As pollution and gridlock worsen, studies predict more urban dwellers will turn to car-sharing and commuting
A world with more commuters and fewer cars? Rush-hour traffic crawls in Metro Manila’s main Edsa highway (above), a thick haze engulfs the streets of Beijing and commuters at Dadar Station in Mumbai, India. -- PHOTOS: RAUL DANCEL, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG NEWS

The world that Henry Ford put on wheels is poised for a stall.

In the globe's growing megacities, pollution and gridlock are putting a dampener on driving.

In India, some commuters are leaving their cars at home to avoid traffic snarls and long prowls for parking. More young Americans are forgoing the dream of car ownership for public transport, bikes and vehicle-sharing. Cars on the road are lasting longer than ever.

All of that may herald a new era for a car industry weaned on a century of global growth. The world will reach "Peak Car" - a point at which annual global sales growth will top out - in the next decade, several car industry analysts predict.

Researcher IHS Automotive sees annual sales cresting at 100 million cars within that time.

Peak Car is at odds with the ambitious expansion plans of global carmakers, which IHS Automotive says are gearing up to produce more than 120 million vehicles by 2016 - almost 50 per cent more than last year's worldwide sales mark of 82 million.

The dynamic also threatens the business plans of parts producers, suppliers of raw material and oil companies.

Driving this upheaval is a rapidly emerging reality: The vehicle that ushered in an unparalleled era of personal mobility in the last century is, in many cases, no longer the most convenient conveyance, particularly as more of the world's population migrates to big cities.

No one is predicting that car sales will suddenly fall off or that today's car companies are now dinosaurs.

What the experts do see is a reckoning for car companies, which may have to adapt to a world with less car-buying and more car-sharing, more cars that drive themselves and fewer hot rodders on the highway.

"The key question is, do you sell cars or do you sell mobility?" said Mr Tim Ryan, New York-based vice-chairman of markets and strategy for consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"If you ignore these megatrends, you run the risk of becoming irrelevant."

There is a counter-argument to predictions that sales could peak: Chinese consumers continue to have a voracious appetite for cars as more of the country's 1.3 billion people climb the economic ladder and many demand the freedom and status that a car conveys.

China has helped drive global car sales up by 46 per cent since 2000, and in 2009, the country surpassed the United States as the world's largest car market.

Chinese consumers bought 22 million vehicles last year, a mark that carmakers and analysts forecast will hit 30 million by 2020.

At the same time, China is struggling with urban gridlock and growing pollution that has created a brown haze over big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. The pollution problem spurred the country's leaders to put restrictions on car licensing to slow car sales.

Many carmakers are preparing for changing markets with cars that can be shared, or speak to one another in a bid to keep traffic from jamming.

General Motors' EN-V autonomous two-seater, a vehicle engineered jointly with Segway that can detect and avoid obstacles, is being tested in Tianjin, China.

"We have looked at the urbanisation trend very closely," said Mr Jim Cain, a spokesman for Detroit-based General Motors. "It's driven experiments such as our EN-V programme in China and our involvement in services such as carsharing."

The case for growing gridlock has been presented by PricewaterhouseCoopers, among others. Today, half the world lives in urban areas.

Over the next decade, there will be a 25 to 50 per cent increase in urban dwelling, as about one billion people move into cities, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

In 25 years, there will be nine billion people living in urban areas - more than the entire population of the Earth today.

If they are all driving cars, gridlock could block the path of food, water and emergency medical treatment in urban areas, said Mr Ryan.

He added: "People won't stand for spending 25 per cent of their life commuting. The way they will get around will be different."

The desire for mobility is not decreasing any more than the demand for information is abating just because fewer people read newspapers today. As with news, what is changing is the delivery system.

In the US, 44 per cent of people would prefer to live in a city with automated "driverless" cars that would reduce congestion, according to a new survey by Intel.

Already in the US, where automotive ownership has long seemed a birthright, almost one in 10 households do not have a car, up 5.7 per cent over the last five years.

Better-built cars are dampening demand for new ones: The average age of cars on the road today has reached a record 11.4 years, according to researcher R.L. Polk & Co.

The shift is also being fuelled by changing attitudes on oil consumption for environmental, political and economic reasons.

Alternatives to car ownership are emerging, such as ride-sharing company Zipcar and ride-booking service Uber Technologies, that appeal to a new generation of drivers disinterested in carmakers' high-cost products.

Ultimately, urban dwellers will order a ride to work on their phones, get picked up by a driverless car and whisk through traffic controlled by satellites and sensors that get them to the office safely and quickly, said car analyst Thilo Koslowski, who works at researcher Gartner of Stamford, Connecticut.

American regulators said this month they have begun working on rules to let vehicles communicate via wireless chips while on the road.

For the world's carmakers and suppliers, that means manufacturing cars will not be enough anymore, Mr Ryan said.

They have to transform into transportation service providers that cater to consumers who do not want the hassle and expense of owning a car and instead just want to rent one that comes when summoned, he said.

Many are laying the groundwork. At the Tokyo car show last year, Toyota Motor unveiled concepts for three- wheeled vehicles that communicate with one another in dense urban settings.

General Motors and Ford Motor are part of a US programme testing the ability of 3,000 vehicles to communicate among themselves and with objects such as traffic lights and roadside sensors.

Self-driving "autonomous" cars will be the "killer app" that enables carsharing companies to blossom, Michigan- based consulting firm AlixPartners said.

By 2020, it said, four million Americans will car-share, up from one million now.

That coming boom in autonomous cars has created an opening for technology companies that view mobility differently from carmakers.

Google has logged hundreds of thousands of miles road-testing its own driverless cars, according to the study by Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research.

The solution for avoiding global gridlock may come from an as-of-yet unforeseen technology, said Mr Eric Morris, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at Clemson University in South Carolina whose research looks at future innovations and lessons from the past.

In 1898, at the world's first international urban- planning conference, many attendees predicted that manure left behind by horses pulling coaches and wagons would soon pile up to New York City's third-storey windows, he said.

What the attendees did not predict was the impact of a technology that had been invented more than a decade earlier.

By 1912, cars outnumbered horses. By 1920, the internal combustion engine had replaced oats-fuelled horse power altogether, Mr Morris said.

That long-ago urban- planning conference still speaks to the greatest challenge in this emerging new era of mobility - persuading auto-obsessed consumers they will no longer need their own set of wheels.

Said Mr Phil Gott, senior director of long-range planning at IHS in Lexington, Massachusetts: "It's really pretty hard to go to somebody and say, 'Can you imagine a day will come when you won't need a car?' Because the obvious answer is, 'What, are you nuts? I'll always need a car.'

"But in fact, people are moving into the cities and doing with fewer cars and in some cases, with no cars."

Bloomberg