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20 years on - Freeway, crossroads or cul-de-sac - The crisis of personal mobility - a dream (or nightmare) come true?

In 1999 I (Peter Bailey, Senior Researcher, ICDP) completed my M Phil thesis which, as well as providing a social history of the car and its industry, attempted to create a 20-20 vision for the industry and its internal and external environment. This was quite a job!

I recently re-read this weighty tome - which is a little 'tongue in cheek' as well as fact grounded - and was surprised to see just how close to current reality it was. Whilst some elements have come to pass - e.g. the shift in ownership, mobility access, R & D, product complexity, logistics and distribution development, with some progress being made with propulsion technology - emissions, EVs, AVs, other alternative fuels and vehicle weight, some of the major issues back then are still staring the industry, its stakeholders and customers, in the face today:

  • The question of ownership and its changing worth to some customers with retail (and fleet) sales turning into leases and subscriptions. Manufacturers and related or unrelated  finance companies are turning increasingly into owner-fleet managers contracting direct with the customer. This, together with the growth of the internet and its potential role in contractual completion, is having a significant impact on distribution with over-fixed-capitalised dealerships needing to transform into a more consolidated network of customer service agents pre and post the mobility transaction rather than primary deal makers.

  • Is there a point in volume manufacturers investing millions in engineering built-to-order capability on  esoteric optional configurations when leased or subscribed-for mobility choices are coming from inventory. Keep stock low, yes - it is  a major cost item to maintain - but keep it centralised and its complexity simple unless the variety offered is skin-deep and can be reconfigured post assembly?

  • The problems of managing personal mobility in the city, its surrounding districts and on major connecting inter-urban routes have become much worse with mounting congestion driving environmental problems for the industry and society at large. What will happen in this over-crowded domain? Will the daily commute become a thing of the past for the many - and will this problem see much more work conducted at home aided by the web (with average mileages covered per annum already in retreat)? And, if this is the case, is the car and its ownership becoming an unnecessary and expensive solution to personal urban mobility?

With the luxury of a personally-owned car in retreat, its role as a liberator giving its owner cheap unrestricted 'right of passage' for commuting, touring or doing the shopping, is under pressure as never before. How will the industry adapt after running on flowline rails for five generations and address these fundamental questions for the future. Over the past twenty years, we have witnessed some of these key areas become the focus of the industry's attention, some are definitely 'work-in-progress' whilst others simmer on the back-burner.

Keeping an eye not just on the internal working and competition of the industry but on the external factors and actors impacting on personal mobility is an essential pre-requisite for winners in the 21st century. One only has to think of the transition from 'horse' power to the motor car in the early 20th century to realise that urban horse-driven mobility created an unhealthy environment as the power of the internal combustion engine has done a hundred years on. Whilst waste and emissions have played a significant part in both cases, the problem of congestion and traffic management in our cities and across our road networks remain centre-stage for the motor industry and society at large.

For those who might be interested in reading more, PDF copies of the thesis are available – please contact the Project Office.