The big shrink: how to cut the car down to size
22 June 2020 - autocar
Cars have ballooned in the past few decades for multiple reasons. We consider how the trend can be reversed
Whether it was while squeezing into your garage at home, navigating the tight multi-storey car park at work or risking your alloy wheels on one of those narrow-lane Channel Tunnel train crossings recently, you will almost certainly have noticed how much larger modern cars are than their older equivalents.
Size has become a pressing concern of many keen drivers and Autocar readers, with few topics inspiring such regular correspondence. "How much longer can it go on," we're asked, "before the cars we drive are patently too large for the roads we drive on and the spaces we park in?"
It's reasonable enough to wonder. Today's Range Rover is more than 200mm wider and 550mm longer, in standard-wheelbase form, than the 1970 original. Today's Volkswagen Polo is considerably larger than the original Volkswagen Golf. The current BMW 5 Series is wider across the mirrors than BMW's seminal Rolls-Royce Phantom of 2003.
But the forces that have driven the physical expansion of cars over the past 50 years aren't immutable; and by our reckoning, there's every chance that, having witnessed this rapid vehicular growth, we will see a mirror-image contraction over the next few decades – and for a host of reasons.
Here, then, are 10 key things that need to change – and, in many cases, very likely will – before modern cars can be cut back down to the sizes, and the weights, that they ought to be.
This has been one of the key lines trotted out by car makers to justify gains in vehicle size and weight over the past 25 years, as organisations such as Euro NCAP have allowed passive safety to be weaponised as a selling point. Quite clearly, safer cars are better cars; it would be crazy to argue differently. Progress made on this score in recent decades has been in adding passive crash safety to cars, putting in the structural strength and the deformation zones necessary to best protect both passengers and pedestrians in the event of a crash. But the next 20 years will bring a technological revolution in active safety measures to better prevent crashes, which might well make those passive measures (which add weight and size, of course) redundant.
A great many new cars already have the sensory equipment and computing power they need to detect hazards and mitigate or avoid certain kinds of accidents. Many are already hooked up with 'V-to-X' cloud-based communication, can monitor their drivers for signs of tiredness or illness and can bring themselves to a stop automatically.
How long before semi-autonomous 'platoon' driving and networked vehicles make crashes history? A decade? Twenty years, at a push? When it happens and passive safety requirements can therefore be relaxed, smaller, space-efficient cars will suddenly be much easier to make again.
Toppling crossovers and SUVs
Once there is a less clear route to argue that bigger, taller cars are safer cars, there will be one less reason for the car-buying public to be preoccupied with crossovers and SUVs. This, perhaps more directly than any other factor, should reduce the size and weight of the average new car considerably.
To achieve this, people need to be offered a smaller 'next big thing'. We all must be made aware of the impact that bigger, heavier and more complex cars than we need have on our wallets, and it's for the boldest innovators to show us a better way. It may not be that we return to buying traditional saloons and hatchbacks in the quantities we used to, of course, but we do need better buying habits.
Accelerating the development of battery technology
It may well be at least a decade until we start worrying less about how far an electric vehicle can be driven on a charge than how large and heavy its battery pack is, but it will happen. The capacity of lithium ion batteries has roughly doubled over the past decade as battery makers have altered cathode material construction, driving energy density up close to the 1kWh/kg threshold and battery cost price down ever closer to $100/kWh.
The focus is now on what more can be achieved by switching anode construction from just graphite to a mix of graphite and silicon. If the effort succeeds, it's thought that battery energy density could double again – or even triple – in a not-dissimilar time frame. And it may well be at about that point that battery pack size and weight begins to decrease in electric cars, allowing the car itself the associated freedom to shrink.
Stopping the commodification of cars
We must guard against wishful thinking here. Much as we might like to believe that our roads would be a better place if there were fewer SUVs on them, not everyone thinks about cars as we enthusiasts do; and those who don't will always need objective reasons to choose one. Even so, it's unlikely that new cars will ever be able to be smaller, lighter or simpler than existing ones unless the way they are designed and conceived changes.
Designers need to realise they're not in the business of fashion or consumer electronics; and to place even greater value on interior space and functionality than they now do on dynamic exterior styling. A change like this needs to be market-led, of course, but that can only even begin to happen when buyers are offered cars with the right priorities. Simply put, too much interior space is being lost to big wheels, sculpted surfaces, tapered sides and swooping rooflines for the sake of pretty arbitrary visual appeal.
Replacing the engine
This is one of the most combustive (tsk tsk) issues discussed by our community, and for entirely understandable reasons; of course those of us who love cars also love reciprocating pistons. But the truth is that electric motors are smaller, lighter and easier to package in a vehicle. And now that proper, clean-sheet electric car designs (such as the Honda E and Volkswagen ID 3) are arriving on the market, they're clearly demonstrating that electric cars will be smaller than their internal-combustion-engined cousins. Although they won't be lighter – not yet, anyway.
Falling back in love with simplicity and value
Our current taste for desirable, premium-brand motoring has led cars to grow in order that they can accommodate advanced technology, among other things. But until we get back to caring more about what a car can do for us than what it says about us or what the neighbours may think about it, we're unlikely to make the kind of buying decisions that are in the long-term best interests of the car.
New marques will be best placed to take some of the cost and complication back out of cars that premium and luxury brands have added over the past 30 years, which will in turn enable size and weight to shrink and energy efficiency to improve. But there's an opportunity here, too, for the old-guard volume players to be bold and to grab back some of the market share they have haemorrhaged.
Giving up false idols
This is very rocky ground for someone whose day job is to put timing gear on road cars and generate performance numbers. But if the wider market (beyond performance machinery) could become less preoccupied with how fast or 'dynamic' family hatchbacks are, or how much functionality is crammed into their infotainment systems, it would be much easier for designers, engineers, executives and customers to focus on what really matters: usability, drivability, efficiency and fitness for purpose.
This obsession with the wrong things is driven by product marketing departments, which leave no blind alley unexplored or red herring alone to find a way to suggest their new car is better than another. Their dominion needs to be brought to an end and power returned to individuals of true talent, creativity and vision.
Pitching at younger buyers
One of the most regrettable and consistent failures of the car industry has been its inability to get more people in their twenties and early thirties into new metal. It's partly to do with insurance costs, of course, as well as the prohibitive financial barriers that still force younger motorists to buy used. But a new breed of smaller, less dear and more urban-friendly electric cars, cheap to run and ideal for car-sharing (such as the Citroën Ami), could finally allow car makers to tap into a seam they've neglected for decades. In the process, it could fuel packaging advances that allow bigger, pricier cars to shrink.
It doesn't take a genius to work out that once a critical mass of cars are electric and we have the infrastructure to support them, both CO2-based taxes and fuel tax will be redundant. Some have suggested that an electricity tax could fill the void, but that wouldn't reflect the impact that car use has on roads and wider public facilities. Should you pay the same amount to the Treasury for a kWh of power used by your washing machine as one used by your sports car or SUV, for instance? If not, assuming most EV owners charge at home, how do you collect the revenue? And what happens if you use solar panels to generate your own electricity?
That's why others suggest road charging is more likely to be what replaces our current fuel and road tax systems. It doesn't come without some privacy issues and high set-up costs, but it would allow for the amount of tax you pay to be a factor of the size of your car and to therefore reflect the associated space you occupy on the road, as well as the weight of your car and the wear and tear it imposes.
Once smaller cars become cheaper ones in such clear and obvious terms, vehicle size will be driven down by both demand and supply.
Making the global energy market fair
The reason that the global climate has warmed over the past century, as environmentalists quite rightly tell us, is that people the world over have been able to pay a price for fossil fuels that don't reflect the true costs of consuming them.
If the cost of a litre of petrol reflected not only the cost of pulling it out of the ground, refining it and delivering it to your car but also of recapturing the CO2 that burning it emits and removing it from the atmosphere, it would be many times more expensive than it currently is, for sure. But only then could drivers, home owners, manufacturing magnates and logistics and airline executives compare the cost of different sources of energy on real like-for-like terms.
So many global economies are still built on the profits and tax revenues that would be hit if this kind of reasonable thinking were put into law, of course. But if by some unlikely route it were, most of the world's remaining combustion-engined cars would be made smaller, lighter and more efficient very quickly indeed.