The car industry worldwide has not had a good pandemic. January registrations in the UK alone were down 40 per cent on a year ago. And the disruption of lockdowns could not have come at a worse time for an industry facing bans on internal combustion engines in as little as ten years.
Not only is the traditional automobile industry under siege from climate-change activists, but it also struggles to come to terms with the move from mechanics to technology. Increasingly, car technology is software-driven rather than remaining independent on fine engineering.
Late to the party
While rather late to the electric party than more aggressive technology-based newcomers such as Tesla, the traditional industry has finally got the message. For instance, some manufacturers, including Volvo, have committed themselves to move over entirely to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) within a few years. Others are still sitting on the fence and burnishing their hybrid credentials.
Times they are a-changing, and rapidly. I’ve been obsessed with vehicles throughout my life, mainly four-wheel and two-wheel, and I’ve always enjoyed poring over magazines, reading reviews, and making comparisons before deciding on the latest acquisition. I have also been obsessed with technology, although I had reached a relatively mature age before computers assumed the dominant role that they now play.
In choosing my future car, the engine’s nature was always one of the biggest deciding factors. Performance, smoothness, acceleration and reliability were high on the checklist, as were handling, safety features and, of course, comfort. But as we move from the internal combustion engine to the BEV, the engine (or motor we must now say) is almost of no consideration. Smoothness, blistering acceleration, unfeasible torque at low speeds, only one gear: All these are now taken for granted. So attention turns elsewhere.
By far, the biggest consideration now is the technology and, increasingly, it will become dominant. The way we interact with our vehicles is changing dramatically. With over-air updates, the driving experience you enjoy with a car bought today can be transformed almost beyond recognition over the first few years. No longer is it a case of having the latest car, the latest software is far more important.
This is where traditional car manufacturers are struggling. They have approached BEVs with their established preconceptions. Some, even, are producing electric vehicles based on converted ICE platforms. They should be taking advantage of the proportions, smooth floor layout and dynamics offered by the new form of traction.
The Jaguar I-Pace is not one of these, however. It was designed from the beginning as an electric vehicle, taking full advantage of the opportunities created by the engine block’s absence up front and lack of need to transmit power to the rear wheels. As I found, however, the technology lags. The infotainment/control system is a mishmash of old and new, and operation is far from intuitive. And, despite over-air software update capability, nothing much seems to happen. Pre-2021 cars are stuck with a rapidly ageing system, never to catch up.
While Jaguar, Mercedes, Audi, Volkswagen, Volvo, Porsche et al are now producing very creditable battery electric vehicles, they all suffer from vestigial attachment to the old ways. As an industry, they failed to grasp the overwhelming need for a charging infrastructure to support their latest product. Newcomers, such as Tesla, have forged an entirely new way of controlling their cars and, incidentally, introduced a new direct selling policy in direct contrast to the other manufacturers mentioned. Tesla even accepted that its cars would not sell unless it took the initiative and first installed the charging infrastructure. It remains the only plug-and-go car manufacturer in the world.
There is no gainsaying Tesla’s importance in shaking up the automotive industry. It is the first radical upset in the past hundred years, and there is more of it on the way. From China, we see Xiaopeng (Xpeng) and Nio challenging Tesla. Their cars haven’t yet arrived in the West, except for a trickle of XPengs in Norway, but they are coming, ready to drop more problems into the laps of the resident car manufacturers.
And the biggest disrupter of all, Apple, is working hard on a battery-electric car that could be launched as soon as 2025. Although Hyundai associate Kia will probably manufacture the Apple car, it will be a revolutionary vehicle. Could Apple do for the car industry what it did for the phone market? With probably the highest brand loyalty of any organisation globally, Apple and its 1.5-billion fans will not be regarded lightly by the carmakers.
Old certainties die hard
All this goes to say that we are in a rapidly changing world. All the old certainties have gone. Increasingly, buyers will be looking to buy a computer on wheels rather than a car with a computer.
Last month I published my long-term review of the Jaguar I-Pace. It is undoubtedly one of the best “traditional” electric vehicles on the road and, apart from its haphazard infotainment system with poor operability, it is a fine car. I had already sold it by the time the review was published, and I am now without a vehicle. I reckoned that a few months with an empty drive would be no hardship during the lockdown and, so far, I have been proved right—no depreciation, no insurance, nowhere to go.
I am now in my absolute favourite phase of car choosing: The chase. The hunt is often more pleasing than the engagement and subsequent marriage; at least that’s been my automotive experience.
After watching countless YouTube videos and online reviews, I am gathering my thoughts. Of one thing you can be certain, I will not go back to the internal combustion engine. In a recent survey here in the UK, under one per cent of BEV owners would consider going back, and I am not among them.
But my thoughts are indeed ranging wide. I’ve already decided that my next car will not be manufactured in Europe or the United Kingdom. It will probably not be manufactured in the USA. I’m increasingly looking to the East. A Nio or an XPeng would tempt me if they were any sign of their arrival in the UK. So watch this space. It’s all inspiring.
Now for another YouTube review (or two)…