The car industry

Everything about carmaking is changing at once

The industry must reinvent itself to keep pace, says Simon Wright

GOING FOR A spin in the first car was a bother. The Benz Patent Motorwagen, which hit German roads in 1886, needed “stain remover” from a pharmacy for fuel, mechanical parts greased by hand, and oil and water tanks filled. Then you had to spin a large flywheel to start the engine, grasp the tiller that controlled the front wheel, and push forward the lever to engage a drive belt that set the vehicle in motion. Repeat the process every 10-15km when fuel and water ran out. Yet the freedom to travel by powering a carriage with an internal-combustion engine (ICE) soon caught on.

A giant industry with annual revenues of nearly $3trn has grown to provide transport to the masses. Over 1bn cars heave passengers along the world’s roads. There were many pioneers beside the Germans. The French provided words like coupé, chauffeur and cabriolet. America developed mass-manufacturing with the Ford Model T in 1908 and then slick marketing in the 1950s. Japan invented ultra-reliability and just-in-time production. Europe set the mark for luxury, sophisticated engineering and new technologies such as antilock brakes and airbags.

The next phase of the industry’s history will be one in which tech-centric firms and the Chinese come to the fore. Elon Musk’s Tesla has kickstarted electric vehicles (EVs)…