Right now I’m sitting at a breakfast bar in my office in Luton, and out the window I can see one of the station car parks. Every couple of minutes a car comes in, and almost all of them have just the single occupant. The car has five seats, but it’s only carrying the driver. When you think about it, there are very few things that we do on a regular basis that are as wasteful as that. You wouldn’t buy five plane or train tickets if it’s just you traveling. Nobody would cook a meal for ten when only two people are eating, and then throw eight portions away. But that’s more or less what is happening every time a car travels with empty seats – petrol, road and parking space are going to waste.
According to the National Travel Survey, 61% of car journeys are single occupancy. That rises as high as 86% for commuting journeys by car. When you think of the infrastructure required for the daily rush hour, that represents a phenomenal over-capacity, a high price for the luxury of private travel.
Because cars are such a big one-off purchase, we tend to buy them according to our maximum possible use. So we might buy a 4×4 that can pull a caravan, even though we only take a caravan holiday once or twice a year. Or we might buy a car with seats that can go flat and carry furniture, ready to serve an Ikea run that we might do three or four times a year. Most commonly, we reason that the car needs to accomodate everyone in the household, for those times when everyone travels together. But that may only be one trip in five or six, and all the others will be just one or two occupants.
If our car journeys usually involve one person, perhaps a one seater car might be a better option. The money we’d save would be plenty to cover the costs of hiring or car-sharing a larger car on the days we need a larger one. If our journeys are shorter distances, that could be an electric car too, adding further savings. The internal combustion engine is a terrible technology really, only using 25% of the energy used to create forward motion, with the rest wasted on heat and noise. Since it involves controlled explosions in a box, cars with petrol engines need to be heavy steel. Electric cars can be lighter and more efficient.
So perhaps the future of private motoring lies with one seater cars, and more accessible car and van sharing clubs. For that to happen of course, we’d need to see a considerable expansion of car clubs and manufacturers making and marketing one-seater cars.
Interestingly, that appears to be happening. Again. This is an idea that the car industry has circled round before – but forget the coracle on wheels that was the Sinclair C5. The new generation of one-seater cars are safe, practical, efficient, and desirable. They’re cheap to run and easy to park. Volkswagen unveiled the Nils as a concept explicitly pitched as the future of commuting. The Colibri is already in production, and is small enough to fit two of them into a standard parking space. The Renault Twizy sits two, which is almost there. Toyota are experimenting with a one-seater car share scheme in Grenoble.
It’s not a done deal. The Hiriko, a tiny folding car designed for city car sharing schemes, recently came and went after a couple of interesting pilot schemes. Like 3D cinema, it may an idea that we are doomed to rediscover once a decade. But perhaps this time advances in battery technology will meet rising oil prices, and the one-seater car will come of age.