Have We Reached the Point of "Peak Cars"?

We've all heard a lot about Peak Oil, the point at which global oil production begins to decline because the accessible supply is simply not as big as it was the year before. Whether it has been passed or is looming in the near future, is still being debated, especially in the light of the recent boom in U.S. production. But it is highly likely that it is imminent, which is, despite the hardship involved, really a good thing, given the carbon emissions entailed, which have not been reason enough for many people, institutions and governments to press for alternatives.

But what about all of those cars and trucks that most of that oil goes into? There are a number of analysts who think that, despite the optimistic sales projections of automakers, we may be approaching the point of peak cars.

Given the fact that more and more people are pouring into cities that are getting more and more crowded, will there come a point where driving a car is simply not the best way to get around? For many, it already has. Here is the US, a significant number of people, particularly young people have relinquished that dream. Based on an analysis by Advisor Perspectives, the percentage of 18-years-olds with driver’s licenses fell from 80 percent in 1983 to 61 percent in 2010. The number of miles driven per person has also downshifted from historic highs by almost nine percent.

Of course, there are many people coming up in the developing world who see car ownership as a rite of entry into the middle class, and emblematic of the American Dream which has spread across the globe through movies and television.

But look at the reality. Take China, for example. As more and more of China's 1.3 billion people climb out of poverty, they want to climb behind the wheel of a new car, and they are doing just that. Because of China, global car sales have grown by 46% since 2000. And in 2009, China passed the US as the world's largest market for cars. Last year, Chinese consumers bought 22 million cars compared with 15.6 million in the US, the highest figure in several years. Analysts predict that Chinese car sales will hit the 30 million mark by 2030.

Is there no end, then?

Perhaps there is. China is beginning to experience gridlock and, of course, their terrible air quality has become legendary. The brown haze covering the biggest cities of Shanghai and Beijing have prompted leaders to tighten restrictions on car licensing in order to slow things down.

The times they are already a-changin'. Many municipalities, including Beijing, are upgrading their public transportation systems, even as new cars hit the streets at the rate of 1,000 per day.

In hyper-crowded Mumbai, only 14 percent of all commuting trips are by personal car, while more than half the commuters use passenger trains. The trains carry 7.6 million people each day. Beyond that, 23 percent ride buses and 9 percent use a public taxi or motorized rickshaw.

Back home, car-sharing has burst on the scene with an no-ownership option that many young people are taking advantage of. That really blows smoke in the face of automakers. Consulting firm AlixPartners has studied this trend, and found that car-sharing has already displaced some 500,000 vehicle purchases since 2006. Each car used for car-sharing runs as many as 32 vehicles off the road, so to speak. Indeed some car manufacturers, like Mercedes, are venturing into that business.

Let's not forget the role that parking plays, especially in big cities. Anyone who has driven in one knows how exasperating and time-consuming it can be to try and find a spot. New technology applications like Smart Parking , which electronically connect drivers with available spots, can save a lot of time, energy and carbon emissions.

But perhaps the ultimate answer will be autonomous, driverless cars for hire. These robotic rickshaws will come and pick you up and drop you off. That means you don't have to worry about parking or many of the other things drivers get to worry about. Presumably, because they are driverless, they would cost less than taxis. And because they are autonomous, they can synchronize and communicate with cars around them, making them far more time-efficient  as they flow along the roads like schools of fish. They should be safer, too. Many companies, including Google, are working on this technology. It will be expensive and it will take awhile, to be sure. But it could work. One study done at MIT found that a mere 300,000 driverless vehicles could serve the entire city of Singapore, with its population of close to six million people, with no more than a 15-minute waiting time.

Will that be the ultimate answer? Or will it be buses, bicycles, electric cars, walking, or something not even thought of yet? Perhaps some combination of all of these, with a few vintage hot rods thrown in for good measure. Will we hit "peak cars" before we hit peak oil, and how will the one affect the other? The only thing I think we can be fairly certain of, is that it's bound to be a lot different than it is today.

[Image credit: riclopes 2008: Flickr creative Commons]