TOKYO – The automobile – long a symbol of freedom, status, and success – is at a crossroads. For more than a century, cars have enabled billions of people to travel farther, faster, and more efficiently than ever before. They have helped power the world’s great economies and shaped our modern social and cultural landscape. But all of this has come at a price: accidents, congestion, pollution, and an uneasy dependence on oil, among other costs.
Our challenge, therefore, is to boost the benefits and reduce (and eventually eliminate) the harm done by our cars, so that the future of motor travel is clean, efficient, safe, and accessible to all. For our industry to remain an instrument of progress, we must therefore work closely with our peers from other industries and government in three major areas: safety, the environment, and affordability.
Road safety is a grave concern. More than 3,000 people die in auto-related accidents every day. Lower-income countries account for only half of all vehicles on the road but suffer more than 90% of the fatalities. India has four times fewer cars than France, though it suffers 20 times more road-related deaths – that is, 80 times more accidents per car.
But safety is improving. In Europe, even as the number of vehicles has doubled, the number of road deaths has been halved. One reason for this is the introduction of technologies such as anti-lock brakes, airbags, and electronic stability control. Technologies now in development could even eliminate auto-related fatalities altogether.
One such innovation is autonomous driving. Renault and Nissan are currently working on complementary technologies that can predict, detect, and prevent collisions. By reducing the stresses of driving in heavy traffic and unfamiliar locations, this technology promises greater protection for both drivers and pedestrians. It is especially valuable to people with restricted mobility, such as elderly or disabled drivers.
But such breakthrough technologies are not simply invented and then implemented – they need government support in the form of a coherent set of laws and regulations covering their use. Policymakers must therefore be involved at an early development stage if we are to reach the goal of “zero fatality” roads within our lifetimes.
The auto industry can also make a vital contribution to the environment. Fifteen years ago, the Renault-Nissan Alliance evaluated the environmental impact of its vehicles over their life cycle. The study examined the effect of our raw-material usage; the impact of car exhaust on public health, especially in congested urban areas; and the contribution to overall greenhouse-gas emissions – 23% of which come from the auto industry worldwide.
As a result of that evaluation, the Alliance invested more than €4 billion ($5.5 billion) in zero-emission technologies. Today, ours is the only auto group that mass-produces a full line of zero-emission cars and light commercial vehicles. Renault and Nissan together have sold more than 100,000 such vehicles worldwide – more than all of the other major carmakers combined.
The broader task is to integrate these vehicles into a more efficient and cleaner power grid – for example, by replacing aging coal-fired power plants with hydroelectric power. Moreover, local and national governments should work with the automobile industry to integrate zero-emission vehicles into national transport infrastructure. If this is achieved, we believe it will be possible for cars to have zero impact on the environment in the foreseeable future.
Greater health and safety, however, should not (and need not) come at the expense of developing countries, whose citizens want the fruits of prosperity that developed countries’ citizens have long enjoyed. In 1999, Brazil, Russia, India, and China accounted for a mere 8% of vehicle sales worldwide; by 2012, their combined sales had reached a staggering 35% of the global total. And this proportion is sure to rise.
One reason for this extraordinary growth is that carmakers have developed more affordable cars for a new, cost-conscious middle class. The Alliance’s CMF-A platform, created and manufactured in India, will pave the way for many more affordable vehicles throughout the developing world. These advances are at the forefront of a growing trend toward “frugal innovation” that is increasingly being adopted in developed markets, too.
It is hard to overestimate the impact that the automobile has had on our political, economic, social, and cultural life over the past century. The industry’s global sales are greater than the GDP of all but the five largest economies, and it employs more than 50 million people worldwide. Its future is bound up with that of the world economy. The challenge now is to reinvent the car so that it remains a proud totem of freedom and safety in the decades ahead.