Saturday, 12 April 2014

Challenges for the car industry

From 1970 to 2010, the aviation industry has managed to decrease the amount of fuel consumed per passenger by 73%, the car industry managed a meagre 17% decrease. Why? Cars have been getting bigger and heavier, needing ever more powerful engines to propel them, which all but mitigate the efforts to make those engines more efficient. Why? Because the motor industry tells us that's what we want.

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)  
Mk 1 1974 3.705 1.610 1.395 790
Mk 2 1982 3.985 1.665 1.415 910
Mk 3 1992 4.074 1.694 1.422 960
Mk 4 1997 4.148 1.735 1.440 1050
Mk 5 2003 4.205 1.759 1.479 1155
Mk 6 2009 4.199 1.779 1.479 1217
Mk 7 2013 4.255 1.799 1.452 1205
* Unladen weight of base model in range.      Data source:  

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.
But at the heart of it, car design must change. To date, it's been focused on building something to impress. Grand image-statements that project power, authority and prestige. By playing on mankind's inherent insecurity, the car industry has been able to sell people something bigger, more powerful and ultimately more wasteful than is necessary. (Unlike the aviation industry. Airlines will always chose the most cost effective product.) This wastefulness cannot continue. From time to time something rare happens and the industry comes up with something classless and stylish - like the original Mini or the new Fiat 500 - small, frugal cars that trendy people can appear fashionable in. (Can you think of any others?)

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


Anonymous said...

I don't think public transport or driving less will ever succeed in lowering the amount of cars on the road. There is nothing compared to the freedom of owning your own means of fast transportation, the world knows it and has gotten as accustomed to it as running water, it's never going away.
But you're not thinking outside of the box enough, electric vehicles are now as good or better than ice cars, obviously Tesla is better than anything with a petrol engine but also BMW i3 can compete and many more will follow when they see the success. The benefits are less moving part, less maintenance, no more trips to the gas station, always a full tank in the morning, silent, efficient... (and sustainable, even green when combined with solar or other power sources). And towards the future batteries, electric motors will only get better, it is the future.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Anon

BP reckons that full electric (Tesla, BMW i3) will account for around 5% of the global car fleet. I reckon it will be more than that. Electric is indeed the future.

Yet I don't agree that the demand for car ownership is 'never going away'. Millennials see the world in a different light; you can see this happening in the UK and Germany, a generation of young men for the first time ever is less interested in owning a car than its older peers.

Neighbour said...

I don't think your observation is correct either.
Ihave started with My parent's Fiat 126. A car hardly carrying 2 adults and 2 kids burned at cruising speed almost 10 litres per 100 km.
Now, inVW Passat, 4 adults and 1 baby and full luggage (1/3 of capacity for the baby), cruising 20 kilometres faster, It burns 5.5 litres of diesel per 100km. And in much better comfort and safety.
I agree young people are not that interested in cars. Probably because of high unemployment rate, because they simply cannot afford one.

I think the problem is elsewhere. You probably have seen American cities flooded with light at night. I have recently asked a friend of mine, architect, why they don't switch lights off when leaving home. The answer was "Because energy is cheap in US". And so is car fuel, that's why there is such a waste on the world's largest automotive market.
Best regards,

Anonymous said...

much the same was said about the X generation of the '90. The young generation would not want/need a car... but they all have a car or two now, and I can see the same with the millennials, personal transport is too convenient. The next big thing is electric vehicles (when the problem of people without garages is fixed the growth will be exponential) After that autonomous cars will happen and will finally be able to redefine "public" transport, a future where we basically have Star Trek "transporters" (though not as fast) in the sense that you could set your coordinates and "beam" (drive) there whenever you want without effort.

Alexander said...

I few of my thoughts.
There was no “peak car”in the so called advanced European countries, but a big recession with a huge increase in poverty, unemployment and taxes. If economies improve, carownership will go up again.
As you know cars and public transport are both cash cows for governments. Airlines are less taxed therefor cheaper, so planes are always about filled to capacity.
Public transport is nice, but if you want to travel at night , or at big industrial estates, like ports or chemical compounds, there is nothing. Companies often require employees to have there own cars.
The issue of safty. I don not think you would like your wife or daughter to travel by bicycle at night, alone through deserted industrial estates, some parts of cities or even a uni campus.
If you have to travel with a lot of bagage the car is the best option. I know by experience.
This week a Dutch scientist walked away from the IPCC council. In his view the IPCC report, conclusions now on the BBC web site, were too political, and the temperature increases were exaggerated. Written by 80 scientist and 120 civil servants. The IPCC earlier demand he withdrew his research that concluded a warmer climate was a good thing. Before CO2 was promoted to be problem , school thought me plants / food grew by heat and CO2, so I think he has a point.

Best regards, Alexander

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Neighbour, Anon, Alexander...

There are times when you need a car, there are times when you don't.

When you don't, just leave it. Don't use it because 'I've bought it, paid for it, so I might as well use it."

You guys getting your 10,000 steps a day in (as recommended by World Health Organisation, US Surgeon-General, National Health Service?) As good a reason to drive less.

A car should be no bigger than needed - for the good of society (other road users, cities) and the environment.

Climate-change deniers are more numerous in Poland than in the UK, where early symptoms are already visible - freak weather happening more and more often, extreme weather records being broken each season. Western Europeans are more accepting that society needs to take more active steps to protect our ecosphere.

student SGH said...

Michael, again a well-written analysis, however some points are arguable :)

1. It's not the motor industry telling benighted people they need to drive bigger and more powerful car. It is the whole set of social and cultural patterns, the automotive industry just meets the needs and strives to make profits on them.

2. The cars grow in size thanks to safety equipment. Compare number of fatalities on Polish roads in 1990 and 2013 and number of cars in those years and then work out a number of facilities per registered car. This is a big benefit of cars getting bigger

3. Newly produced cars are far less durable than those leaving factory gates in 1980s or 1990s. The old 90 hp 1.8 engines could withstand half a million kilometres. Would a downsized, turbocharged 1.0 litre engine from which 125 hp were squeezed out endure such distance? Modern engines offer high dynamics (max. torque at mere 2k rpm) and consumer less fuel but break down more often, their repairs are more complicated and more expensive, urging car users to replace them with newer ones more often? And where's the room for environment protection when there's no room for reliability?

4. Millenials giving up on cars? You must be talking about people younger than my generation. I discerned one regularity. Youngsters who change their place of residence often, do not have a car, as they view it inconvenient, but whose lifestyle is more settled, tend to have a car. A good trend is that these days in most households I see one car for the whole family rather than one car per family member.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Student SGH

Thanks for the arguments...

1. Chicken and egg. I take Neighbour's point about cheap energy. Look at the size of US cars vs. European and Japanese ones. Bit American cars of the 1950s and 60s led to the sprawl of suburbs. Indeed, social and cultural patterns mesh to create industry's products.

2. Yes and no - falling accident stats are down to many reasons; fewer out-and-out wrecks on Poland's roads, better roads, more experienced drivers. But look as small cars - Smart, iQ, Fiat 500 - all much safer than small cars a generation ago, and still small.

3. Why do we need to squeeze 125 bhp out of a 1.0 litre engine? Surely 50 bhp will amply suffice? Why the rush? Just to save a few minutes on a short journey? I'd rather have reliability than performance.

4. Yes - Moni's generation. She's finishing her third year at university; few of her peers have cars or are thinking of buying one. A good laptop, smartphone and games console are more important.

student SGH said...


1. The more people return to city centres from suburbs, the fewer cars they will need...

3. Ask Ford engineers, they have designed the engine the pack into compact Focus. Why 50 bhp is not enough? Because sometimes on the road to make a manoeuvre swiftly of even avoid an accident, acceleration matters. I am not impressed by car which can do 200 kmph, but by those which offer decent acceleration at low revolutions.

4. And here five years of difference between your daughter and me matter. Her peers still study and fewer of them work to make a living or have set up families. This is what makes the difference.