's just a single horse.
Disruption, when it meets a need, happens very fast.
And even if we can't quite imagine what the disruptive technology will be, don't worry. In 1898, also in New York, they convened a 10-day worldwide convention to work out what to do about horse manure. Cities were being buried in it: New York alone had 175,000 horses producing nearly two million tonnes a day.
The convention ended after three days. No one had any new ideas. The motorcar had already been invented but they didn't think it would be the answer.
The lesson's a good one. The question is not: how do we make a better car? It's: how do we meet our transportation requirements? How do we create for ourselves better ways to get around?
THE MOST important innovation in transport in recent times isn't to do with vehicles or with fuel. It's that disruptive smartphone. And no, not because of social media.
Because of your phone, linked to GPS, a new world of shared vehicles is now at your disposal. Uber and other ride share, Lime and other e-scooters, and it won't stop there.
We're in the shakedown phase with those modes right now, but what will emerge – okay, what will probably emerge – is an extremely efficient interlocking set of ride-share options. Why own a vehicle if most of your vehicle needs are at the easy summons of your phone?
Cost favours the ride-share option. Did you know there are four car park spaces for every car? How's that a good use of space? Worked out how much it costs to run a car recently? The AA says $12.30 a day for a small car, but that doesn't include parking or some other costs. There's an estimate on the Squirrel home loans website that suggests $7913 a day, or $21.68 a day, and that also doesn't include parking.
Most Uber trips cost less and most Uber users don't do it every day.
Convenience also favours ride shares, but while that's true for many it's not true for all. If you're running a family around, or using a vehicle to get yourself and your gear to different worksites, as a tradie would, you've got really good reasons for owning your own vehicle.
Smartphones will combine with two other emerging technologies to change private transport.
One is the internet of things. The ability of machines to talk to each other. This is how driverless cars work: with sensors that talk to each other and will be able to coordinate the movement of thousands of vehicles on a road. Will they really catch on? Too hard to say.
The answer is definitely yes in highly controlled environments, like airports, private estates and corporate industrial parks. Driverless shuttle buses are already rolling out of the factories.
Silicon Valley will embrace driverless vehicles, and will probably become the great testing ground for all varieties, from tiny pods to big snaking tram/trains. They'll do it so we don't have to. Good for them.
Driverless cars will undoubtedly be safer than those trusted to drunk, tired, distracted, incompetent and over-confident humans. Still, the prospect of an accident caused by one seems more frightening. For some reason, if a child is run down by a machine, it's worse if that machine had no one in charge of it. I'm not sure why that is.
The other emerging technology that will change everything is alternative fuel. But which one? Or will it be more than one?
The Government has committed research money to hydrogen, and because the oceans are full of it, there's potentially no supply problem. But extracting hydrogen from seawater for industrial-scale use isn't easy. Hydrogen has its fans but it's not the obvious answer.
What about microgeneration? Will the day come when solar and/or wind generation and battery storage are so efficient we can all make our own power? I've always fancied the idea of roof paint that acts as a solar panel, but that hasn't exactly changed the world yet.
One way or another, if electric vehicles do change the world, we're going to need a lot more electricity and it can't come from fossil fuels or nuclear generation, in New Zealand there's no appetite for more dams on rivers, and even wind farms, big and noisy, have their opponents.
Just wait till we start in with solar farming, with hectares of solar panels covering the ground as is now common in parts of Europe. It's not pretty.
WHAT IS the future of cars, really? It's not about the cars so much as it's about the use. We'll be invited to rethink what we need them for. We'll have much better public transport in the cities, although progress is slower than it should be. We'll have more ride-share options.
As the bike networks evolve, riding will be easier and safer. Thinking maybe about bikes? Seriously, talk to any rider about just how rewarding it is.
Right now, households on a tight budget buy the best vehicle they can afford. Most households try to buy a vehicle suitable for the most extreme use they will put it to, which is usually going on a holiday. But what it we broke up our needs?
Commuting isn't the same as managing a busy family life, so the vehicle solutions don't need to be the same. Getting around town during the week, to go to meetings, lunch with friends, a dinner and show: they definitely don't need the same solution as, say, supermarket shopping.
How about this? If you didn't have a car for any of the day by day, the money you'd save would allow you to hire a pretty cool set of wheels, e-powered of course, for that holiday weekend. The planet would thank you too.