Scandals and the next motoring revolution
From the Volkswagen saga to self-steering cars - 2016 has been a year of change
I happen to think the year just ending will be regarded as one of the most significant for decades for motoring. On the one hand, we had the game-changing fall-out of the Volkswagen saga. On the other, we had unprecedented proliferation of technology wherein the process of cars becoming 'computers on wheels' was dramatically speeded up.
Anyway, here are my five 'likes' and 'dislikes' for 2016.
1 I don't think we fully appreciate, even now, how profound an effect the Volkswagen scandal has had on motoring, and on public opinion generally. The company, whose naughty people used emissions-cheating devices on 11 million cars, will pay a massive price for many years.
I can't say I necessarily 'liked' the saga, but it sure made me feel good that they got caught. We haven't heard the end of it by a long shot. Nor have we seen the end of the ripples it has created across the global industry.
The 'like' part is not so much that it has put a spotlight on tightening up regulations and called motor giants to heel. It is more that it has accelerated the process of focusing on how we are going to stop/lessen the impact of fossil-fuel emissions on our health and environment.
Change, big change, may have been coming anyway, but I would argue Volkswagen's cheating has speeded up the process. All of a sudden, lobbyists and legislators have gained more urgency and leverage. It is as if the challenge of moving to the post-fossil-fuel era has suddenly crystallised. Don't get me wrong; we are years away from any new dawn. But I suspect we've passed the darkest point.
2 One of the biggest 'likes' about 2016 was the way extraordinary technology (the sort making cars like computers on wheels) filtered across and down so many price segments, sizes and shapes. I don't like singling out particular cars, but I remember being taken aback on discovering that a small motor like the Suzuki Baleno had Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC). This used to be on €100,000-plus cars a few years back. ACC lets you set the distance you want to automatically keep from the vehicle in front. Now it's in a car that costs less than €20,000. Even the 'lower specced' €18,000 Baleno entry-level version has satnav, air con, MirrorLink, ApplePlay, DAB, reversing camera, front fogs.
3 It is early days, but it was good to see petrol cars making a bit of a return during 2016. People are buying diesel cars to cover 10,000km a year. Absolute madness. I think there is a growing awareness that, with new technology, petrol is a real option again.
4 Economist Jim Power, in his most recent quarterly review of the motor industry for the SIMI, details how new car prices have continued to fall in real terms for the past number of years.
I don't see it with sticker prices but that's due to the huge level of new equipment that comes with today's mid-trim cars. Good to know, though, that the price pressure is downwards.
5 Among my biggest 'likes' was the near 125km journey in the Mercedes E-Class that more or less drove itself. I didn't have to steer, touch the brakes or accelerator. I just sat there and, mostly, did nothing. It was a strange feeling and one I hope to experience in other cars soon. All the automakers are hell bent on having autonomous vehicles on the road before long. There are major infrastructural and legal hurdles but they'll be overcome.
And now my dislikes:
1 How carmakers continue to silently charge hundreds of euro for 'delivery and related' charges annoys me intensely. In partial redemption, some are now showing how much they are charging. Around €750 is commonplace. Why not just give the On the Road price of the car with all included? Some are beginning to do that now. About time; more needed.
2 I detested, all year, how outrageously inaccurate fuel-consumption figures were flung at us for a whole range of models. Worse still, they were given the imprimatur of 'official' just because they had been tested under the most ideal (ridiculous) conditions, on the lowest roll-resistance tyres etc without any sense of real-world driving. Fair dues to the PSA group (Peugeot/Citroen) for coming out with their own real-world figures. Others need to follow to end this farce.
3 The inexorable advance of the electronic handbrake. Sorry, I am being a totally illogical and old-fashioned Bah Humbug, but I love the certainty of the physical handbrake being engaged or released. With electronic versions, as often as not, I've had to press two or three times to release.
4 I lament, yet again, the demise of the spare tyre. I defy you to work some of those contraptions that deputise. They can be awful and downright messy.
5 I have had to wash my hands several times this year after replenishing the tank with diesel at some fuel stations. The pump handles were smelly and sticky, and the diesel odour lingered for days. Is it too much to ask for those slim, disposable protective plastic gloves at ALL stations? I know from a previous life how the smell of diesel can cling for days.