The motor industry is facing doom and gloom or opportunity and expansion, depending on your viewpoint, writes Robin Roberts.
Whatever happens with Brexit at the end of this month and its implications for Britain, a bigger sea change for the industry has been underway for some time.
Environmental issues have driven the move towards electrification of vehicles and for the bigger stuff it’s hydrogen which is getting more and more attention and investment. The new technology, or more accurately, rediscovered power sources are going to dictate what we can buy, use and how we run our lives both professionally and socially.
It will make substantial changes whether we like it or not and mean someone has to pay for the infrastructure to support it. There will also be some who cannot afford to meet new requirements and they will have to rethink how they operate, whether or not that’s a business or an individual.
Historically, when society moved from horse-power to automobiles it was commercial operations which led the way and replaced livery stables with filling stations. Some bigger concerns had replacement horses to take individuals and coaches onwards, others just stopped to refresh themselves or their horses.
They recharged their animals and individuals much as many are now doing with electric vehicles. So there is nothing new there then in reality.
But there is another aspect to modern transport that has been largely ignored because it’s crept up on us yet has a direct bearing on travel. The size of cars and commercial vehicles has been growing, often to comply with tougher safety standards, but also because people are becoming taller and heavier across the developed world.
It is, for example, particularly noticeable with popular cars and more so if you happen to see old and new versions of familiar brands side by side or nose to tail when parked.
Parking bays and older car parks are simply too small to take some of the bigger cars and your new car may overhang a bay, as happened to me last month when parking in a street. I am glad one 1960s car park I used daily has now been demolished because the turning ramps were so tight for newer cars that you had to take a couple of sweeps to negotiate, much to the annoyance of traffic behind and telltale coloured scrapes on the walls were evidence of some failures to move with the times.
Bigger cars can also pose problems for drivers who cannot see their vehicle corners or are unaware of the space they have to pass on narrow roads and then loom over ‘your side’ of the road.
There is also another issue raised by the bigger cars and commercial vehicles, the space they occupy on roads. The road space you took up with six cars in the 1970s is probably now filled by four or five cars and it’s the same split for buses and lorries. Ok, by carrying more in the commercials you can reduce the overall number of vehicles, but weight limits still dictate what can be carried and some vans and pickups are easily overloaded and their size can restrict passing opportunities leading to longer traffic queues.
It is cars which concern most of us as congestion is not simply a matter of numbers but sizes as well. If you have bigger cars squeezing into roadspace which has not grown in 40 or 50 years, sometimes much longer periods, you are bound to get jams.
Congestion charging by emissions is only one measure which is extending across the country but some places in the world are looking at banning vehicles above certain dimensions or weight. That is possibly a fairer way to reduce jams, by allowing more compact and in future electric cars into our congested urban areas. That would be a win/win move.
Radical park and ride schemes are part of an answer and not suited to everyone, the railways cannot meet the flexibility and reliability of a nation which is composed of individuals with particular needs and buses only really work well if they have space in which to operate.
Underlying all this is cost and incentives. Someone has to underwrite or put hands in pockets to cover it, and in Britain we are very bad at that and always look to someone else to pay. Those that pay call the tune but we may not want to dance to it.