Ten years of change

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LOOKING AT THE MARKET AND TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGES THAT HAVE IMPACTED THE AUTO INDUSTRY IN THE LAST DECADE

 

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What a difference a decade makes! Especially in the car business, where change is the only constant. But the 10 years since we published the first issue of Canadian auto dealer in November/December 2005 have arguably seen more change in this industry than ever before.

As an example of how far the industry has come in 10 years, the cover story for our first issue was about the imminent arrival of satellite radio for cars. This was breakthrough technology, offering more than 80 channels of commercial-free radio, “for as little as $300 up front and less than the cost of one CD a month.”

That was the vanguard of a revolution in infotainment technology that has now engulfed the industry. But while satellite radio is still available and popular, it is now challenged by a broad array of competition in the form of apps, Internet radio and live streaming via smartphone. CD players, on the other hand, are becoming an endangered species.

The advent of infotainment was the tip of a technological iceberg that has been altering vehicle design and engineering. But it wasn’t just the cars that were evolving — so were the market and the industry.

VOLATILE MARKET

With 1.58 million sales in 2005, the market was on the rebound after falling to a five-year low the year before, and it would continue to grow through 2007.

It was a different market landscape then. Cars held 53.4 per cent of the market — the surge in CUV/SUV popularity that now drives truck sales was yet to come. The Detroit three accounted for 55.6 per cent of the market, and General Motors held a commanding 28.5 per cent share. It was roughly twice that of DaimlerChrysler and Ford, which were locked in a tight battle for second.

Toyota and Honda held the same fourth and fifth-place sales rankings they do now, but Mazda was a solid sixth, well clear of Hyundai and Nissan, in that order.

Acura was the best-selling luxury brand, ahead of BMW, and both were far in front of today’s luxury leader, Mercedes-Benz. The sales charts still included now-defunct brands Saab and Suzuki, and we introduced readers to the then-new Fisker brand. But the industry was heading for crisis.

The advent of infotainment was the tip of a technological iceberg that has been altering vehicle design and engineering. But it wasn’t just the cars that were evolving — so were the market and the industry.

THE DARK DAYS

By 2007, Daimler and Chrysler had divorced, the latter “rescued” by Cerberus Capital, compact SUVs had begun to show up on the sales radar and annual sales had climbed to more than 1.65 million — making it the second-best year ever.

Canada escaped the brunt of the ensuing global financial crisis for a few more months but in November 2008, new-vehicle sales collapsed, bottoming out at just 1.46 million in 2009.

The repercussions of the recession were catastrophic. Chrysler and General Motors in the U.S. wound up in bankruptcy with their reincarnated entities kept afloat by U.S., Canadian and Ontario government bailouts — and in Chrysler’s case, ultimately by Fiat.

In the process, GM shed brands such as Pontiac, Hummer and Saturn and about 240 dealers in Canada, thus spawning multiple lawsuits that took years to resolve.

In our July/August 2009 issue, we commented that the events of the past three quarters had “fundamentally changed the automobile business in ways that preclude any return to the old status quo.” And so it had.

WORLDWIDE RECALLS

Recalls have been a fact of life in the industry since the earliest days of safety regulations. But they began to play a much greater role about the time the recession was receding.

Some Toyota vehicles were accused of “unintended acceleration,” which was blamed first on out-of-place floormats, and then on accelerator pedals with excess friction.

The result was a worldwide recall of about nine-million vehicles, fines and censure from the U.S. government, and a massive hit to the company’s reputation with a big impact on sales.

It also impacted the rest of the industry with greater regulatory scrutiny and publicity concerning recalls. So much so that manufacturers began policing themselves more closely, and the frequency and number of recalls exploded.

More recently, GM and Fiat Chrysler have fallen victim to massive safety recalls, as have multiple automakers using Takata airbags. Now Volkswagen is on the threshold of another for its emissions control violations.

SAFETY AND AUTONOMY

Back in 2005, there were new cars being sold that didn’t even have Anti-locking braking systems (ABS,) let alone most of the safety features now available. There was still more focus on crash survival than crash prevention. But ABS and even Electronic stability control (ESC) have become mandatory equipment.

Now, even many low-priced models offer a wide range of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), from simple features such as blind-spot and lane-departure warning to adaptive cruise control and lane keeping. And rumours suggest that automatic emergency braking is in line to become standard equipment.

Several premium models now offer ADAS features that stop just a smidgen short of fully autonomous driving, at least on expressways. Now, most of the impediments to realizing full autonomy are not technical but regulatory.

It’s been a decade of dramatic change, and there’s nothing to suggest the next decade will be any less so. We’re looking forward to it.

CO2 AND FUEL CONSUMPTION

Over the course of the decade, adoption of regulations to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2), has dramatically influenced the vehicles you’re selling now. Those regulations will continue to be key drivers for the next decade.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption are directly linked, and progressive tightening of those standards call for fleet average consumption of just 4.4- L/100 km by 2025 — a figure now achievable by only a few vehicles.

That’s why cars and trucks are becoming lighter and more aerodynamic, and are being powered by smaller, more efficient, increasingly turbocharged engines, mated to seven-, eight- and nine-speed transmissions, or CVTs.

It’s also why the future must entail greater levels of vehicle electrification — from hybrids and plug-in hybrids to battery electric vehicles to those powered by hydrogen fuel cells — whether customers want to buy them or not.

It’s been a decade of dramatic change, and there’s nothing to suggest the next decade will be any less so. We’re looking forward to it.

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