Technology has always been a key feature of the motorcar. But while mechanical engineering has continued to develop steadily, it is in the area of computing/electronics that the real leaps have been made.
Almost all new car systems are now dependent on computers to enable them to work. Engine management, braking, steering, SatNav and in-car entertainment all use the very latest computing technology to enhance the driving experience, improve safety and maximise performance.
There has also been a dramatic reduction in cost, thereby enabling similar technology to be present on the most expensive and cheapest cars.
But it is now time to question whether technology is the solution to safety issues that many people have viewed it as. While passive technologies undoubtedly make driving safer and reduce the number of accidents, active technology can work against this. As cars have become easier to drive, motorists are in danger of being lulled into a false sense of security that allows them to be distracted. Some of the distraction, such as radio/CDs and heating controls, have been around for decades, while the newer ones such as mobile phones and SatNav just add to the list.
As new technology has changed our cars, so we should be changing the way we are taught to drive. We need to teach drivers to use technology in the most effective way, to help ensure that they are not distracted by active technology. It is important that motorists use active technology responsibly while gaining a fuller understanding of the passive safety features in their car.
Technology has transformed the way we drive. We are safer, more comfortable and have more entertainment options. We have SatNav to tell us where to go and traffic information that tells us what traffic jams to avoid.
The future will bring cars that are more active in their environment as opposed to the being purely responsive to the inputs of the driver. They will be able to communicate with other cars to avoid accidents, use the roads more effectively and improve levels of safety.
There has been a dramatic reduction in environmental damage through reduced toxicity of emissions. But cutting CO2 emissions remains a major challenge. Technology will not be able to provide the whole answer to reducing CO2 emissions in the short to medium term. Viable truly zero CO2 emission cars are still a long way from reality when R&D;, production, fuel source i.e. power stations and disposal is taken into consideration.
The key challenge to these alternative energy sources is yielding the same level of performance - speed and range - as fossil fuels without requiring significant periods to refuel.
Our whole economy is based on the ability to move around quickly and easily. Over the past 20 years we have become more dependent on the car to do that. If personal mobility is to be reduced, who will determine this, Government or popular consent? This is a thorny subject, fraught with difficulty but one that will need to be addressed.
The third and final 2008 RAC Report on Motoring will look at these issues in detail.
Appendix A: about this report
Predictions over the next 20 years