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The beginnings of
a Second Automobile Revolution
Firms strategies and public policies
The author compares the present situation to the beginnings of the automobile to know if the development of cleaner cars could be the start of a Second Automobile Revolution. Four conditions allowed the appearance and the diffusion of the oil car: the crisis of the previous transport system, the emergence of various technical solutions, thanks to innovations coming from other sectors, the formation of a coalition of actors for one of the solutions in spite of its great uncertainties, macro-economic decisions and public policies allowing the generalization of the adopted solution. Today, the first and the second conditions seem to be met: physical and economical impossibility to continue the automobilisation of the large emerging countries with the oil car, various alternative cars have been designed. The formation and the confrontation of actors' coalitions supporting the different solutions can be currently observed. The electric car could impose on the other solutions for commercial, geopolitical and economical reasons and could be the car of a Second Automobile Revolution, changing completely the architecture, the industry, the geography, the economy, the geopolitics and the sociology of the automobile.
Automobile industry, automobile revolution, clean cars, electric vehicle, profit strategy, actors' coalition
D2, D74, L20, L50, L62, N80, 030
Short running title:
A second automobile revolution
Introduction. Four stages and conditions for an automobile revolution
After to have edited in 2009 a collective book entitled, The Second Automobile Revolution (Freyssenet, 2009)1, we sought, to consolidate and to develop this assertion, which are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a real automobile revolution, i.e a transformation of the use, of the production and of the impacts of cars. Several times in the past, this transformation was announced, especially on the occasion of the commercial launch of some electric car models. Each time, the attempts were failures (Frery, 2000, Loubet et al. 2003). Why this time, the multiplication of alternative motorizations will be the sign of the next decline of the internal combustion engine?
To respond to this question, one approach is to list the technical, economical, commercial, political, sociological and cultural conditions that the different proposed powertrains must meet to be successful2. But this approach raises some problems. It is incomplete. One also needs to know what impulse the innovation process, what factors and social forces allow to reassemble and combine the necessary conditions for the adoption of one solution, and what are the consequences of the choice that can obliged to change again. We cannot exclude the hypothesis of the imposing of one solution by some dominant actors even in spite of the inconvenient of the solution. If we apply the conditions suggested by this approach to the automobile birth period, never the oil car would have been adopted as quickly as it was. The internal combustion engine was yet technically and economically very dubious when it prevailed at the beginning of the 20th century.
So, we imagined an other way that consists to establish the conditions that permitted the appearance, the preponderance and the diffusion of the oil car and the so-called Automobile Revolution (Bardou et al., 1982) at the turning point of the 19th and 20th century, and simultaneously to analyse the current situation to find eventually the equivalents of these conditions.
From the historical literature, four great stages and conditions appear: the crisis of the horse-drawn transport system and the urgency to find a solution, the emergence of various solutions thanks to innovations coming from other industrial sectors, the formation of a coalition of forces for one solution in spite of its great uncertainties, the macro-economic decisions and public policies allowing the diffusion and the generalization of the adopted solution.
This article consists to recall successively these four stages and to look for their possible equivalents at the beginning of the 21st century. We will explain why it is now possible to risk a forecast about the new type of car that could impose on the other solutions. The electric car could prevail for commercial, geopolitical and economical reasons and could be the car of a Second Automobile Revolution changing completely the architecture, the industry, the geography, the economy, the geopolitics, the sociology and the ecology of the automobile.
1. The crisis of the previous transport system and the urgency to solve it
The horse was as present in the daily life during the 19th century as the petrol car was during the 20th century. Horse-drawn transport indeed experienced a considerable development with the agricultural, industrial, urban and military rise at the 19th century in Europe and United States. The railroads and the steamers made possible the transport of a growing volume of goods along some axes on mid and long distance. But they could not, like today, to cover all the territory and to convey goods and people from the point of departure to the final destination. Horse-drawn vehicle was an essential component of the transport system 3.
Neither the cities, nor the roads were adapted to a brutal increase in the horse-drawn traffic, to the parking of the teams and to the multiplication of the stables. The consequences were pollutions of all kinds, propagation of diseases and very many accidents, often mortals. It was necessary to regulate circulation and to limit the transport of materials and foods products to specific times. The tolls became more numerous to finance the road works (Barles, Guillerme, 1998).
Many efforts were made to improve the system, but they only succeed to defer the date of the inevitable crisis4. It occurred at the end of the 19th century for two essential reasons. The first one was the growing gap of productivity between transport and industry. The initial and the final routings by animal powered lose much time, not only because of its slowness and the limited transported loads, but also because of the time necessary to the transhipment of the loads from a transport means to another (Tarr, 1969). The second reason was the rise of the prices of the energy resource necessary to the horses. Each horse required one hectare of oat and one hectare of hay. The areas dedicated to produce the horses' food competed the lands cultivated for the human food. It was necessary to import. The efforts of productivity in all the fields made it possible to stabilize the prices of horse-drawn transport, but they could not be enough to reach the performances of steam transport (Bouchet, 1993). It became urgent to solve the crisis.
Is it possible to find in this beginning of the 21century some analogies with the situation created in the transport system by the European and North American economic rise at the end of 19th? The equivalent is certainly the extremely fast takeoff of China, during the last ten years, of India and in less degree of Brazil and of Russia, which makes the ecological crisis inevitable and which accelerates the exhaustion of the resources of non-renewable energy, in particular of oil.
The success even of the petrol automobile itself had contributed to transform more and more its advantages into disadvantages. Means of freedom, of autonomy, of social link, of speed and discovery of new spaces, the cars became its opposite in the developed countries: wastes of time, congestions, restrictions of use, destructuration and balkanization of spaces. Its harmful effects: accidents, physical and psychic diseases, contribution to climate warming up, air pollution, pollution of water and of the grounds, wastes unrecycled, sound aggressions… decrease in relative value in some countries, but they increase in absolute value in the world and in particular in the countries which are equipping in cars. The digging of the social inequalities since the 80s in many countries did not put the things straight. The social categories that benefited of the wage deregulation and the financial opportunities bought massively the urban light trucks, before the crisis (Figure 1). They made of them the symbol of their good fortune and of their social distinction. This type of vehicles is much more oil consuming and polluting than the cars.
At the same time, the automobile markets have exploded in the BRICs, especially in China. Nothing has ever happened on this scale before in the history of the automobile, neither in the United States in the 50s, nor in Europe or in Japan in the 60s. The phenomenon is unprecedented in both absolute value and growth terms (Figure 2).
Sales of new automobile vehicles in USA, 1945-2009
World automobile production by continent and some large emerging countries
The worldwide production of motor vehicles dropped by 12.3 millions, i.e. 16.7% between 2007 and 2009, but the production of China increased by 4.9 millions, i.e. of 55.7%, between the same dates. China became in ten years space the second worldwide economy, the first creditor and the first automobile market.
The price of the barrel of oil is rising again, whereas the crisis is far from being finished in many countries (Figure 3). The rise of the prices has paradoxical effects. It makes profitable the exploitation of oil resources more difficult to exploit and of which the quality is lower. The oil companies exert strong pressures to obtain the authorizations. But, even including these potential resources, it seems that the oil peak is very close (Figure 4). Probably the rise of oil prices will accelerate strongly. In these conditions, China and India know that their industrialization and their automobilisation very quickly will be blocked. So an auto industry based exclusively on the internal combustion oil engine seems now condemned.
The oil prices, march 2007-march 2010
Average availability of petrol and of gas by world resident, 1980-2050
2. The emergence of various solutions, combining and adapting innovations coming from other sectors
The setting in crisis of a transport system always obliged to find solutions. Drafts of possible solutions generally exist in the sector. But the domination of the system had prevented their development. The urgency leads to their re-examination and to supplement them by innovations carried out in other sectors.
The crisis of the horse-drawn system caused, during the fifteen last years of the 19th century, a flowering of prototypes of motorized vehicles using various energies: especially steam, electricity and oil. Throughout the 19th century, attempts had been made in various countries. They would have remained failures during a long time without the urgency to find a solution. Some innovations realized in other industrial sectors have permitted to solve problems unsolved before: in particular the miniaturization of the boilers, the production of liquid or gas fuels more adapted, the discovery of electricity, the invention of batteries, the miniaturization of the engines for the family workshops, the invention of the ball bearing, of the chain of traction, of the gear box, of the tire, etc. (Mballa, 1998). Then a large number of start-ups appeared, designing and producing four-wheelers using either the steam, or electricity, or a liquid or gas fuel, or even combining two energies, as the petrol-electric cars, the ancestors of our hybrid vehicles.
Does one attend the same effervescence today? Probably yes, at least we are attending the beginning of the phenomenon. The technical transfers and the inventions are multiplying: second generation of agro-fuels, lithium-ion battery, or polymeric lithium, fast chargers, smart grid, station of fast exchange of batteries, electric engines, motor wheels, etc.
We can see also the creating of many start-up by very diverse people: manufacturers of battery, aeronautical group, aluminium producer, equipment suppliers, carriage builders, academics, founders of the Net-economy, rental cars enterprises, Indian or Chinese manufacturers newcomers, etc. (Figure 5).
Some of these start-ups actually are confined in niche markets, and they sell their inventions or their know-how to historical manufacturers. Others seek or already became mass manufacturers. They often made the choice of the electric car. But the future is not already written. Several energy sources, several types of motorization are in competition.
Some cleaner automobile start-ups and newcomers in some countries
How was made the choice between steam, electricity, petrol at the beginning of the 20th century? How could be made today the choice that will prevail between four main options: less carbon fuels, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and electric?
3. The formation of a coalition of actors for one of the solutions, in spite of its great uncertainties
A third condition was needed so that an invention become an innovation: the action of entrepreneurs, who were able to perceive the different commercial potentialities of the various prototypes and motorizations suggested by the start-ups, who were able to adapt them in order to make them saleable, who where able to convince the bank and the investors, who had finally experience in the series production and in the marketing of industrial goods.
German engineers Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, who invented and developed the petrol cars, were not the manufacturers who sold cars in a profitable way, but two French entrepreneurs: Panhard and Peugeot. Panhard was a horse-drawn vehicles rental enterprise. Peugeot manufactured tools, coffee mills and bicycles (Law, 1992).
Why did the first manufacturers choose rather quickly the petrol car? The steam traction was at that time the best-controlled technique. The miniaturization of the boilers was in hand. The fuel started to be used instead of coal. The steam car was able to climb the hill much more quickly than the other types of cars. The electrical motors had the best performances on flat roads and the less harmful. It was considered as the best transport means, especially in the urban agglomerations (Garçon, 2003). Finally, the solution that prevailed was the most complicated, the least comfortable, the most uncertain, the most polluting, the most criticized at the time, the most dangerous and the most expensive…, it was the vehicle with internal combustion oil engine (Mballa, 1998).
Many explanations were given to this incredible paradox, including the craziest ones. In fact, the entrepreneurs had a good reason. Oil was at that time the only energy easily storable, relatively compact, immediately transportable and distributable on all the territory at an acceptable price. It was the condition of a fast diffusion of the car.
It is thus not the weight, the dimensions and the autonomy of the batteries, which penalized the electric car. These problems were reasonably soluble, if one had devoted as many financial means to them than those which were devoted to solve the problems much more complicated of the internal combustion engine vehicle (Mballa, 1998).
What penalized the electric car, it was the absence of electrical networks in the all territory. The electrification supposed a general plan and considerable investments. It was complete in the industrialized countries only 60 years later. At the contrary, the paraffin oil distribution network existed. It was enough to make it evolve.
In Europe, the public authorities and in particular the armies were initially hesitating. What was riskiest: the loss of energy independence with oil, or the impossibility of having an autonomous vehicle in any place and any time for the armies? The first risk was preferred to the second. A coalition was progressively created. It made prevail the petrol car, in spite of the great technical uncertainties of this choice (Mon, 2004).
Today, as at the end of the 19th century, several solutions also are competing. Two are in continuity with the internal combustion engine. The first one consists in improving its environmental performances and in using less polluting fuels. The second consists in recovering in electric form part of dissipated or lost energy: it is the hybrid solution. Two other solutions are disruptive solutions or can prepare a radical change: the electrical motor supplied with a battery or the plug-in hybrid vehicle.
The choice to be made can be accompanied or not by a change of the car status. The car still is an object individually owned or in quasi property in the case the company cars. It can become more and more a shared object, whether it is in public, rental or co-operative form. It is another way of reducing the cost and the ecological footprint.
As it was the case during the first automobile revolution, the debate is focused on the performances of the various solutions or on what would be responsible to make. Studies are carried out to establish the carbon assessment “well to wheel” of the various motorizations. Here, is one from the French Petroleum Institute (Figure 6).
« Well to wheel » CO2 emission, according to the types of motor and of energy
The diagram shows that the electric solution can be the best as well as the worst solution according to the origin of electricity. We also see that the plug-in hybrid car using the 2nd generation of ethanol and the electric car provided in nuclear or renewable electricity have the best carbon assessments.
It is not useful to add an opinion to many other opinions about this point. Because we saw that the solution the most technically powerful and the most socially desirable at the time of the choice was not necessarily the solution that prevailed. The question for us is to progress in the comprehension of the selection processes of the innovations, and to make a hypothesis on the solution that will prevail, even if it was considered less satisfying, albeit bad, by many people.
Which are the orientations taken by the various actors and which are the coalitions, which could be formed? Which will be the winner? We will consider here only two actors: first the manufacturers and those who aspire to become it, second the States.
It is not easy to classify the manufacturers according to their strategy for clean automobile, because the positions are changing very quickly (Figure 7). Besides, some declarations aren't seriously credible. The most notable change of orientation last month was the change of PSA and Volkswagen. Both of them had declared that the electric vehicle would remain marginal still a long time. PSA will launch in fact at the end of this year clones of the i-Miev electric car of Mitsubishi, its new ally, and the electric versions of its two small commercial vehicles. Volkswagen has just announced the launching of a plug-in hybrid and an electric Golf for 2013 and an electric taxicab named Milan. One can also note that all the great car-manufacturers have signed agreements with batteries manufacturers.
Five (changing!) strategies: priority to…
For the moment, four strategies seem can be distinguished. The first one consists in gradually equipping all the models range with hybrid engines and testing plug-in hybridization. It is the strategy of Toyota and Honda, and it seems to be also that of Mazda, Hyundai and Porsche. The second strategy consists in offering the four types of cleaner motorizations, according to the countries and to the uses (urban, suburban, rural, general-purpose). It is to date the strategy of Ford, PSA and Volkswagen, and perhaps of Daimler and BMW. The third strategy consists in privileging immediately the plug-in hybrid and the electric. It is the case of General Motors, of Mitsubishi and of the Chinese newcomer BYD. Finally the fourth strategy bets on the electric. It is the case of Renault-Nissan, Chrysler, Chery and Volvo and of the great majority of the start-ups. FIAT is very difficult to classify. It clearly privileged until now the natural gas. But it announced recently that its Chrysler ally would produce an electric FIAT 500. Amongst the four historical car manufacturers who chose the electric, only Renault offers a broad model range, included a family car.
The attitude with respect to the automobile demand of the car-manufacturers who announce plug-in electric vehicles and electric vehicles is not the same. Some of them are a wait and see attitude: the market will decide. The others are voluntarist: the market must be created. The first attitude was until now nearly general and explained the greatest caution in the offers and in the investments. The second is that of Renault and Nissan. They multiply the partnerships with public authorities, electricity companies and research centres. They consider that it is necessary to leave the vicious circle: too high price/too weak sales. Several means to offer attractive purchase prices are imagined: to rent the battery, to be sure that the 50.000/100.000 first cars will be sold thank agreements with car rental companies, with enterprises having important fleets, with municipalities, etc, and to be sure that the buyers will benefit important bonus for the purchase of clean vehicles, etc. providers to install fast chargers. They undertake to deliver electric vehicles at precise date in some countries, in counterparts of public supports: France, China and Great Britain for example. Renault and Nissan invest 4 billion dollars. They set up high volumes production lines and batteries factories.
The States and the local authorities appear to have preferences clearer than the car manufacturers. Brazil privileges the agro-fuels. Russia, Italy, the natural gas. France, Great Britain, China, the United States the plug-in hybrid and the electric car. Germany, Japan and the European Union have considered until now it was enough to lay down reduction objectives of consumption and of pollution, leaving to the automobile producers the choice of the solutions. But they also seem to change, following the choices made by competing countries or being able to become it quickly.
Thus China and some of its manufacturers know that the continuation of the industrialization and the automobilisation of the households will be able to continue only by giving the priority to nuclear or renewable energies. The passage to electric can moreover avoid the long and expensive acquisition of the competences and of the means required by the current motor vehicles and a frontal competition with the historical car manufacturers. China mass-produces yet batteries. Many research centres work for the improvement of the electricity storage. The car drivers used their cars essentially in the great urban areas and the immediate periphery. The electric can allow China and its manufacturers to become important players.
The United States, of which the manufacturers lost the leadership on their own market, Great Britain, which does not have any more national manufacturers, and France who seeks an advantageous specialization see in the plug-in hybrid and in the electric vehicle the possibility to be again in the race (Figure 8).
Alternative energies national preference for cleaner cars … until now …
Consequently, the question of the future of auto industry becomes: what solution will allow newcomers or possible losers to impose itself, if they find the financing to apply it?
It seems to me that the electric can be this solution, in spite of its current handicaps, of its defaults, of its uncertainties. The hybrid motorizations, including the plug-in hybrids, are complex and expensive motorizations and they consolidate the current automobile architecture. It is not sure either that a manufacturer can be competitive with all the motorizations at the same time. The winner can be the car producer who use its money to double the performances of the batteries and to reduce the weight of them and especially to develop a new automobile architecture which can revolutionize the design, the industry, the economy, the supply chain, the use of the automobile.
The electrical motor indeed makes it possible to design and to produce the cars in a radically new way, for two reasons. Firstly it becomes possible to put an electrical motor in each wheel, it is the system of the wheel motor, like it successfully tested by Michelin and by several start-ups. Almost the whole of interior space is free, the motricity and the stability of the vehicle are clearly improved. The designers can imagine vehicles meeting needs even more specific, even more changing. They can even invent new uses for the cars. The second reason is that the car becomes potentially truly modularisable. The interfaces between units can be standardized: what was not the case until now. The production and the maintenance of the vehicle are completely changed. The revival of the automation of the assembly is possible. A new strategy of profit could even be invented which would reconcile this time volume and the innovation.
We are today at the beginning of the third stage of innovation process. The choices are not still made clearly. The coalitions are being formed. The battle is only starting. The formation of a dominant coalition will not be enough however to generalize quickly the adopted solution. There is indeed a fourth stage, that of the policies of redistribution of the national income favourable or not to the extension of the market of the cleaner cars.
4. The macro-economic decisions and public policies allowing the diffusion and the generalization of the adopted solution
Looking at the graphic of the worldwide production of car since 1898, we can be is astonished by the clear cut between first half of the century and the second half. Only during the second part of the century, the petrol car was massively and continuously purchased (Figure 9).
Worldwide Automobile production, 1898-2009
The reason of this takeoff was, in the main industrialized countries, the adoption of a national income distribution policy much less uneven than in the pre-war period. A growing number of households could buy a new vehicle. It was for a political reason and for an economical reason. The protagonists countries of the second world war did not want any more to experience the reproduction of the sequences which had led to the general flashover: increasing social inequalities, economic crises, exacerbation of nationalisms. The crisis of the American auto industry, however most modern, had also shown that without regular, nationally coordinated and moderately hierarchised purchasing power growth of the population, the diffusion of the car could not continue and the manufacturers could not be again durably profitable.
The question raises again today, in terms which one can hope for less dramatic. In the countries equipped with cars, the young couples and the middle-classes are increasingly constrained to purchase used vehicles, more polluting and finally more expensive than the new vehicles. The emerging markets, which spectacularly started again the worldwide production, will be able to continue to make it, but only if the concerned countries and the concerned governments adopt new policies of sharing of their national revenue in order to made their income distribution much less uneven than they are today.
In short, the political will to fight against the climate warming up is uncertain. But not the tendencial increase of the real petrol price, because of the exponential needs of BRIC. So the « automobilisation » of BRIC can pursue durably only with alternative energies and new types of automobiles. This constraint and the electric car are great opportunities for Chinese carmakers to become economically and technologically independent from the historical carmakers. The only uncertainty is not the future growth of BRIC, but the insufficient distribution of national revenue to the people of these countries, that can strongly slow down the demand of new vehicles in the future.
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Freyssenet Michel, CNRS Paris, GERPISA, email@example.com
1 This book, elaborated within the framework of the 5th research program of the GERPISA international network: "Sustainable Dévelopmnt and Automobile Industry", presents the trajectories of the world carmakers in the first years of 21st century and analyses a possible transition to clean cars. It is the continuation of two previous books: Freysennet et al., 1998; Freyssenet et al., 2003.
2 This approach was proposed by Jean-Jacques Chanaron in his communication at the 17th International colloquium of GERPISA (Chanaron, 2009). So he had carried out an interesting and useful test of the current various alternative motorizations from the point of view of the listed conditions. The result was that none filled today and in the immediate future all the requirements to prevail on the others, even if some met more conditions than of others. So he concluded that the most probable would be a succession of solutions (from cleaner internal combustion engine, to hybrid solutions, then electric vehicles and finally to fuel cell vehicle), in proportion as the improvement of their technical and economical performances and their acceptance.
3 The number of horses in London passed from 100,000 in 1850 to 300,000 in 1893 (Turvey, 2005). In USA, there 8 millions in 1867 and 21,5 en 1915 according to were Horses Census.
4 The horses were better selected. Their food was improved and better calculated. Their medical condition was better supervised. The stables were better isolated, maintained and controlled. The vehicles were better designed and diversified according to their use. They were made more robust. Their mass production lowered their purchase price (Kinney, 2004). The path and road construction, improvement and maintenance were rationalized. The horse-drawn tram made it possible to transport more people downtown.
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