Since its launch in 1974, the Volkswagen Golf, now in its seventh generation, has become progressively longer and wider. Although the latest Golf has shed some weight and a little height, it's still over 50% heavier than the original Mk I. Indeed, the VW Polo, one segment smaller than the Golf, outgrew its original bigger brother after just three generations. Since the Polo grew so big, VW launched the Up! as a car for the smallest 'A' segment - and yet the Up! is longer, wider, taller and heavier than the original Mk I Polo. The current Golf, meanwhile, is now bigger than a 1970s Ford Cortina Mk III, which at the time was classed as a large family car. And, at over 1.2 tonnes, the Golf is as weighty as a 1970s Ford Zephyr Mk IV - a full-size luxury car.
|VW Golf||Launch year||Length (m)||Width (m)||Height (m)||Weight* (kg)|
The main reason that cars have nearly doubled in weight over the past half-century has been because they are being engineered to be safer in the event of a high-speed impact, a side effect of the fact that the car industry has been making the cars ever more powerful, with faster acceleration and higher top speeds.
It's a vicious circle from which the car industry needs to snap free, especially in view of the industrialisation of China, India and behind them, Africa.
On Thursday, I went to BP's Energy Outlook to 2035, a fascinating presentation about how the oil company sees the world energy supply and demand shaping up over the next two decades. Today, there are 1.1 billion cars on our planet, serving 7 billion people. By 2035, BP forecasts that 8.7 billion people will be driving around in 2.3 billion cars. The energy demand for these vehicles, the equivalent of 2 billion tonnes of oil, is around half of all of mankind's energy needs in 1965.
The biggest growth in energy demand for transportation is expected to come from China (up by 120% to 2035). In Europe, 'peak car' has been reached, along with a demographic peak. Young Europeans are less eager to spend their hard-earned money on a car. As I pointed out two months ago, western Europe has ceased to be a growth market for the car makers; the average age of a new car buyer in German is over 52 years and only 27% of all new car buyers in Germany were under 45.
Will China and India catch up with the West in terms of car ownership? For the sake of the planet - let's hope not - at least if we're talking about fossil-fuel powered cars. There are signs of hope - in China at least. The current smogs plaguing Beijing and other Chinese cities will no doubt cause the monolithic Communist Party to quickly pass laws to reduce emissions. And China's leaders are keeping their cities from sprawling outward into endless exurbs, as well as investing heavily in public transport.
But all the same, the car industry must show signs that it is moving in a more sustainable way. Lighter materials such as aluminium (which costs more to smelt, but which is more resistant to corrosion than steel) is one solution. But in general, the car industry must start to built cars that are smaller, less powerful, use less energy to build and to propel.
We really don't need to drive as much as we do. Certainly in cities, public transport, walking and cycling are better and healthier than commuting by car. Inter-urban transport is best served by coach, rail or air, with hire cars at the destination for those who really need them. IT solutions, collaborative consumption models (car sharing, car pooling) assisted by accelerating urbanisation will all help slow down the growth of demand for car ownership. IT can also make cars much safer; linking the car via a black box and GPS to an insurance provider, safe, energy-efficient driving can be rewarded with lower premiums. And lower taxes?
BP's forecasts suggest that despite global GDP rising by around 30% between now and 2035, CO2 emissions will rise by 10%. Still way too much from the point of climate change, but at least we can see a decoupling of economic activity from fossil-fuel usage. BP also sees production of conventional petrol, diesel or LNG-powered cars falling to some 25% of the total by 2035, with LNG taking a rising share of that; hybrids and pure battery-powered cars are expected to account for three-quarters of the cars manufactured in 20 years time.
|Dumb-ass design for dumb-ass drivers. The original Mini was smart.|
Cars should be made as small and as light as practicable, built for fuel efficiency and reliability rather than for speed and ego-boosting appeal. If not, the developed markets of North America, the EU and Japan will see declining car sales over the forthcoming decades.
This time two years ago:
Painting the Novotel Orange
This time five years ago:
That's what I like about the North