It would be easy to conclude that the private motorist is facing a bleak future; rising fuel costs and road tax, hostile environmentalists and a crumbling road network are enough to deter even the most committed motorist from driving for pleasure, with many feeling they face a future where they have to restrict their driving to commuting and ferrying the groceries home in a bid to save money. This is, they say, exactly what the government wants: to deter drivers from, well, driving.
The truth is, as always, far more complex than that - and I think that there is genuine hope for the private motorist living in Great Britain.
The United Kingdom now exports more cars than it imports, a state of affairs that few would have predicted even a handful of years ago. Fifteen thousand new jobs have been created in the last 18 months alone bringing the total number employed in car manufacturing to 145,000; include the aftermarket and sales and the number jumps to nearly three-quarters of a million, making the car industry the largest sector for UK exports according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).
Good news for the UK economy then and its good news for environmentalists, too. Emissions have fallen by 20 percent in ten years, and theyre predicted to fall further and faster in the next. Car manufacturers are now in a race to produce more and more fuel-efficient cars - and they probably wont be diesel.
Despite sales being evenly split between diesel and petrol at the moment its widely accepted that a combination of the higher price of buying the car in the first place and rising diesel prices makes the breakeven point for private motorists around 15,000 miles a year. Below that figure petrol engines even in their current state of development make more financial sense and are, in general, nicer to drive too.
Diesel engines are far more refined, powerful, and economical now than they have ever been but The Law of Diminishing Returns means that motor industry engineers will be concentrating their efforts in the future on the much neglected petrol engine. (No, not electric either; unless battery technology comes on in leaps and bounds which isnt something than any experts are predicting few of us will be driving all-electric cars in the near future, despite their obvious advantages.)
Fords EcoBoost engine (which we will be reporting on in-depth next month), which is available in 1.0-litre 123bhp and 2.0-litre 246bhp versions, is an ultra-economical petrol engine that signposts the direction that future engines will evolve. Its physically very small (it will fit on a sheet of A4 paper) very smooth to drive and cheap to tax thanks to its outstanding performance in the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) tests.
The NEDC test, the industry standard for measuring how much fuel a car uses, is carried out in a laboratory and was designed to help consumers compare the fuel consumption across a range of cars in the knowledge that they are comparing like for like. The big question though, is whether it works in practice.
Some cars, especially hybrids, are merely fuel cycle beaters, according to Richard Parry-Jones, co-chair of the UK Automotive Council and former Ford chief technical officer, who points out that consumer satisfaction plummets when their real-world fuel consumption doesnt come close to their cars claimed consumption.
Fiats TwinAir is another lovely engine that is great to drive but no-where near as economical as you might imagine. Owners generally love their 500s and Pandas but are sorely disappointed to find that 35mpg is their lot on a good day. The guilty party, in this case at least, is the government rather than the manufacturers.
The NEDC test is widely expected to be revised in the near future, yet I would argue that the consumer still benefits under the existing scheme; they might not get the mpg that they might reasonably expect but they are getting cleaner engines that qualify for low, or even free, road tax and are exempt from the congestion charge, a scheme that must surely spread from city to city in the near future
Cars are getting safer too; electronic stability control is now universal, active and passive safety measures coming on in leaps and bounds (watch Audi, in particular, for some startling developments in vehicle lighting), and autonomous cars being licensed in some states of the USA, albeit for testing only at the moment. Tyre pressure monitoring systems will be mandatory for new cars from November 2012 and for all new cars sold from November 2014, making cars safer and, yes, more economical.
Cars are also becoming lighter, reversing a trend that seemed irrevocably set. Lighter cars handle, stop, steer, and go better than heavy ones and encourage a virtuous circle during development; lighter cars need smaller, less cumbersome components, which reduce weight further, and so on.
So, the future is brighter than you might imagine. Cars will become even cleaner, better-equipped, safer, lighter, and consequently more fun to drive.