Automotive & transport

Car culture in China

In 2002, car sales in China grew by a 56%. A year later sales grew by a massive 75%. By 2004 sales had slowed to 15% due to the Chinese government restrictions on car loans. Nevertheless, China is already the third largest car market in the world and is likely to move into first place, overtaking both Japan and the US, in the next two to three years. Moreover, the market is still in its infancy in China with an estimated 50-60 million Chinese technically able to afford a car for the first time (the rate of car ownership in China is still a paltry 7 or 8 in every 1,000 people, compared to a massive 600 per 1,000 in the US). The total number of private cars in China is now approximately 10 million but 25% of these cars have been bought in the last 24 months. Why the rapid growth? The obvious answer is urban growth and rising incomes, but there are other reasons too. Until the early 1990s travel in China was restricted and banks were not allowed to lend to private individuals. Moreover, the road network in China (already the third largest in the world) wasn’t created until 1988.  Another reason is societal. Until the 1990s most people worked in local state-owned factories and either walked or cycled to work. However, many of these factories have now been privatised and scattered to suburban areas, which are difficult to access using public transport.

Ref: The Economist (UK) 4 June 2005, ‘Dream Machines’.


Pay-as-you-go insurance

Pay-as-you-go is a big trend in many areas and pay-as-you-go car insurance has been talked about for a while, so its nice to see a company has finally done something with the idea. Norwich Union Insurance is testing a scheme called Pay As You Drive with 5,000 volunteers in the UK. Each time the car travels, a ‘black box’ inside the car monitors the destination and duration of the journey. Data is then sent to the insurance company wirelessly, risks are calculated and premiums calculated accordingly. Payment is made directly on a monthly basis bundled up with other services such as route planning and emergency assistance.

Ref: Springwise newsletter (Neth), issue 23, June/July 2005, ‘Pay as you drive’.


Grow your own fuel

US production of corn-based ethanol is growing at a rate of 30% a year. France says it plans to increase output of biofuels by 40-50% a year and China has built the world’s largest ethanol plant (with another in the pipeline). Is this a trend? It could be if the price of oil and other mineral fuels continue to rise, but as with other forms of ‘alternative’ energy, much also depends on fickle government subsidies. Biofuels are fuels made from plants – diesel fuel from oilseeds or ethanol made from corn, sugar or grass. Farmers and the green lobby love them and even the consumer is beginning to accept them. But the idea is nothing new. Rudolf Diesel displayed an engine designed to run on peanuts (peanut oil) at the Paris Exhibition in 1900 and Henry Ford was a fan of ethanol fuels in the 1920s. However, until recently it was only really Brazil that seriously developed the technology. Does biofuel have a future? The answer will depend on the politicians and the oil companies, but at least the debate has moved on from the green fringe and ‘alternative’ energy to a serious discussion. Also on the fuel front, BP in Australia has developed a fuel aimed at Aboriginal communities. The fuel, called Opal, contains very low levels of aromatics, lessening the appeal and hopefully the practice of petrol sniffing.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 14 May 2005, ‘Stirrings in the corn fields’; The Australian (Aus) 2-3 April 2005, ‘Fuel to foil the drive to get high’, A. Wilson. See also McKinsey Quarterly (US), issue #2, 2005, ‘What’s Next for Big Oil?’


Car activism

Is it possible that in the future you could be attacked because of the car you drive? Or perhaps activists will engineer massive boycotts of certain car manufacturers because of the models they make. Indeed, could car companies be forced to restrict public access to certain vehicles or ensure that their products are only used in certain places or in specific ways? In the UK a think-tank has suggested that owners of 4x4 (SUV) vehicles should be forced to carry ‘health warnings’ on the side of their vehicles in a similar way to the messages carried on packets of cigarettes. Also in the UK, Greenpeace activists recently stormed the Range Rover factory, attached slogans and chained themselves to the production line to demonstrate against ‘climate criminals’ and the ‘environmental damage’ caused by such vehicles. The argument of many 4x4 drivers against these charges is that such vehicles are safer. Moreover, a recent study has found that the amount of carbon dioxide produced by a diesel Range Rover is actually less than that produced by a domestic dishwasher or a petrol-driven lawnmower and is considerably less than that produced by a family holiday to DisneyWorld.

Ref: Weekly Telegraph (UK) issue #722, ‘Greenpeace activists attack ‘Chelsea Tractors’, N. Britten.


What if the i-Pod was a car?

Here’s a nice piece of disruptive thinking – what if Apple designed a car? Or to put another way, what can car designers learn from the makers of the iMac and the iPod? Apart from the fact that Apple has reconnected the long-severed link between beauty and sales, Apple is important because it marches to the sound of a different drummer. The company is fuelled by passion ahead of profits and the company’s head of design (Jonathan Ive) refuses to listen to focus groups on the basis that they’re a dead end - creatively. The company’s prophet (Steve Jobs) has also managed to build innovation into the DNA of the company. So what would a car from Jobs and Ive look like? One suspects that we might eventually find out, but in the meantime one can confidently suggest that it would look different. For a start the design would be related to function and all unnecessary elements would be removed (think of the original Mini). The user interface would, one suspects, be radically redesigned too (why exactly are we all given a cigarette lighter, ashtrays and an oil temp gauge in urban commuter vehicles?). There could be a retro feel, or perhaps the car would be designed so we could see how it works (think iMac, the Smart Four Four Style concept car’s transparent doors or the Ferrari 360 see-through engine cover).

Ref: Car (UK), May 2005, ‘Listen to the king of white earphones’, S. Bayley.