I forget who said it the other day: people aren’t interested in driving any more.
They told me some statistics: nearly two million people used to learn to drive in the UK every year. These days, only three-quarters of a million do so. I looked it up. If you go to some websites, you’ll see a similar statistic quoted. The numbers of new drivers are dropping off a cliff. But, as you know, it’s a post-fact world, and thankfully (and not to put too fine a point on it) it’s all nonsense.
In the 2007-2008 financial year, 1,762,148 driving tests were conducted. By 2014-2015, that had fallen to 1,532,504. A small drop, but only half the story. More than half of all those people failed their tests, and an increase in the pass rate between those years – from a terrible 44.2% to a still terrible 46.9% – meant that 718,711 people gained a driving licence in 2014-2015, down from 779,207 people in 2007-2008.
Fewer, yes, but not to the extent that, if you were a car manufacturer, you’d start to panic about running out of people being able to drive them.
In fact, the figures say more about the economy than the appeal or necessity of driving. Since 2012- 2013, the number of people learning to drive has been on the increase, as we exit the credit crunch/global recession/financial crisis/insert your preferred cliché here years. Numbers this year are up again on last year’s.
But, still, the end of the need for a licence might yet come. Volkswagen created its ride-hailing brand, Moia, as it moves towards being not just a car company but a mobility company. Eventually there will be a stream of autonomous VWs, electrically powered, shuffling through cities, picking up people who have no will to drive themselves.
Volkswagen isn’t alone. Ford is already doing the same thing. In some US cities you can hail a Ford vehicle – although at the moment it comes with someone at the wheel and is powered by a combustion engine – but the plan is that, one day, it’ll just whirr to where you are.
The drive (sorry) towards autonomy has finally begun in earnest, then, as two of the world’s biggest car makers throw their considerable weight behind reducing the need for you to actually own one of their products. Instead, you’ll just rent or hire one, without taking the wheel. With Paris, Mexico City, Athens and Madrid saying they’ll ban diesel cars from those cities by 2025, and as others will doubtless follow as they attempt to improve air quality, it’s not a bad move.
Which means what, for actual drivers of actual cars? It means nothing to worry about. No matter how your car is powered, and no matter how much you want to drive it, it’s in no one’s interest to remove your ability to do it. What it does mean, though, is that car makers will have to work doubly hard to make you want one of their products. Which means cars will have to get more exciting. Which means we all win.