2020 is one of those years. No, not in that sense (well, obviously in that sense but that’s not what we’re talking about here…). No, 2020 is one of those years that tends to crop up in 20th century science fiction as a key year, a momentous one. A year by which time certain prophecies will have come true.
Back in the seventies, publisher Jerry Pournelle published an anthology book called 2020 Vision, for which he sought contributions from such noted sci-fi authors as Harlan Ellison, Larry Niven, and Ben Bova. While some of the predictions, such as robot chefs, deep-space exploration by humans, and, erm, "An adult playground where law is enforced by remote control" haven't come to pass (unless I'm missing something…) a few did. Several of the stories have mentions of mobile communication technology, while Prognosis: Terminal by David McDaniel posits a future where there is "a gigantic world brain to which everyone is infinitely connected." Sounds like the internet to me…
If sci-fi writers of the seventies can be on the money with their future predictions, surely those designing our cars can be even closer to the futuristic bullseye from a little bit closer? Well, perhaps not. A few predictions for motoring, that were supposed to have come to pass by 2020, have… not done so.
Volvo’s prediction for 2020 was possibly the most ambitious. While the Swedish car maker has moved a long way on from its one-time position as a maker of things that are boxy but good, it still has safety at the very core of its corporate DNA. Hence, back in 2013, why Volvo predicted that by this year, no-one who is driving or sitting as a passenger in a Volvo car would be killed or even seriously injured in an accident.
"With the Non-Hit Car and Truck project, we've taken a significant step towards realising the vision that by 2020 no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car" said Anders Almevad, who in 2013 was the project manager working on Volvo's safety plans. "The technology is also imperative for the development of self-driving cars, which will be able to automatically steer and brake to avoid collision with any object in any situation. Our primary objective is to focus on preventing different types of accident scenarios. But going forward, we will also continue to work on developing cars that adapt to each individual driver's unique behaviour" he said at the time.
Well? Has it happened? Possibly not, although Volvo won't give us a clear and direct answer as to whether someone, anyone, has thus far this year died or been injured in an accident involving one of its cars. "Over the past decade, we have tremendously mitigated injuries and reduced fatalities in accidents involving Volvo cars" Maria McEnery, Volvo's marketing executive for Ireland, told The Irish Times. "We have increased the performance in classic crashworthiness and pioneered the area of collision avoidance putting new functions as standard in our vehicles. Volvo Cars' safety vision remains that none should be seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo and in order to reach zero traffic fatalities, we will focus on the three areas – intoxication, distraction and speed – identified as the gap."
But as to whether the once-aimed at target is actually going to be reached? Well, Volvo does seem to be walking that back just a little. “This Safety Vision is not a target for us to reach, but a vision to guide us in making our cars safer for all” said McEnery. “Autonomous driving has an enormous potential to save lives once the technology has been implemented on a broader scale, but Volvo will not wait for autonomous driving to solve the safety issue. As an example, last year we implemented a top speed limit of 180 km/h to start a discussion around speeding. We have also announced in-car cameras will be implemented on the next generation of cars to prevent accidents form happening due to distraction or intoxication.”
Rather like John F Kennedy promising a Moon landing the day after Alan Shepherd's sub-orbital Mercury hop, we were then promised chargers for all
To be fair to Volvo, if anyone is ever going to build a 100 per cent safe car, it'll probably be the Swedes. Two years ago, the safety experts at Thatcham Research in the UK found that no-one had been killed, either as a driver or a passenger, in Volvo's big XC90 SUV between 2004 and 2017. That's not quite – not even close to – the original 2020 promise, but we suppose it's at least a pretty big step in the right direction.
OK, what about one of the other big 2020 promises – electric cars? Back in 2010 we gathered in a quiet car park in Kildare to drive a prototype Nissan Leaf (still wearing the bodywork of an old Tiida hatch) in some gentle circles. Rather like John F Kennedy promising a Moon landing the day after Alan Shepherd's sub-orbital Mercury hop, we were then promised chargers for all, and for ten per cent of all new car sales to be battery-powered by 2020. Er…
The actual figure, as of this week, is 3.59 per cent of all sales being electric (although that does grow to 6.17 if you generously include plugin-hybrids). So, we didn’t manage that, either. Why not?
Paddy Magee, country operations manager for Renault Ireland, which along with Nissan was a major pioneer in the early days of electric motoring, reckons he knows why, and it's not the cars. "The changeover to electric cars represents a huge and fundamental switch in the way we drive. The vehicles themselves – and the pace at which their technology develops – are a huge part of the change, and have arguably reached the point where uptake could be several times what it is today, especially on a small island like ours. But the infrastructure, the government supports and even the cultural impact of electric cars are all equally important" Magee explains.
"Ireland's 3.6 per cent is by no means the lowest – Italy, Spain and Belgium are all well below 3 per cent. However, only one market has an electric car share over 10 per cent – that's Norway at 48 per cent. The Netherlands is not far off, at 9.1 per cent. This suggests that the 10 per cent target was possible. The huge variation by country shows that government policy is a major influencing factor in electric car uptake. Ireland has done some things right in terms of promoting electric car uptake. But we expect that you will write to us again in 2030 to ask where the promised one million electric cars are. Ireland's approach has been characterised by big, bold announcements, half-heartedly supported by inconsistent actions. That once world-class public charging infrastructure was allowed to stagnate and fall into disrepair during a years-long argument over its ownership, while the fact that companies were not allowed charge for its use meant there was no incentive for competitors to take up the slack."
Oh, and it's not just down to the infrastructure. Magee believes that the Government needs to take a long, deep, drink of its own medicine too: "According to SIMI figures, state agencies and public bodies have bought 11 electric cars so far this year. That's not quite three per cent of their total and suggests that nobody in Government really believes their own announcements. The Government needs to have a look at how proactive An Post have been, they have made a decision to go electric on their Van Fleet and have really pushed this and are a leading example in Ireland and indeed Europe of how it can be done successfully."
Finally, what about flying cars? Technically, these are more of a 2019 prediction – the work of director Ridley Scott and 'futurologist' Syd Mead on the still-astonishing 1982 sci-fi classic Balde Runner – but hey, they should still be here, right?
The so-called 'flying cars' that are, apparently, coming down the pipe are actually more of a hybrid of drones and small, personal, helicopters
There are more than a few who will tell you that flying cars are imminent, but that imminence depends very much on how you categorise what a flying car is. If you mean a machine that can effortlessly switch between driving on the road to soaring above it, well, you’re out of luck. The so-called ‘flying cars’ that are, apparently, coming down the pipe are actually more of a hybrid of drones and small, personal, helicopters. They will still require dedicated landing spaces, and they’ll – theoretically– be controlled by autonomous autopilots for short intra-city hops.
Speaking at an event in 2019, Toyota's boss, Akio Toyoda, certainly hinted that the Japanese giant was keen on getting into the flying-not-cars game, especially with its luxury Lexus brand. Toyoda said: "Toyota itself is trying to transform from an automotive company to a mobility company and in order to enhance the value of the Lexus brand we need to cover land, sea and also air." When he was asked if the "and air" bit of that reply meant Toyota might be working on an aircraft, Toyoda simply said that we should wait and see.
Toyota is known to be at least partially keen on the flying car idea, having filed a US patent in 2018 not for a fully-fledged flying car as such, but for concepts and engineering ideas which may lead to one. Now, though, Toyota is going a step further, investing a reputed €400,000 into a startup flying car company whose aim had been to have a personal flying machine ready into time to light the flame of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
There's also Toyota cash being pumped into a startup firm called Cartivator, but that company is itself composed entirely of Toyota employees, working together on flying car concepts since 2012, using online crowdfunding. Speaking to Nikkei Asian Review, Toyota chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada said "things will not progress if you wait and provide money only when the technology is ready." Currently Carviator is a weekend and spare time project of this group of Toyota engineers, working out of an old school building in Aichi Prefecture, but they have already demonstrated a one-fifth scale model of the flying car making low-level prototype flights.
Check back with us in 2030 to see what other promises have been made and broken. We'll take the call from our hovering Apple-branded flying car, inbetween taking our protein pills and having Netflix streamed directly to our cerebral cortexes. You just see if we don't…