Since its invention 130 years ago, the mythology of the car has been one of freedom and independence, power and status. It is a story that the industry has worked tirelessly to promote. In TV commercials the latest models are shown sweeping along deserted cliff-top roads, exhilarating their occupants as they carry them swiftly and safely from one glamorous adventure to the next.
For most of us, the reality is not like the myth. Most cars spend 95 percent of the time sitting unused in garages and parking lots or on driveways and roadsides. They spend a lot of the rest stuck in traffic. In 2014, for example, urban drivers in the U.S. spent 6.9 billion wasted hours in their cars due to the effects of traffic congestion – around 42 hours per commuter. Cars have an image problem, too. Exhaust pipes emit carbon dioxide and other harmful by-products, sometimes in far greater quantities than consumers and regulators expect.
The automotive industry has responded to many of these criticisms. Downsized engines and hybrid powertrains are steadily chipping away at fleet-wide emissions. Lightweight materials are helping too. In the U.S., Ford’s decision to switch from steel to aluminum in the construction of its F150 pickup truck has been rewarded with record sales. And there are plenty of parts of the world where access to a vehicle is providing real – and potentially life-changing – new freedoms to millions of people. While sales in key emerging regions like China, India and Latin America have been bumpy in recent years, the long-term trend is strongly upwards.
Carmakers are facing another challenge, however. Wherever they are in the world, the vast majority of their customers see vehicles not as an escape from their everyday lives but as an integral part of it. Increasingly, they are demanding products that fit into their lives in better – and sometimes radically different – ways.