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Simon Tay: Future of cars is in being fun

The future of cars may well lie in their transformation from useful transportation tool into fun-to-drive boys’ toys.

Besides desirables like watches (often with complications) and trophy women (often also complicated), the one toy for boys that most merits attention today is the car.

This amalgam of metal, rubber and plastics has come to represent a heady concoction of speed, technology, prestige and sense of individual freedom. Man’s history of love with automobiles is legendary. But the future will be different.

Private cars – in the way we know and use them – may become extinct. Blame traffic jams and concerns with air pollution and climate change. Public transport must increasingly be the logical response. Technology is driving (pardon the pun) change. Cars that park themselves are a reality and trial efforts point to the real possibility of driverless cars.

Will cars continue as boys’ toys?
My late father always had a weekend car. There was once an MGA and a beast of an Austin Healey 3000, but our favourite was a Mercedes-Benz 190SL. The weekend car was something to take the top down for a fun drive out to Changi Point or along the West Coast ridge.

At age 19, with limited means, I had to decide between a practical used Japanese saloon and one of those old-time, two-door sports cars. A 1958 Austin Healey “bug eye” Sprite was the fun and obvious choice. Rebuilt and painted red (what else), it was also impractical – more than once breaking down along the road and, if there was a sudden downpour, with a roof that did not rise at the push of a button.

When I bought a VW Golf Cabriolet in the 1980s, the quintessential hot hatch seemed eminently sensible. Even today, at 33 years old, this continues to serve as my weekend car. For the working week, a quiet, easy-to-drive hybrid does the job. This is an automotive equivalent to having both a wife and a girlfriend.

But times are changing. My father used to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day and, now, just about everyone agrees this is bad. So might having a car be the unacceptable habit of the future? Emerging trends point in that direction. Bicycling is enjoying a renaissance, especially in crowded urban centres of the West. Even downtown London and New York have pioneered bike-sharing schemes.

Some surveys suggest that the young have no strong desire to own a car and prefer public transport. When the need arises, car-sharing schemes offer a solution. Wi-Fi, GPS and intelligent software can be combined so that shared-vehicle use can be automated to get us from point A to B more safely and economically.

Some believe that technology companies like Google and Apple will build such vehicles and disrupt the car industry. Think of how Apple Store has all but killed off chains of DVD and music stores. Will the iCar do the motoring equivalent? That is within the realm of possibility. But, when I get into a Porsche Macan and start the engine, my foot instinctively gives the accelerator a blip, just to hear the power-filled note of the six cylinders. As befits the “U” in its SUV acronym, there is utility – four doors, four seats and a sizeable carrying load. But it is what the “S” signifies – sports – that makes the Macan special and a hit around the world.

Back to the future
The Macan does zero to 100kmh in less than five seconds. What’s more, it handles corners and curves much as a sleek Porsche sports car does, outshining the bigger Cayenne and Panamera, as well as similar-sized SUVs by other makers.

It’s a car not only for its looks, crafted interior and practicality, but also for the visceral sensation of the driving. If you like driving, this is a car that makes you love it. Today, this may be a boys’ toy luxury. But this same quality may prove essential in the future of the car. When public transport meets the needs of many people and the last mile is served by shared, automated cars (or some electric bicycles), having a personal car that you pilot for yourself will have only one essential reason: that driving experience.

Such a future is a return to the past. In the 1880s, cars were hand-tooled machines that stretched technology and manufacturing know-how, and were tailored to the requirements and tastes of a discerning minority. Only after the 1920s did cars become factory-made, common items.

In the near 100 years since, mass-consumer cars have rapidly boomed, with more than one billion now on the roads, near double the number from the mid-1980s. Moreover, the strongest growth is right here in the congested streets of Asia.

This number can grow further, when you compare rich and emerging countries. In the US, there is one car for every 1.3 people, whereas in China, it’s 6.75. But traffic, climate change and having alternatives – public transport, bicycling, shared automated vehicles – may well push back the need for every member of Asia’s rising middle-class to have a car. If so, the effort to make more and ever cheaper, basic and faceless cars is misplaced.

Fun to drive
Rather, our car of the future would be a more exclusive, luxury item. How it is made and how it delivers the experience of driving will have to be luxurious and special, rather than merely being a utilitarian object to be used daily and more or less ignored. Our cars in future will be the like boy’s toys and weekend cars. For fun.

Can today’s car manufacturers adapt? Niche marques known for their quality and driving dynamics – like Porsche – are well placed. Mass-market carmakers face larger challenges. Some might redefine their business to be about transportation and personal mobility as a service, rather than selling cars as products. Others, like Toyota’s president, Akio Toyoda, must challenge their engineers to go beyond cost efficiency to meet the demands for enjoyment. I served for five years as a global adviser to the company and was happy when Toyoda-san enthusiastically endorsed a tag line of “waku doki” – a Japanese phrase to describe a thing or action that brings a smile to your face.

But the reality is that only a minority of Toyota models, like the GT86, are truly fun-to-drive boys’ toys. Others remain respectable and thus a little bland, even if their reputation for quality and cost-efficiency makes Toyota a leading carmaker.

The future for a fun, luxury car is not here yet. So my efficient hybrid remains a functional thing for now. But I’m awfully glad to have kept my venerable Golf Cabrio for weekend drives and another part of me still hankers for that Macan.

When function changes, sometimes it is only the true luxury of enjoyment that remains.