technology transport

Is the car of the future a one-seater?

Toyota_i_RoadWhen I was little it used to frustrate me that Lego cars were all one seaters, when in the real world you can get five into them. But perhaps Lego were just ahead of their time.

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.


  1. The car and the road system are, as far as I am concerned, a broken system. They are polluting and inefficient, and no matter what new innovations we have they will be little more than a sticky plaster on a gunshot. We, as a society, need to redesign our transport systems from the ground up, and I think a great place to go for inspiration is some of the old sci-fi books 🙂 In them we see computer controlled vehicles, powered walkways, mag-lev systems, monorails etc etc. I don’t want to get into a whole rant about it here but it would be fairly easy to come up with a transport system that works well and would use less farmland, resources, and be quicker and safer. The problem is that we are too attached to our current system which has evolved from the need to drive a horse and cart about during the industrial revolution, and it hasn’t really changed much. If we were to apply some of the technologies/methods we now have to transport, in a ground up redesign then the changes could be huge.


    1. I agree, but what should happen and what is likely to happen are different things. 100 people currently in cars could take the bus instead and that would be better than switching to single seater cars. But as you say, we’re very fond of the luxury of personal travel. If we have to have it, this is one way of making it smarter.

    2. We have the technology: today I went on a long cross country journey by train and bike: train for the bulk of the route, and bike for the bits between my house and the station, then station to destination. Simple, cheap and achievable. All that wee need to make transport much better, cleaner and more pleasant we already have.

    3. Relevancy, where you refer at is indeed ignored by society. Cars seeing as transport, cities and their logistics as efficient, roadworks, the resources for construction, are to be retought. Time to rip out the page, in the waste-bin, potential, individual and collective, is at cause, is at stake. Our quality of desire, our quality of life, our sensibilities for numbers versus potential, human nature is at core. We humans are an of-on switch, no graphics or calculatory chip. The comparison between the minuscule positive outcome and the generated undesirables of our human toil, is laughable. Read more: .

  2. The future is driver-less cars. They will create huge extra capacity. As to what powers them or how many seats or who owns then, well that is down to the people’s preferences through the market. Personally I think people on average like space so will try for the largest car they can.

    A correction, petrol cars haven’t needed heavy steel bodies for a long time. Diesels did more recently but even they don’t now. Aluminium and composites are quite common. Most of the weight now is from safety measures and many electric cars we have had to date haven’t had so many (Think the G-Whizz deathtrap)

    1. This is true, in that the weight is a safety measure, but if engines were lighter cars wouldn’t be so dangerous. It’s the chassis that’s most likely to be steel. But I take your point.

      And yes, driverless cars are very close. Perhaps the future is driverless one-seater cars.

  3. I find it remarkable (although I probably shouldn’t) that so much time is taken looking at the ‘next generation’ of cars.

    We can’t stop the car companies bringing out these sorts of gimmicks, and trying to claim they can solve the problem through technology (and they would say that wouldn’t they?) and but the whole scheme seems to have more to do with keeping their share prce up (and in Germany, keeping the massive subsidies coming in) than tackling any of the problems of car transportation.

    Where do we think we are going to get the energy from for all these high-tech electric cars? And what, exactly will we use to bring this energy to the motor? And even if we can, how on earth do we fit them in our towns and cities?

    On the basis that Germany is talking about a massive shortfall in the electricity supply with current demant levels remaining constant, and we don’t have much technology apart from Lithium batteries, and there isn’t a lot of Lithium around, and what there is, is found in remote parts of South America and will require even more energy to get it out and we can’t fit the existing car fleet in our towns and cities, I don’t think this is a long term solution, even ignoring the ethical considerations this brings up: The emperor has no clothes, the religion of cars has been found wanting.

    And strangely enough, it seems that the walkable/bikable city remains the most pleasant to live in.

    The car of the future will mostly be a single seater. It will also have two wheels and pedals.

    1. We once had a transport system just like that – trains for long journeys and bike or bus/tram for the local part. But we moved away from that. You can’t blame the planners, it was clearly a large part to peoples’ preferences.

      How are you going to persuade people to want something different and not mind getting wet and cold?

  4. I’m not planning to ‘persuade’ people, I’m not sure I need to, for the reasons I gave above: we simply can’t keep going the way we are on a finite planet.

    However, even in the current slightly strange situation, the evidence suggests that where an option exists, people use it. In cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, where the infrastructure exists, lots of people ride bikes. Even locally to me in towns where there is decent infrastructure, there are more cyclists than where I live, where there is very little. The same applies for places like Germany with good public transport: it gets used.

    In Europe there are a very small number of places where you can’t own a car to live there. The nearest to me is Vauban in Freiburg. They tend to have waiting lists of people wanting to move in.

    From my own experience I often get people saying they wish they didn’t have a car because of the costs and stress of trying to keep it running, but they can’t get to work without it: we’ve created a system where people have to work to pay for a car to get to work. We managed to ‘persuade’ people to adopt a form of transport that costs hundreds of Euro (pounds) per month just to maintain before you even drive it.

    But if you want to ‘persade’ people to ‘want something different’ simply apply the free market to car use.

    Stop subsidising roads and make car drivers pay 100% of the cost of maintaining them, based on how much they use these roads. Factor in the costs to society and add a percentage for healthcare costs caused by pollution and by accidents, damage to towns and cities caused by noise and dirt from motor vehicles, economic damage caused to shops in the high street because people avoid the high streets which ave cars on them (this is more obvious in Germany because we don’ have as many out of town shopping centres).

    In Germany at least, we could stop subsidising car companies so people have to pay the full cost of their car when they buy it as well.

    Once all that is included in the cost of very car journey, I think you will find people will be very easily ‘persuaded’ to find alternatives. Companies will be under pressure to locate where there are good public transport/cycling links, and shops will move back where people can reach them easily.

    You know, DevonChap, discussing this over coffee would be much better than exchanging theories over a blog. Perhaps we could meet up when I come to the UK in Summer…

  5. I ought to add that this post needs to be understood in the context of the blog, and the dozens of posts I’ve written about car culture and how we should learn to do without them:

    Many of us can do without cars or only use them occasionally, but there is still a place for more sustainable car technology, for several reasons.

    For starters, some people will still need cars – people who live in rural areas, who are disabled, carers, those whose jobs require them to visit multiple sites over the course of the day, etc. We’re a case in point. My wife works in radio, and if she needs to get to a radio station for half four in the morning, there is no public transport running and she’s not going to get up at half three to cycle in the dark.

    Secondly, it can be very difficult to do without a car in many parts of the country, since we’ve been building new developments with the car as given for decades. Winding down our car dependent culture is going to be a long term project involving big infrastructure changes, large scale investment in public transport, and something of a revolution in city planning. That’s a 30 year project at least, and in the meantime, smaller and more efficient cars can help.

    1. The location of the broadcasting station, the job your wife has, all these things need to be revisited first. The long term approach to change the fundamentals is bust, the derivatives of our toil are catching up. Once in a while society reaches an end of life-cycle moment, yesterday was one.

      1. Easy to say, but it isn’t possible to just ‘tear up’ the status quo. There has to be a transition to sustainability, and that will take decades. We may not like that and we don’t really have the luxury of that time, but it’s the only way that change will happen.

  6. Dear sir,
    I am Lakshmi from India i love this bike
    I want to buy this type bike
    How can i book this bike & what is the cast with indian rupees

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