The reasons we buy cars today may not be the reasons we buy them in decades to come. BBC Future meets Ford’s futurist, trying to predict the car culture of 2050.

Most of us who own cars are wedded to them. We couldn’t do without them.

But the reality is, those vehicles that are so central to our lives spend 95% of their time sitting on the side of the road or in a garage. Now imagine someone said you could still have your car – in fact, make that a brand new car – but you wouldn’t have to pay for it.

There’s a string attached, obviously. Would you share that car with strangers, renting it out to them when they wanted it? That’s one option currently being offered to a select few drivers in some cities. It might affect the way we buy – and use – our cars in the years to come.

It’s also the kind of thing that Sheryl Connelly, head of global consumer trends and futuring for Ford, has to think about on a daily basis; not so much what kind of cars people will want to buy in two years’ time, but whether they’ll want to drive cars at all in 20.

The renting-to-stranger trial is a case in point. Some 12,000 Londoners, and 14,000 other drivers from seven cities across the US, were invited to offer time slots in their cars to pre-screened renters, in a similar way to how the Zipcar system works. The idea is that they can earn enough money to cover their car payments, thereby having the vehicle available when they need it, for free. The average car is parked almost all of the time taking up space and doing nothing useful. So sharing it would seem to make sense, but to some people the idea of letting other people drive their car is abhorrent.

Former Ford CEO Alan Mulally referred to the company as a consumer electronics company

The reality is that peer to peer sharing, through services such as easyCar Club, or ride sharing through Uber or Lyft are likely to become more common. And it seems that the younger we are, the less wedded we are to the idea of owning a car like our parents did. “If I were to ask someone over 30 years of age ‘what does mobility mean to you?’ they’re likely to say transport, ” Connelly says.

 “If you ask someone under 30, chances are they will say cellphones.”

Connelly’s role is to look to the future, challenge our preconceptions, and help one of the most historic car companies in the world stay relevant. BBC Future met her at Ford’s new Silicon Valley research centre, which opened at the beginning of the year. The very existence of the new lab is a clear indicator of the increasing importance of consumer electronics to customers, both inside of and instead of cars – as Connelly acknowledges.

“We know what we need to know about cars; there’s no shortage of automotive expertise within the company. But when do you cross that threshold where its stops being a car? So we really have to rethink our position in the marketplace.”

‘We’re going to see more congestion, more urbanisation, more megacities’ – Sheryl Connelly  

Former Ford CEO Alan Mulally referred to the company as a consumer electronics company, and the new CEO Mark Fields likes to talk about it as a ‘mobility’ company. That would have once caused ructions in Detroit, the home of America’s car industry. The word mobility may seem like a subtle change, but it is indicative of a major shift in thinking.

“I think you’re in a position like Ford, where we want to position ourselves as an innovator, that means we have to think about the future in a way that no-one else has imagined,” says Connelly.

“This isn’t new for us,” she continues. “Henry Ford is famous for having said that back in his day if he had asked people what they wanted they would have said ‘faster horses’.”

Lifestyle accessory

We wanted to put Connelly on the spot, and ask her not just for predictions that things will change, but how they will change.

“We do talk about 2, 5, 10, 15, 25 years out,” she says.

“So I think about the year 2050. It’s within arms reach but will be dramatically different than the world we know today. Today, the global population is seven billion people. By 2050 a conservative estimate puts it at nine billion.”

“We’re going to see more congestion, more urbanisation, more megacities.

The average commute in Beijing in 2015 is five hours a day. Add several billion more people, how much worse is it going to get?”

She says these are the things that mean we are going to have to challenge our inbuilt beliefs about the future – life is not going to be as we know it, for better or for worse. Cars will become less of a lifestyle accessory, less of a status symbol, and more something that we feel we have to use occasionally – a utility or an appliance, like a vacuum cleaner or a ladder.

A ride-share car could automatically adjust itself to the driver’s preferences

We will all be searching for the cheapest, most functional way to get from A to B without getting stuck in gridlock. We may rent a bike, cycle to the station, book an hour in a car at the other end, and then return home by calling a stranger’s car via an app. This change will mean a big shift for the manufacturers too. That shift is something that Connelly hopes to get Ford ready for.

“Even if we do see a car as a utility, how can we make it the best, most personalised, most customized, ideal solution?”

That means we all could benefit by the work being done by both tech disruptors and the established transport industries, but only if we are willing and able to accept that change is happening.

Connelly does not want to get more specific about how we could personalise our cars, but a future of customisation is still imaginable even if we do not own our vehicles. A ride-share car could automatically adjust itself to the driver’s preferences. In the near-term that could mean when you unlock a Zipcar the seat and steering wheel move to your favoured positions. The radio presets quickly lock onto your tunes and the temperature adjusts.

Further into the future the car could reflect the personality of the driver on the outside. Just because you do not buy and own a red Ferrari in 2015 does not mean you can not project the image of one on the outside of your borrowed vehicle. Changing the exterior lighting could make the car seem more or less friendly to other users. These are decisions that current car buyers make once, when they purchase a vehicle, but drivers of the future may be able to decide every day. The question is, will they want to?

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