Eleven fifty-seven: what Peak Car means for brokers (2)

Do you know that analogy where you shrink the whole of recorded time down to a single year?

This illustrates how incredibly recently the human race appeared and started tidying things up?  The author Stephen Bayley was riffing on this concept when he wrote: “It is five minutes to midnight for the private car.” He wrote that a few years ago now, so I imagine it must be about 23:57 by now. Either way, the Ovaltine’s gone cold.

 On the face of it, the eleven fifty-seven claim flies in the face of January’s news that UK car sales hit a record high in 2016. The SMMT thought that “very strong” consumer confidence was responsible, along with low-interest finance deals (and “the launch of several new models” – I don’t know which year in the past twenty the SMMT thinks didn’t see the launch of several new models). And the low interest rates can’t be the answer in themselves because there is nothing specific to car ownership about interest rates. I could also get a good deal on a grand piano. But I don’t see anyone claiming 2016 was a record year for piano ownership.

Perhaps the confidence is the answer, but it’s a slightly puzzling answer because 2016 was a year of uncertainty for much of the time, not a year you’d file under V for Very High Confidence. What they didn’t talk about was who is doing the purchasing.

There’s growing evidence that the next generation of drivers are delaying their entry to private car ownership. The days of hopping into a brand new dark blue 1500cc Ford Anglia bought with the proceeds from your Saturday job at Lyons Corner House are no longer with us, and neither are the days when you could park it in cities. Mind you, we have to read this evidence in the context of a global recession which our brokers have only just climbed out of (the 2016 annual survey results from the NACFB, when adjusted for inflation, show we are still writing less total business than we were nine years ago).

But whatever the cause – disillusionment with new parking regulations, financial tolls, ecological concerns, traffic restrictions, lack of funds or the ubiquity of cheap simple transport alternatives – the end result is a rise in the mean average age of the private car owner. And at the other end, people are quitting driving at an older age, because they are living longer and the majority of those extra years are usually active ones. And if what persuaded your grandfather to hand in his licence was the fear of parallel parking the Chevette, imagine giving him the keys to a car that not only has featherweight power steering but also actually parks itself?

I speculate that this may even have the effect of putting a slight brake on new brokers coming to the market and making a success of it. There is a human preference for doing business with people who remind us of ourselves. Contestants in the Apprentice tell the camera confidently that “Sir Alan probably sees something of himself in me”, and while we viewers may look for stray slippers to hurl at the screen, they’re right, it does no harm at all. Perhaps the best mirroring of all is to be in the right age group.

If private car ownership is about to decline, it’s not about to be replaced by a single alternative. For every Uber, there’s a Kutsuplus. Kutsuplus was an innovative flexible-route bus system in Helsinki; the bus drove where its passengers wanted it to go, along a route plotted by computers built around the destinations. They had plans to run one hundred buses in this scheme by the start of 2017, but what actually happened was the number tumbled to zero. City officials stopped the funding that would have been required to expand the fleet. Hard to say whether Kutsuplus was an initial hesitant step down the right path, or a doomed compromise between true public transport and true autonomy.

If you plot historic survey results from the NACFB’s members, you get a result that suggested we reached “peak car” in the period 2014-2015, and have fallen away a little since. Still, the Helsinki example shows us that change happens slowly. my message to them all is – do not even think about retiring. Peak car or no peak car, there’s no shortage of business for you. The trouble is that public and driverless transport cannot be seen as aspirational – unless, of course, you are the company owner that stands to reap the benefits of efficiency gains.