Will city lockdowns spark an awakening for small, cheap cars?

Mike Rutherford thinks the motor industry needs to focus on smaller, no-frills vehicles.

What’s the best way for the motor industry to thrive in the brave new post-pandemic world that can’t come a day too soon? It has to think less about volume production of expensive cars, more on the design and build of smaller, skinnier no-frills vehicles.

Our wants, needs and priorities are changing. The time is right for a wider choice of modest, affordable, easily storable personal mobility devices (PMDs) – for the streets where real people, young and old, fit and not so fit, actually live, shop, work or go to school.

It’s a given that travel behaviour in future will be very different and much reduced – not least because millions of people proved in recent weeks that some journeys deemed ‘essential’ weren’t that crucial after all. Many or most of these non-essential trips by car and public transport may never happen again. Understandably. If journeys aren’t necessary, why waste time, energy and money taking them?

For these and other reasons (accident reduction, improving air quality, reducing the risk of virus spread etc) the future for millions of car, train, bus, taxi and plane users will surely consist of lower-mileage home, leisure, study or work lives.

During lockdown, state-of-the-art tech has facilitated everything from virtual business, social and Government meetings, to online classes, concerts, ‘visits’ to friends, families, GPs and more. All this will increase. And when it does, individuals and businesses – the largest purchasers of brand-new cars – won’t need to buy as many of them. Hence my assertion that auto manufacturers have to think harder about small alternative vehicles for one or two people, not just medium-large cars for five or seven.

The likes of Peugeot, BMW and Honda have proved how talented they are at producing pedal cycles, two and three-wheeled machines, quads, plus other mobility devices.

Qooder is an excellent example of how to do it. The company is run by former senior car guys from Abarth, and one of its products is officially described as the only vehicle in the world with four tilting wheels. While I’m still not sure if you drive or ride it, I know it’s among the most exciting ‘alternatives to the car’ I’ve seen in years.

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At the other end of the tech scale, just as tuk-tuks, cyclos (three-person bikes) and similarly simple transport work brilliantly as cheap alternatives to taxis overseas, they should do the same in cities. So why aren’t mainstream vehicle manufacturers building them – plus equally wacky-but-effective small vehicles – in pedal-only, part-electric or pure-electric guises?

Alternative fuels and power packs of all sizes and prices are already here. But we’re still largely lacking in imaginative, unique breakthrough vehicles that do the same. That’s a shame. We urgently need them for the brave new, lower-mileage world that awaits us.

Mike Rutherford

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