October 18, 2013

For Ford's sake, now it's "peak car"?

Popular Science had an infographic not only implying, but stating that we have hit peak car - the notion that the number of cars will decline over time.  There are a lot of flaws with taking a single statistical trend and making such broad based assertions based upon it. 
 
First, let's assume that the data in the infographic is irrefutable. 
 
 
What the author concludes, that "Since the country hit 'peak car' in 2005, Americans are now driving the same number of miles they did 15 years ago. That's the longest downward trend recorded."  The use of the term peak car is particularly egregious.  The author does admit that gas prices and an economic downturn have contributed to the trend but notes that the trend has been dramatic. 
 
It's not difficult to take issue with the notion that peak miles means peak car.  Of course gas prices have impacted pleasure driving. But business driving has also been impacted.  Commuters certainly have the option of taking public transit for example.  But that does not mean those commuters do not still have a car and are simply driving to a train station instead of all the way to work.  Similarly, with the advent of the Internet, email and cheap mobile communication salesmen no longer need to drive around a tri-state area in order to get sales.  Websites, emails and calling have made their jobs more efficient and less dependent on vehicular travel. 
 
Destination driving is less prevalent.  If I want a particular type of torque wrench I no longer need to drive from hardware store to hardware store looking for it.  I can find out online who has one in stock, at the best price, in the model I prefer and drive to that store only to purchase it instead of driving around town shopping for one.  Heck, I can buy it online if the job can wait a few days.
 
But perhaps the author means peak car usage as opposed to peak car volume.  That also assumes that trucks are not calculated in the equation.  Even if personal small trucks are factored into the infographic, my torque wrench example above, is probably being delivered by a FedEx truck if I order it online.  Those miles are not likely included in the above measurements.
 
More important than the cause and effect discussion is the notion that the long term trend will be a decline or stabilization of the trends.  What is that based on?  To declare that car driving will never reach or exceed previous recorded levels is tantamount to saying mankind will never fly.  It is short-sited and based on nothing more conclusive than a downturn in a graph.  Perhaps the author is right.  Perhaps the information age has replaced the need for as much transportation as in the past.  But that remains to be seen and there is startlingly insufficient evidence presented here to make that case.
 
It overlooks potential advances in transportation, such as electrical or hydrogen powered cars that may someday make travel by car so inexpensive that it vastly exceeds the 2005 'peak'.  50 years from now the car driving environment could easily be radically different from today.  Such bold predictions tend to inevitably be proved silly.  It's almost enough to make me wonder if this is merely an offshoot of the peak oil environmentalist movement with a hidden agenda.  The conclusion is too simplistic, too lacking in supporting data to belong in a science magazine and the publishers should know better.
 
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