What the City of the future will do to car sales

by | Jan 5, 2016

Appeared in The Ami 2016 UK Franchised Dealer Report

Mobility is a fact of life. People and goods need to constantly move to and from our cities to keep our economy functioning efficiently and effectively. However it is also a fact that we’re facing a period of immense change when it comes to mobility and the existing paradigms will be challenged.

According to the World Health Organisation, the UK is estimated to suffer £54 billion in economic costs associated with air pollution, including deaths and disease. The premature deaths of about 29,000 people a year are attributed to air pollution in the UK. It is Cities that are having to make the most radical adaptions.

Our economy would collapse without mobility, whether this is for business or recreation. The city of the future has to balance all of these factors. Many rapidly growing cities around the world are failing to do this, resulting in environments where people only live there for economic reasons.

One challenge is that the current methods of mobility are established, affordable and they work, even if they are not sustainable. For business and the public to change their method of mobility, the replacement technology must be affordable and work. Otherwise the changes will have to be forced onto people, something politicians fear. While some sales can be achieved through people with a personal motivation or desire for green credentials, this will never account for the main body of consumers.

So what could change our habits? I would suggest it is one or more of the following; cost (vehicles must cost the same or less), desirability (image); conscience; peer pressure; ease of use and finally legislation. In short, the widespread adoption of less polluting vehicles will require a fine balance between manufacturers’ capabilities, consumer acceptance and how far legislators will be prepared to go.

Other factors are now starting to impact mobility thinking. We have a population that not only lives longer, but desires to be mobile longer. Due to economic factors, those same people will also be working longer. Technology such as autonomous driving will grow, as it will allow people to be safely mobile for longer.

The requirements of the future city will change mobility

There is a definite move to Low Carbon Zones within city centres and an acceptance of alternative technologies, which is reflected in sales of Ultra Low Carbon Vehicles. The current Defra Air Quality Consultation on air quality makes it very clear that local authorities will have to reduce carbon emissions. Following court appearances, after the European Commission launched legal proceedings, the UK faces fines of up to £300 million a year for failing to reduce ‘excessive’ levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2 or NOx) air pollution from traffic. City-dwellers are particularly exposed, as most nitrogen dioxide originates in traffic fumes, and air pollution limits are regularly exceeded in 16 zones across the UK.

Cities of the future will be highly integrated with economic growth being a function of being a desirable location to both live and do business. People will want to operate and bring up families where mobility is part of an overall healthy lifestyle. The concept of mobility will be different, as it will involve people using multiple forms of transport to complete a day’s business, based on destination and ease of use.

Implications on car sales

Within a city, the key is tailpipe emissions. Tailpipe emission reductions are likely to be delivered by displacing combustion engines. So what will replace them?

Changes in technology take time. In countries such as China, the state can take the economic risk of a wholesale transfer to alternative propulsion methods or fuels. In the West most of the risk sits with private business, so investment will initially be speculative and will only be built upon if successful, or the ‘no choice’ scenario is introduced by legislators. The latter approach will probably not be the best option for consumers as they will be forced to give up something they take for granted now.

Transport can be broadly broken down into public, private and haulage. Within those categories, the alternative fuel options are basically either lower carbon emissions from the tailpipe or zero emissions (ZE).

The following options are on the market:

  • Private vehicles (cars) and small vans can be replaced by full EV or Plug in Hybrids (PHEV) but there is a capacity restraint. There is a very small number of hydrogen powered cars (FCV) but this technology and infrastructure is currently not commercially viable.
  • Public transport (buses) are beginning to make the move to hybrid technologies however this is being seen as a short term fix. Short term will probably see more CNG being used.
  • For commercial (haulage) vehicles I see no viable alternative to carbon generating technology for the foreseeable future. The most promising is motorway vehicles powered using overhead lines such as electrified rail routes.

If legislators decide on zero emission city centres, then a mix of technologies will have to evolve, with freight hubs operating as transfer points between the different vehicle types. Dealers are already starting to see evidence of the move to lower-emission vehicles. In the 10 months to the end of October, the SMMT recorded a year-on-year increase of almost 45% in registrations of alternatively fuelled vehicles.

Written by Dr Colin Herron.




  • Newcastle University,
  • King's Gate,
  • Newcastle upon Tyne,
  • NE1 7RU,
  • UK.