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Cars: Manufacturers’ Value Proposition v. Motorists’ Real Usage

02.22.24 | Blog | By:

New cars are on an inflation rise, in size and price. A recent post exposed the reasons from the carmakers’ point of view. And although car design follows, to an extent, what marketing studies yield of motorists’ expectations, road surveys tell a very different story, a mismatch between car features and usage.

Consider size first. On average, in Europe, five persons can comfortably nest in a car. Well, a bit less when toddlers are on board, as kids’ safety seats do take room, but less than 5 years old only represents less than 5% of the total population in the West. What do we see on the roads, day in, day out?

In France, the energy transition agency (ADEME) estimates solo car use amounts to 80%, mostly for commuting between much decentralized habitat (a single house with garden is still the preferred housing ideal in 2023: the suburbia / exurbia model, which implies car commuting, source of the majority of CO2 emissions from road transport) and much centralized work location. Car sharing, work from home and development of public transport outside the main cities may help but will not have drastic effects right away, as this sort of change takes time.

With size comes weight. Excess weight becomes the norm, what with the SUV hegemony, batteries for electrified vehicles, ever more safety devices. In solo car use, dead weight (everything except the driver and some luggage, possibly) then amounts to more than 95%. A lot of energy wasted to just move around. But inherent to mechanized travel, 80% dead weight for a mid-haul airplane, 90% for a high-speed train, at full load: reversing the performance requires soft mobility, walking or biking, where human force replaces mechanical energy.

When it comes to speed, which plays a role in excess weight, top speed on average largely exceeds 100 mph, when speed limits on roads are much lower, especially in urban and suburban zones where traffic concentrates. One argument could be that acceleration, useful to safely overtake a “laggard”, is somehow correlated to speed. This is a weak argument in my opinion, whereas acceleration is such an important part of the marketing image (recently read: 0 to 100 kph, one electric Porsche does better than a Tesla!). The legend of car mobility has been written with Le Mans, Indianapolis and Monza famous car races, hasn’t it? Why is Ferrari, a notoriously difficult car to drive for an average motorist, still alive and kicking, highly profitable? Therefore, unnecessary speed performance.

Last, but not least, autonomy. Time is of the essence, says the conventional wisdom in our civilization obsessed with speed. Autonomy allows to minimize time spent on the road, one single voyage without any stop, except maybe for biological needs (coffee, toilet). Not the present experience with battery-powered electric cars (BEV), recharge anxiety being actually the single largest hesitation in motorists’ minds when considering a switch from a thermal car to a BEV. But, then again, the same study by ADEME shows 98.8% of car trips cover less than 80 kilometers. Commuting is still the predominant use of the car and source of CO2 emissions.

A candid answer to the above would be to acquire a small BEV, whichever is the format of the vehicle (two-seaters, three or four wheelers are on the design board), as it would cover most of our road transport needs. But such a vehicle is not a family car, rather the second car of the household, only used for commuting and shopping around. Not every family owns several cars, looks like this luxury presents some social justice issues.

Inside large cities, one can live without a family car, without any car at all, relying on soft mobility for short trips and public transport for commuting and longer ones, like weekends and vacations. But with a social aspect, some restriction in terms of freedom to move around (public transport is point-to-point by construction), when car has been the symbol of freedom of movement in the 20th century and our present society has been built around it over decades, creating a path dependence that will not be easy to break from, especially when taking into account the growing individualism, which tends to multiply the destinations, to visit or to patron.

Not even mentioning the difficulty to extend public transport to cater for the modal switch entailed by any sunset of car or the much-despised approach by public transport companies or authorities to dramatically raise fares during peak times, deterring many from this low-carbon transport mode, and, again, keeping car the favored choice of families when it comes to national, even regional, distances in Europe: immediate savings trump any consideration of Total Cost of Operation.

Wisdom from Africa tells us it takes a village to educate a young one. In the case of road mobility, actually individual mobility, accessible (inclusive in modern Newspeak) and affordable to all, it seems many actors have to assemble, carmakers, motorists, regulators, financers, fuel providers, which is no easy task in the global context of intense competition, between transport modes, between car manufacturers, between car manufacturing or climate-conscious nations. And we do not have a United Nations of Individual Mobility. Should we have one, hoping it would not be as crippled as the UN today?

Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and  Innovation Platform (ETIP).

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