Perhaps it was no more than an unfortunate coincidence that the publicity stand for Brussels’ car free Sunday was situated right outside the hotel where Automotive Megatrends 2014 was being held. But there it was; the first thing to greet arrivals at the conference was partially crushed blue Mini, with a tape measure around what might have been its waistline to emphasize the relationship between car-driving and obesity. Surrounding the Mini were posters proclaiming the virtues of other, less polluting and more calorie-burning modes of urban mobility such as cycling and walking.
Coincidence or not, there was a certain resonance between the promotion outside and the event inside. Overall the conference had a slightly melancholy tone. There was lots of talk about the schedule for new regulations and the need to reduce carbon emissions. In the freight part of the conference there was, unsurprisingly, much discussion about how to improve fuel economy, and an acknowledgement that the externally imposed sustainability and environmental agenda were largely in step with the industry’s own imperatives of cost reduction and greater efficiency. We were particularly struck by a contribution from Professor David Cebon of the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, which presented the findings from a model of truck fleet fuel usage. The results clearly showed that some kinds of efficiency saving matter a great deal and others are little more than distractions; the biggest impact of all would come from reducing empty loads, which account for 40% of wasted energy. The clear subtext of Cebon’s presentation was that despite lots of talk, neither the industry nor the regulators were taking the steps that are absolutely necessary to control CO2 emission and protect margins.
Some of the presentations in the car section were even more dismal, with a focus on the demographics of car purchase. Paco Soler, of automotive marketing consultancy Urban Science, was brutally frank; the Western European market for new cars is devoid of growth. Projections are more cheerful for Eastern Europe, though these look less certain in the light for recent geopolitical developments. The average age at which people learn to drive, or buy a car, is increasing every year. The world-wide trend towards urbanisation may not be helping either. At least in some cities traffic congestion and parking difficulties is putting people off car ownership, if not car usage. In Berlin some 41% of households don’t own cars, and the UK census suggests that the figure is similar for London.
On the other hand, there was real enthusiasm towards car sharing schemes and ‘car clubs’, a new business model for the industry that would have been unthinkable without both connected cars and high smartphone penetration. Car manufacturers were dipping their toes into this emerging opportunity, often in partnership with either traditional car rental companies (such as BMW’s joint venture with Sixt for DriveNow) or with sharing start-ups (such as Ford’s partnership with Flinkster, owned by rail operator Deutsche Bahn).
But even the whizziest parts of the programme, focusing on the potential for advanced services that could be enabled by connectivity to the car, were touched with more than a little anxiety. David Mingay of London-based digital design agency Ustwo exhorted car makers to take back control of the UI, and not to let third parties – especially not giants like Apple, Google, and Microsoft – get between the OEM’s customers and their experience of connected car services. They should, he said, treat the design of the interface with as much seriousness as they apply to the cars’ interiors and exteriors. Ustwo has lots of smart things to say about the UI for connected cars, and he’s right about the principle, of course, but it’s hard to take seriously the idea of car companies taking on Apple or Google in the light of their actual achievements in service design; Mingay himself showed screenshots of Ferrari’s in-car system, which used exactly the same UI as that of the Chrysler commercial mini-van. It was all rather reminiscent of telecoms industry conferences, where the carriers would all solemnly pledge their intention not to be bit pipes.