What now for the car industry?

“Dieselgate” is both a complete outrage and an act of desperation from an industry losing its glory and relevance.

Harry Blain
29 September 2015

Flickr/Sean_Marshall.Some rights reserved.While discussing the impact of methane on global warming, Jeremy Clarkson once quipped that “a Range Rover, doing 10,000 miles a year, produces less pollution a day than a cow farting.” Millions of people across the world worship Clarkson and, still, worship the car. China alone “gained an additional 17 million new cars in 2014, taking ownership to a record 154 million.”

If people cannot afford cars, ownership remains an aspiration for many: the 2013 Nielsen Global Survey on Automotive Demand found, for example, that “around four in five Indonesian and Thai consumers (81% and 79% respectively) intend to acquire a car within the next two years, as do three quarters of Filipinos (76%) and seven out of 10 Malaysians (71%).”

Yet, as we know, cars kill us. The number of global road traffic deaths every year – 1.24 million according to the World Health Organisation – is, in the WHO’s words, a “public health crisis.” Road transport in the UK (the vast majority of it cars) accounts for 22% of our total CO2 emissions, while “[a]bout 29,000 deaths in the UK are hastened by inhalation of minute particles of oily, unburnt soot emitted by all petrol engines and an estimated 23,500 by the invisible but toxic gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) discharged by diesel engines.”

“Dieselgate” – the appalling fraud perpetrated by Volkswagen – is getting us talking about these issues, and the desperately inadequate regulation of the industry. But, as more revelations are reported almost daily, we also need to talk about the future of the automobile itself.

A typical scandal

The first thing that’s important to remember is that although the VW scandal has been met with shock and condemnation by everyone from the Telegraph to the Sun to the Morning Star, this does not come as a surprise to people who have watched the industry and its emissions tests closely. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), for example, has long voiced concerns about the peculiar differences between the tests and real-world evidence, and it is now looking like several national governments – including Britain’s – have also not only known about these strange discrepancies, but also actively encouraged dodgy testing methods.

In this sense, it’s a typical scandal on an industrial scale: a large corporation concealing the damage caused by its product with the help of toothless regulation; and politicians pretending to be surprised, despite having at least some knowledge of the unfolding corruption. As George Monbiot importantly pointed out, the severity of the health risk being hidden – namely an obscene amount of toxic gas in the atmosphere – brings to mind parallels with the tobacco industry.  

The TTIP connection

The revelation of “dieselgate” has been accompanied by more evidence of a rot throughout the entire car industry. It has now also come to light that research commissioned by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), the European car lobby ACEA and the American Automotive Policy Council found huge differences in safety standards across the Atlantic: with “passengers in a typical EU model… 33 per cent safer in front-side collisions, an accident that often results in serious injury, than those in a typical US model.”

The Executive Director of the European Transport Safety Council was quoted in the Independent: “This study shows that EU and US trade negotiators would potentially be putting lives in danger by allowing vehicles approved in the US to be sold today in Europe and vice-versa.”

Yet this is what the motor industry hopes to achieve through the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), with lobbyists on both sides of the Atlantic barely able to contain their excitement about the “opportunity to break down regulatory barriers in the auto sector, reduce costs and increase commercial predictability.”

Moreover, as the NGO Transport and Environment has pointed out, the VW scandal should teach the European Commission to first worry about the obvious failings of its own regulations, before it even thinks about “breaking down barriers” and “reducing costs” for the motor industry.

“Stop TTIP” is now a battle-cry for growing numbers of activists, researchers, ordinary citizens and even local councils. The reasons for this popular revolt are entirely justifiable – and  have been discussed at length on openDemocracy – so I won’t go over them again here. Suffice to say that the image of auto giants undermining public safety to avoid jeopardising the big prize of TTIP is not a flattering one.

“I don’t have to own a car”

So, to put it bluntly, Volkswagen aren’t the only ones in trouble. But the problem for the car industry is not just one of a deteriorating public image – it is also one of wider shifts in our attitudes and behaviour. The attitude of many Londoners, for example, fits quite closely with Jeremy Corbyn’s:

 “I drive. I don’t have to own a car. I’ve had a licence since I was 17. If I need one, I hire a car – or borrow my son’s if he’s in a good mood.”

Indeed, a recent report published by LSE Cities and the Innovation Centre for Mobility and Societal Change (InnoZ) compared attitudes in London and Berlin and found, on the basis of an extensive survey, that less than one in six residents in each city displayed a strong identification with car use and ownership. For some, the reasons for this were primarily environmental; for most, practical: cars are expensive and there are other ways of getting around.

It is easy to retort that, even if cities like Berlin and London are seeing these shifts, millions of cars are still being sold to growing middle-class populations in countries like China and Malaysia.

Nevertheless, the crisis of the car should not be underestimated: not only does the Mayor of Paris want to see diesel cars banned from the French capital by 2020, but Chinese cities have been forced to limit car purchases through number plate quotas, while building metro systems bigger than the Tube and the New York Subway.

Tragedy or opportunity?

Despite the appalling environmental consequences and public safety problems associated with most cars, the prospect of a declining motor industry saddens many of us. In the public mindset, the automobile is often not seen alongside images of deadly accidents and toxic gases, but as part of the great post-war dream of the modern consumer society.

Yet the car – like many of the other elements of this dream (especially, for my generation, home ownership) – is looking increasingly, well, not worth it. Perhaps, in this context, “dieselgate” can be seen as both a complete outrage and an act of desperation from an industry losing its glory and relevance.

Is this a tragedy? In London, at least, it may well instead be an opportunity. Is it really acceptable that nearly 9,500 people die early each year in the capital due to long-term exposure to air pollution? How can the government get away with burying the news that we’re going to be above EU pollution limits until at least 2025?

Ok, cars aren’t the only cause and not all auto giants are up to VW’s tricks. But the crisis of this industry is a massive chance to get more people fighting to clean up our cities and, hopefully, our planet. This effort can be part of the much broader struggle – already well under way – against what TTIP embodies: unchecked corporate power and, potentially, very flimsy environmental protections.

And yes, as Kingsley Dennis and John Urry have argued, we might need to also start thinking about a not-too-distant future “After the Car.”      

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