The big joke in the lighting industry used to be that manufacturers had long ago discovered a way to create a light bulb that lasted forever, but didn’t want to release it to the public as it would slash their profits. Why sell something once when they could sell it over and over again?
Joking aside, the motor industry could easily be accused of having shot itself in the foot in a similar way. Where once even the best cars on the market struggled with reliability issues and rusted away to nothing within a few years, today’s vehicles are cheaper and more sophisticated yet more sturdy and reliable than ever. The automated mass production techniques that began with the introduction of the first robots in the 1970s have now reached their peak, allowing cars and their engines to be built to a more consistent standard than ever before. As a result, many manufacturers are increasingly offering five and seven year guarantees instead of the standard three and some are going so far as to guarantee all of a car’s major components for as long as the owner keeps the vehicle.
Buying cheap cars once meant compromising on quality and safety but now even many low budget vehicles are supplied with air conditioning, anti-lock brakes and intelligent power steering as standard. How is the industry able to achieve this? Automation and greater efficiency have undoubtedly played a part. Some manufacturers have also managed to cut costs by collaborating with their one-time rivals, sharing basic designs, chassis components and even engines in order to reduce both the time and money needed during the research and design phase.
Other manufacturers, such as Daihatsu and the now-defunct Saab, had a single engine that was used on every model of car, meaning that parts and other components could be produced in bulk, reducing the unit cost. Although cars contain more technology than ever before, the cost of this technology has been steadily falling for years. Although there are still occasional mass recalls, increasing levels of reliability also mean that manufacturers spend less time altering production lines in order to account for shortcomings in designs.
Manufacturers are also taking increasing advantage of the global market, sourcing parts or labour outside the UK as often as possible, even if the final assembly of the vehicles takes place here. The flip side of the change has been a dramatic shift in the profile of cars on the road with far fewer older models being seen. The next challenge the manufacturers have is far greater: responding to changes in the market itself. During the mid-90s, the percentage of 17 to 20-year-olds with driving licences was around 48 per cent. Today it has fallen to 35 per cent. Whereas most teenagers aspired to own a car, many would now rather have the latest smart phone or tablet computer. The rising cost of insurance and petrol have also made car ownership less desirable so the natural response of the industry has been to cut costs in order to make its product more affordable. At the upper end of the market, the desire for greater efficient means consumers are willing to pay over the odds – which is why electric and hybrid vehicles carry such a premium. Only when this same technology becomes cheap enough to offer the same savings benefits to a new generation of drivers will the golden age of motoring be set to return.