Management consultant Ed Hall is a former award-winning BBC broadcaster and political campaigner, and long-time Conservative activist.
The Nissan X-Trail story, so easily and wrongly dismissed as a Brexit consequence, has actually highlighted something profound that is happening in the global car industry.
The erroneous push for diesel, supported by governments and manufacturers, has devastated the industry; combustion engine car sales are down; diesel sales have fallen off a cliff; and electric cars are promoted but half-heartedly by governments – at great financial cost to drivers.
My own dilemma as I look to change my diesel Land Rover in April is emblematic of a much bigger problem: I simply don’t know what to buy.
And now I have been told that in fact, despite my initial misgivings, a diesel engine is the best environmental answer for me, a fact that nobody believes. I cannot make sense of Euro 4, Euro 6, ULEZ, or the levels of Congestion Charge or Road Tax which appear to be measured against different gases. What on earth is AdBlue – and do I have it, need it, want it? Is an AdBlue scandal going to be the next one to hit?
The Nissan X-Trail is a large, diesel-powered SUV of a sort Europeans have simply stopped buying in large numbers. The plan to build it in Sunderland required a new production line, but they’ve decided to use an existing one in Japan.
It is telling and interesting that they didn’t decide to use the Nissan factory in Barcelona that is only running at 40 per cent capacity, or move production to anywhere else in Europe. Given that their French CEO is in prison awaiting trial for corruption (which he strongly denies), I’m guessing Nissan isn’t feeling especially pro-EU at the moment.
I looked at a Tesla, and nearly had a heart attack. It’s the same price as a Range Rover with all the trimmings. I’d rather have a Range Rover; who wouldn’t?
Something very dramatic is about to happen to the car industry, and very fast indeed. Countries are heading towards bans on internal combustion engines altogether in towns and cities, and the answer is not cars the size of baby strollers or £100,000-plus vanity cars.
Cars are rarely bought in the traditional way, where we hand over money, and the receive the goods: they are complex financial transactions made even more complex by the dozens of other taxes and fees that need to be paid, depending what you buy. I think that this change will come very soon, and will be based on mileage, geography, and power usage.
Owning cars in the way that Zipcars and similar shared schemes work, except not shared. Give me the car, charge me a small flat fee and a mileage-based fee that covers all the power, and pollution taxes, and rewards me for shared use, and recover the cost of the vehicle through variable rates charged on the amount of use.
It’s not a million miles away from the system we have now, with personal leases and rental agreements, but it would make buying cars, and buying the right cars, so much easier.
Of course, people are slowing down financial decisions in the run-up to Brexit, but if we conflate that with the epoch-shift in the car industry and its business models, then we’re going to miss a trick.
The UK ought to be leading the world in the production of mid-market electric vehicles, with huge sales in London, driven by strong financial incentives for innovators and manufacturers, and a tax and cost recovery system that rewards green behaviour and sensible use at the point of purchase. Become world leaders at that game, and Nissan will soon be back.