Carmakers must decide what role to play in the lower-emission future of personal mobility

By Mark Thompson, director, sustainability and climate change.



When was the last time you braved the crush and bedlam of the New Year sales on London’s Oxford Street?  For many of us, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-repeated experience.  Maybe you had yours last month?

This year I had an extra reason for staying away. According to the campaign group ‘Clean Air In London’, by January 4 the levels of nitrogen dioxide in the Oxford Street area had already exceeded the legal limit set by the EU for the whole of 2015. In just four days.


Such issues aren’t limited to London – or indeed to the UK. And the good news is that positive action to address them is under way. In Europe alone, it’s estimated that more than 70 cities and towns in eight countries are now operating or preparing Low Emission Zones, or LEZs, to help comply with EU limits.


London is now poised to go a stage further, with Transport for London (TfL) having just closed a consultation on creating the world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). The deadline for submissions was 9 January. As I write, TfL is considering the 16,000-plus responses it received, with a view to making a recommendation to the Mayor some time in the spring, on whether to go ahead with the ULEZ.


Other UK cities are also taking steps, for example, Sheffield City Council has undertaken a study into the potential costs, benefits, air quality impacts, emissions reductions and timescales around introducing an LEZ in Sheffield. And as TfL continues to mull over the creation of a ULEZ, what’s clear is that improving the sustainability of personal transport and urban personal transport in particular, doesn’t lend itself to a quick or easy fix.


With action to reduce traffic emissions continuing to escalate, automotive makers need to map out the best way forward for their business. Their efforts to do this are being complicated by the need to accommodate a host of wider changes, ranging from shifting attitudes to vehicle ownership to the ageing of the population.


Take vehicle ownership. For previous generations of late teenagers or 20-somethings, owning their first car was a rite of passage. For today’s young urban adults, the downsides of car ownership – including the punitive costs of parking, road tax, traffic fines and (increasing) congestion charges, are combining with rising environmental concerns and efficient public transport to make owning a car seem far less attractive. Witness the rise of car-sharing services like Zipcar and environmentally responsible taxi services like Green Tomato Cars.


In parallel, the rising proportion of older people in the population is changing the design criteria for vehicles. The effects of this demographic shift include pushing speed and style down the list of priorities, and making attributes such as 360-degree visibility and ease of access more important.


Amid this complex and shifting environment, carmakers need to decide what role they’ll play in a more sustainable future – not just as vehicle manufacturers, but as providers of personal mobility. They must do this against a background of increasing worries over health impacts and tightening emissions regulation at a national and EU level.


Once again, the solution comes back to advances in technology. As well as developing better electric vehicles, most OEMs are now looking to make their fleets more fuel-efficient by using lighter chassis materials and more efficient transmission systems. A key goal was the requirement to reduce CO2 emissions to 130 g/km by 2015 – a target that the automotive industry achieved during 2013. But the next target of 95 g/km by 2020 will be harder to hit, especially given the backlash against diesel in much of Europe.


Going forward, newer technologies will come to the fore such as guided or driverless cars and technology-enabled sharing.  This will help to increase energy efficiency further by boosting utilisation and telematics will open up opportunities to incentivise environmentally responsible driving behaviours.


With London preparing for the proposed launch of the world’s first ULEZ, the UK is at the forefront of global progress towards the low-emission future of personal transport. All automotive manufacturers need to think hard today about their place and role in that future.