THE past 10 years have been among the most tempestuous and momentous in the history of both the global and South African motor industry.
The ups and downs in the business cycle as well as the arrival of new vehicle manufacturers and distributors along with a flood of advanced technologies have all been covered in Business Day Motor News and have made for very interesting reading over the years.
On a personal level it has been a revealing period for me as I have lived through this decade firstly as an industry insider until 2007, and since then as an involved outsider who continues to work very closely with the industry and its various role players.
The automotive industry remains very vibrant with a pace of change that seems to be speeding up at an almost unbelievable rate.
The year 2003 saw major benefits flowing through from the Motor Industry Development Programme (MIDP), which was introduced in 1995 to support significant growth in the South African automotive sector.
Annual sales of 382,600 vehicles and 126,661 built-up units exported in 2003 boded well for the future of the local industry. The pace accelerated in 2004, when sales of 481,520 units surpassed the record of 453,541 units set, unbelievably, as far back as 1981.
Confidence in the future of the local industry was rocketing and reached a high point in 2006 when capital investment by the local vehicle manufacturers and component makers reached a heady R6.2bn.
But within the next few years the industry, both globally and locally, was turned on its head as the economic meltdown created chaos and sent many companies tumbling into oblivion and caused supposed blue chips like two of the American Big 3, General Motors and Chrysler, to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The automotive world was changed forever; the American companies are now leaner and meaner than ever, although Chrysler has Fiat bossman Sergio Marchionne to thank for its current state of wellbeing. Ford managed to get by without filing for bankruptcy and is faring comparatively well.
However, most of the long-established companies have to wrestle with excess production capacity — particularly in Europe — and the cost of closing factories is taking a financial and social toll on all those involved.
The latest surprise has been Ford’s decision to close its manufacturing operation in Australia in 2016. Meanwhile the comparative new boys on the block, being the South Koreans, particularly Hyundai/Kia and GM/Daewoo, as well as the Chinese and Indian vehicle manufacturers, are making their presence felt on an increasing scale.
One of the biggest advances I have seen in the past 10 years has been on the manufacturing front, both in terms of vehicles and components.
The growing demand from customers for ever higher levels of quality and reliability has resulted in the latest factories being virtually robot-controlled to ensure consistent and cost-effective production.
My recent visits to Hyundai plants in the Czech Republic and South Korea, as well as a visit to Chery in China and Mahindra in India all depict various levels of advanced production technology with the involvement of manual workers decreasing all the time.
Even here in SA there is a growing measure of automation, which means vehicle manufacturing will no longer be a major source of employment as it was in the 1980s when most of the operations were carried out by the workers themselves and not by robots.
The past decade has seen more and more attention being paid to cutting the impact on the environment of motor vehicle production and on the operation of the vehicles themselves.
The Green era has certainly arrived. However, the major thrust of clean propulsion, being pure electric motors, seems to be foundering, with discounting being the name of the game to dispose of excess stock, particularly in the US, which is the major market for ecotechnology.
The demand for hybrid vehicles, using a combination of batteries and an internal combustion engine — either petrol or diesel — as a power source continues to gain momentum, particularly in First World countries.
But the internal combustion engine is still seen as the prime power force for years to come, although they are being downsized and turbocharged so they use less fuel and emit fewer harmful emissions.
The opposite is happening with transmissions, where they are getting more and more gear ratios and becoming increasingly complex, with double clutches, continuously variable ratios and the like.
Electronics is another area of phenomenal progress, with many features aimed at improving all aspects of safety — both active and passive — while the latest thrust is to increase levels of connectivity between drivers and their vehicles as well as the outside world.
Although the increasing use of electronics is resulting in safer and more economical motoring there is a downside and this is in the realm of the reliability of these systems.
Most manufacturers have had to deal with problems and resultant recalls due to malfunctions of safety critical items, with global leader Toyota having to recall millions of its products in recent years.
Hardly a day goes by that one does not hear of one or another manufacturer announcing a recall campaign, most of them related to electronic equipment.
However, the public has been a big winner over the decade, not only in the way the cost of new vehicles has been contained and the added levels of refinement, particularly in terms of fit and finish, but also in terms of reduced running costs.
The reasons are longer warranties, service or maintenance plans built into the purchase price, longer intervals between services and much improved fuel consumption as the fuel price rises.
Where do we go from here?
It is unlikely that the pace of advance will continue at the rate that it has over the past 10 years, but the motor vehicle will always remain a critical part of our environment.
However, private usage is likely to be curtailed in many of the densely populated countries as public transport options improve to prevent gridlocked traffic in many of the world’s largest cities.