Your next new car might not look like your old one. And it might come from a brand you’ve never heard of.
In 2019, I wrote a report for Auto Trader about the future car and the changes you could expect to see in the coming decades. I based the report on my Intersections process, where I examine the pressures facing and market and how they intersect (hence the name) with global change trends.
One of those trends is about choice. Technology has compressed the world, bringing us all closer together. And it has cut friction from the innovation process, opening up access to the tools of creativity to many more people and lowering the cost of manufacturing. The result is that we have more choice now in a huge number of domains. The automotive space is the next one to be affected.
Han solo? Unlikely
I was inspired to write this piece by the announcement that BYD is coming to Europe. BYD is the biggest car maker you’ve never heard of. A Chinese giant responsible for building everything from passenger cars to utility vehicles – many of them battery powered.
BYD’s Han looks like a serious Tesla competitor: 376 mile range, 0-60 in 3.9 seconds. And it won’t be the last new brand we see.
Electric vehicles are likely to go through the same process as mobile phones in the next few years. Where once their incredible complexity meant only a handful of companies could design and build them, as the technology matures and becomes more accessible, more brands enter the market. Most will rely on third party integrators and manufacturers. But some will be design shops who have third parties build their more original designs. And some will assemble their own vehicles from a library of off-the-shelf parts.
I’m experimenting with how accessible the technology behind electric vehicles is myself right now. As I often do to understand the big tech trends, I have taken on a project to get under the skin of the technology. So, I’m trying to build an electric vehicle using recycled and open source parts. If you are interested in that sort of thing, I’m logging my progress over on my new projects site (very much a work in progress – both site and project).
What I have learned so far is just how large the electric vehicle supply chain has become. There is a huge diversity in the array of motors, motors, batteries and electronics driving these vehicles. And there is much more to come as the likes of BYD enter the market. With scale comes possibility: more new entrants, white-label manufacture (expect to see luxury, fashion and technology brands launch cars in the future), and more new designs.
Horses for courses
Most of the cars on the road are poorly shaped for the jobs they do. How often do they actually carry four or five people? Or a full load of luggage? How often are they actually in motion? You can use the answers to any of these questions to argue that we should move away from cars, and I think that’s a very valid argument. But placed in the context of our 100-year-plus love affair with the car, and the fact that most of our cities (and even countries), are designed around the car, this seems unlikely to happen fast. Instead I think we might belatedly see more variety in the design of vehicles.
Right now, single or two-seater pods like the Twizy look pretty quirky and are mostly used as promotional vehicles. But as their cost falls, and the variety of them rises, we might see more and more such vehicles on the roads. In fact, I think we’ll see a huge spectrum of different types of electric transport from single-wheelers, to electric juggernauts and every possibility in between. Machines that are more fit for the purpose for which they are typically used. Machines that are affordable to buy (or lease), take up less space, and cost less to run, but that fulfil 90% of the customer’s need.
The other 10% can be fulfilled by ride sharing services or short-term loans. Your lease might even include access to alternative vehicles for when you need something a bit bigger. Your two-seater covers the commute but you can borrow the 4×4 for the weekend trip to the countryside.
The future for dealers
This presents an interesting future for dealerships, which are usually located within easy reach of suburbs. If we are using a variety of vehicles for different purposes, where might these vehicles live when they are not in use? Dealers might still sell some cars, but they might also start to use their lots as storage space for flexible lease-and-loan schemes that give people access to a broader range of vehicles. With modular parts and continuous software upgrades, dealers might also find themselves keeping fleets on the road for longer. Maintaining, upgrading and customising the customer fleet might continue to be a big part of the business.