25 Feb 2024

A tale of the UK market

Mature vehicle markets like the UK have taken decades to establish, and are served by a combination of dealers and distributors for new vehicles, a whole gaggle of used vehicle retailers and some of private sales too. The whole process, and all the services around the business from tyres to major mechanical overhaul are built on the following premise:

The owner/user has enough disposable income to not only purchase the vehicle, tax it and insure it, but also run it too. This produces a stream of maintenance and repairs, to the extent we can predict the types of job by the season

The vehicle uses a lot of common technology, even if the parts are unique and some of the service operations are also manufacturer-specific

 The owner/user was excited enough about their vehicle to prevent it from falling into disrepair. This ensured as a vehicle wore out or became uneconomic to repair, it would be recycled and a replacement vehicle sought.

New vehicle sales steadily expanded until by the 2000s, where they settled at about 2 million cars per year – and the parc grew slowly, meaning roughly each new vehicle matched an old one being recycled. This vast organisation ran smoothly, even as government raided it again and again for tax, or meddled with other random factors. Affordability, accessibility and interest remained strong.  

Enter Euro 1 to Euro 7
There are emission laws for newly built vehicles, and slightly more relaxed rules for vehicles after the initial sale. From the late 1990s Europe, as a major emission rule maker, sought to improve road transport tail pipe emissions and so introduced technologies which had already been in use both in the USA as well as Japan. The difference was the plan; Each stage would last for a few years before the new vehicle tail pipe emission limits became smaller.

The tipping point was a push by several governments including the UK towards diesel engines for cars, in order to reduce CO2. The EU rules pushed from Euro 4 in the opposite direction by increasing combustion temperatures, which in turn generated more and more NOx. From 2004 there was no technology anywhere in the world for NOx tailpipe emission treatment, let alone particulate filters. From 2009 onwards, with the advent of Euro 5, both technologies were not only invented, but tested and certified.

Meanwhile in the outside world the exhaust gas treatment systems, especially for petrol internal combustion engines, became more and more complex. In addition, increasing numbers of customers, especially those taxed by CO2 emissions from their chosen vehicle, even though it was not a measured pollutant in the rules for new vehicles, complained they could not get anywhere near the claimed ‘official’ fuel economy figures declared by both the vehicle manufacturer and EU member states.    

Of course what followed was a real low point: Some vehicle manufacturers had cheated to flatter test results, knowing the vehicle would not behave in the same way outside of a test lab. The EU did not impose the draconian penalties that the USA uses (non-compliance leads to immediate stop sale, correction at the cost of the manufacturer, customer compensation at the cost of the manufacturer and if not…destruction or removal of all affected vehicles plus compensation). Europe preferred an agreeable cup of coffee to discuss matters.

Enter the new energy deal
For most of the 2000s, as internal combustion engines did achieve remarkable reductions in all major tail piper pollutants, politicians dreamt of bigger things. A world free from the internal combustion engine.

The plan was set in motion with the eventual agreement of vehicle manufacturers from 2009 onwards, with a view to introduce by 2019 a range of solutions to reduce tail pipe emissions such as hybrid drive, plug-in hybrid drive and even pure electric vehicles. Just as happened with governments pushing the public to buy diesel powered vehicles (especially true in the UK) even as legislation was underway to make that choice more complex, the very same governments by 2019 had decided there was only one electrification solution – battery electric vehicles.

Vehicle manufacturers were livid – the great roll out of 2019 had been all but destroyed by COVID-19, and a series of unforeseen semiconductor manufacturing issues compounded this. Undeterred, the great EU administrators and our MPs ploughed on with ‘the vision’ regardless.    
Some factors to consider:

 The only manufacturing region unaffected by the semiconductor mess was… China.

 70% of all Li-Ion cells used in all devices world-wide come from… China.

 Consumer demand has been boosted by furlough cash, as new vehicle production has receded to levels not seen for decades

Rolling through now, the energy crisis which in part is due to the mechanisms used by Ofgem under instruction from the UK government, as well as the almost criminal negligence of the power generation strategy by the very same government.
The result – dramatic reduction in disposable income, with continued pressure in major cities to pay ever-higher tax, such as the TfL ULEZ charge as well.  

The motor vehicle is still a vital economic device to enable millions of people to carry out their daily routines in comfort as well as safety. Yet, thanks to repeated disconnection, the political class have reduced transport – especially personal transport – to a mere inconvenience to be taxed regardless of consequence.

The inability of those looking after policy to consider information clearly is shocking. Lord Deben, formerly John Selwyn Gummer MP, was key to pushing the idea pure electric vehicles were affordable.  This flew in the face of everything anyone knew about electric vehicles – so what was his assumption? A two-seat 400kg car called G-Wiz. Due to his character, it took some years for this to become clear, long after the ruinous policy to purge petrol and diesel was underway. The big question is what happens next?