Wednesday, 5 December 2018

What I was going to say at COP24 in Katowice

Yesterday I was invited to speak at a panel session about the automotive industry at the UN's COP24 conference in Katowice this Saturday. Reluctantly, I had to pass due to pressing matters down on the działka before flying to London on Sunday morning. Very sad to miss such an opportunity... So here's what I was going to say.

*****

Dealing with climate change is everyone's responsibility. We all need to do our bit - citizens, business, government. We need to change the way we live, behave, consume. The alternative is stark - unless we make that change, we will have irreversibly damaged our planet's climate through our own actions.

The transportation sector is one of the two largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions (28%, equal to the 28% from power generation). Of transportation's 28%, half is cars and light trucks, the other half is commercial vehicles, aircraft and ships. All those cars and SUVs and pick-ups - how many of those journeys are really necessary? How many are vanity journeys because 'it's below my dignity to travel on public transport' or 'because I'm too lazy to walk/cycle to the shops'?

The automotive industry is very much to blame. Cars have been getting bigger and heavier all the while. The industry panders to the desire of people to own powerful behemoths that tower over the rest of the traffic, an car-size arms race, leading to the ever-expanding SUV. The very notion of a 'sport' 'utility' vehicle - juxtaposing the notions of competition and usefulness - is dumb, like 'performance broom' or 'racing scissors'. If you live on a farm and need to take straw bales to the top field across a muddy track, then yes, you need four-wheel drive. But if you live in town and want to drive yourself to your office car park six kilometres from home, swathed in two tonnes of steel and glass, then you are part of the problem. Our cities are clogged up and private cars need to be taken off the road to make cities function properly.

It's not just SUVs. The enbiggening trend covers all cars. The current VW Golf is half a metre longer, 19cm wider and 415kg heavier than the original 1974 Golf. The output of the entry-level model has gone up from 50 bhp to 84 bhp (a 68% increase!) From 1970 to 2010, the aviation industry has decreased the amount of fuel burnt per passenger by 73%, while the car industry managed a meagre 17% decrease. Why? Cars have been getting bigger and heavier, needing ever more powerful engines to propel them, then they need beefing up to make them safer at those higher speeds, all of which tends to mitigate the efforts to make those engines more efficient. Why? Because the motor industry tells us that's what we want.  Unlike the aviation industry. Only airlines buy airliners, and airlines will always chose the most cost effective product.

The quest for performance is also dumb. Speed limits have not changed in a generation, roads are far more congested and yet horsepower has doubled. Speeding is dangerous. It kills. Yet the car industry continues 'improving' cars' performance. And wider cars in mean that roads are, in effect, narrower.

Companies giving any employee other than sales reps a car is grossly irresponsible. A car to drive a manager's idle butt to the office so that it can sit in the car park for eight hours while he sits at his desk is stupid. The responsible company should by all means ensure that all its employees can easily get into work, but not by buying/leasing them cars. The responsible employer should also be concerned about their employees' well-being - by walking between home and bus, bus and train, train and office, employees are getting valuable exercise.

If you can build a house to last 70, 80 years, why can't you build a car that does the same? You can. Look at the products of the US automotive industry of the 1950s. Look at Cuba. There are cars that have been driven for six decades despite - or rather because of - the US trade embargo. Cubans were forced to keep the things going for a lack of anything else coming onto the market. Now, imagine an automotive industry - rather than facelifting then replacing one model with the next - did what it could to remanufacture cars, rust-proof them, modularise replacement parts - keep them running as long as possible.

The business model of building-in obsolescence into cars by tweaking the design every year, making consumers want the latest version has run its course. Compare the timeless beauty of an E-Type Jag or Citroen DS with the brutal creased-tin ugliness of a contemporary Toyota C-HR or this forgettable piece of hideousity.  The automotive industry has proved, long ago, that it can make inspirational shapes, classics that tick every aesthetic box - and yet it currently chooses to produce cars that are visually insulting.

Below: one design classic and one elephantine waste of space.


My children, in their early 20s, neither have driving licences nor cars nor the inclination to buy a car. When I was their age I obsessed about cars - I could tell you the engine size, power, 0-60 times and price of all the cars I considered buying. Today - I have no desire to waste my money on depreciating tin. In all honesty, I cannot ever seeing myself buying a car again. As a consumer I have no desire, no need to own a car. I live in town, I use public transport to get to work. From time to time, when the need arises, I hire a car for a few days. Mobility is becoming a service. (SaaS = Software as a Service. CaaS = Car as a Service.) I am a happy user of the MyTaxi app (better vehicles and service than Uber, but the same concept).

The sharing economy is here. The average electric drill in American households sees eight minutes' use across its lifetime. Share it - lend it, rent it, but don't buy it unless you're going to optimise its use. Same with cars. BlaBlaCar and similar ride-sharing apps are popular with my children's generation, taking away from them the need to own a car.

Now, would I buy an electric car? No. Again, I'd be happier to rent one than rent a fossil-fuel burning one - but the ownership model is dated. Do not knowingly part with your capital to buy a depreciating asset!

I could, however, see myself owning an autonomous electric vehicle that spends its day driving paying customers from here to there - a money-making investment to top up a future pension. Let's say I spend €50,000 on such a self-driving car, hailed by apps, paid for by its passengers, netting me, say, €100 a day. After 20 months it's paid off and from then on, such a vehicle would be generating significant profit for me. But wait - what car manufacturer in their right mind would sell me such a car? If I can make money out of it, what interest is it of theirs to sell it to me - they'd be making the money themselves!

The automotive industry is a significant player in any economy. In the UK, it directly employs nearly 900,000 people. Brexit may yet damage it beyond repair. But even without Brexit, the industry needs to face up to a different market, new business models and greater responsibility for the environment. and the climate.

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. This wastefulness cannot be allowed to continue to change our climate.

Your freedom to spend money on oversized, overpowered cars to drive yourself to work in the big city every day ends where our grandchildren's freedom to enjoy life on a habitable planet begins.

This time last year:
Milton Keynes

This time two years ago:
Warsaw by night, early winter

This time five years ago:
Burn less gas and do Ukraine a favour

This time eight years ago:
Early evening atmosphere

This time ten years ago:
Toponyms - how many names has Jeziorki?

This time 11 years ago:
On the road to Białystok

5 comments:

student SGH said...

Cars have been getting bigger and heavier all the while. - you shrug off that vehicles have been stuffed with airbags, crumple zones and other stuff which increase safety of passengers and do occupy space.

Cars have been getting bigger and heavier, needing ever more powerful engines to propel them, then they need beefing up to make them safer at those higher speeds, all of which tends to mitigate the efforts to make those engines more efficient. - you omit the concept of downsizing, forced out by emission norms, i.e. squeezing more horsepower from the same engine capacity - such engines are more fuel-efficient only if driven considerately (relatively low, steady speed on high gear), if used in traffic jams or driven dynamically or far too fast, their advantage wanes. Plus time will tell how durable such engines are.

Why? Because the motor industry tells us that's what we want. - a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma - what has come up first - demand or supply?

Companies giving any employee other than sales reps a car is grossly irresponsible. A car to drive a manager's idle butt to the office so that it can sit in the car park for eight hours while he sits at his desk is stupid. - the problem is that such costly (not just car upkeep costs, but renting a parking space which is around 500 PLN per month in the centre of Warsaw!!!) perquisites have become a standard in several industries. If the bank I work for took away company cars from its senior managers, more than half of them would quit or rather start looking for a new job. Only acting in unison would solve the problem. Last week I met CFO of a private company who has not been given a company car. He drives a lot, but uses his private car, three-year old car has 180,000 kilometres on the clock and the guys gets allowance for using it when justified to take a business trip.

student SGH said...

Now, imagine an automotive industry - rather than facelifting then replacing one model with the next - did what it could to remanufacture cars, rust-proof them, modularise replacement parts - keep them running as long as possible - Sir now wishes to capsize of one the foundations of contemporary economy which keeps the circle turning to harks back to old days of deprivation. I would actually yearn for more durable staff, but as I see how long your automobile endures depends on how well you look after it. My car, produced in 2011 (54,000 kilometres on the clock) visits a garage for inspection, change of oil, filters and other necessary stuff and I believe will serve me for some ten years more.

My children, in their early 20s, neither have driving licences nor cars nor the inclination to buy a car. - Fine, a car is a liability rather than an asset, but inability to drive is a hindrance in many professions. If I needed to visit a client at the back of beyond and did not have the car, somebody would hand me the keys from a company car and solve the problem. Of course mere possession of a driving licence is insufficient, you need to be a seasosed driver and it takes practice...

But wait - what car manufacturer in their right mind would sell me such a car? - you need to take into account a car driven intensely and by many drivers, none of which would look after will have a far shorter economic life. Its wear and tear will be several times larger than of a private well-looked after car. After 20 months the car might have 100,000 kilometres on the clock and might be in need of a costly overhaul, if not replacement. Don't know if you have drilled down into business models of car sharing operators in Poland, but I can tell you the biggest obstacle in making ends meet is the cost of making the run-down, neglected vehicles (less than two years old) marketable - such bad is the condition of shared vehicles.

Michael Dembinski said...

@student SGH

"you need to take into account a car driven intensely and by many drivers, none of which would look after will have a far shorter economic life."

I'm talking about an electric car which has an order of magnitude fewer moving parts in its motor than a petrol one.
"making the run-down, neglected vehicles (less than two years old) marketable - such bad is the condition of shared vehicles."

I'm talking about autonomous vehicles that are driven by careful robots and algorithms not by impatient pirates. P.J. O'Rourke's answer to the question "What's the world's fastest car" was "a hire car". Fair enough; robots won't ever exceed the speed limit. Product-liability lawyers will see to that.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

A joined-up housing and transport policy will be vital.

As an example of what NOT to do, one may study the UK approach where new housing is scattered far from shops, schools, public transport and employment, forcing dependence on cars. It feels like the horse has bolted from that particular stable.

Anonymous said...

Wisely written, makes sense