Mark Walton on the future, and the past, of the automotive industry

Published: 30 August 2016

► Mark Walton on what's next in the industrial car world
► Autonomous cars are getting closer to production
► Toyota suggest that robots – and not cars – are the future

Dr Gill Pratt, Toyota’s Executive Technical Advisor, stood up at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and said, ‘It is entirely possible that robots will become, for today’s Toyota, what the car industry was when Toyota made looms.’

That single sentence sums up the profound, existential threat now facing the car industry; a revolution happening right now, in our lifetimes, under our noses. If you’re a spectator it’s fascinating; if you’re a car enthusiast it’s depressing, frankly; but if you’re an ambitious executive for a car manufacturer, it must be a cry-yourself-to-sleep-at-night horror story. 

Because while Pratt is right about companies re-inventing themselves, the scale is different this time. Yes, 100 years ago Toyota made looms, Peugeot made coffee grinders and Mazda started out as a cork manufacturer; but they were small companies when they changed direction.

Today, the likes of Toyota, GM and Mercedes-Benz are vast corporations, with huge factories and complex supply chains and glass skyscrapers full of bored employees stuck on the monotonous treadmill of their daily lives, writing emails and issuing purchase orders and clocking off at exactly 5pm. Are these supertankers of the industrial world really ready to swerve sharp left, to become robot manufacturers or drone builders or (who knows) maybe loom makers again? I doubt it.

Today’s multinational car brands are, on the whole, cautious, slow moving and committed up to their corporate eyeballs to the status quo. They understand cars with diesel engines and steering wheels and traffic lights and motorway service stations that sell Ginster’s sausage rolls. 

They know their weaknesses, and they’re scared. Hence Toyota suggesting that robots, not cars, are the future; and there’s Ford, reportedly trying to do a deal with Google. This is ‘disruptive innovation’ on an unprecedented scale, and everyone’s freaked out by it.

So while it’s hard, for those of us born in the second half of the 20th century, to imagine BMW or Fiat or GM suddenly collapsing and disappearing, truly transformative technology is dangerous for everyone. 

Look at lightbulbs. History never repeats itself but it does rhyme, said Mark Twain. Price’s Candles was created in 1830, and 25 years later it employed 2300 people in factories in London and Liverpool. By the end of the 19th century, Price’s was the biggest candle manufacturer in the world, exporting around the globe. It made 130 different types, for dining tables and bedrooms, carriages and pianos, and even servants’ bedroom candles that only lasted 30 minutes. Price’s supplied edible candles to Captain Scott on his final expedition to the South Pole.

So Price’s was, if you like, the Toyota of the 19th century, massively successful, selling a daily consumable to everyone. Then in 1878 a northerner called Joseph Swan demonstrated his incandescent lightbulb in Newcastle. Forget Edison, it was Swan who invented the humble bulb: his house in Gateshead was the first in the world to be lit by lightbulbs. 

In 1882, American inventor Thomas Edison tried to sue Swan, claiming he’d patented the bulb first in the US in 1879; then his lawyers realised Swan could prove prior research and demonstration. Awkward. So instead the two inventers merged, creating the company Ediswan – the Tesla of the 19th century. ‘We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles,’ Edison said, in a very Elon Musk sort of way. 

In fact, it was the infrastructure that slowed the bulb down – the lack of a national grid meant people couldn’t adopt electric lights, despite their advantages. To speed things up, the UK launched the Assisted Wiring Scheme in 1930 – local authorities subsidised household connections, and gave you four bulbs as a sweetener. By 1944, two out of three houses in the UK were connected to the grid.

You see the parallels – the self-driving GooglePod might be ready to roll in a year or two, but changing the road infrastructure will take longer. Governments will no doubt step in again, to speed things up. 

Meanwhile, Price’s Candles still exists in Bedford – it employs 300 people and supplies Buckingham Palace. Toyota still exists too, of course, and Ford is going strong – the sky hasn’t fallen in yet. But change is afoot, and the manufacturers are spooked. If you’re looking to back a survivor in this maelstrom, I’d bet on Ginster’s pies if I were you.

Read more CAR tech news and features here

By Mark Walton

Contributing editor, humorist, incurable enthusiast