...But if that yearning is to be satisfied without destroying the planet, the cars themselves will have to change a great deal. Mr Ghosn of Renault-Nissan reckons that the industry has to develop vehicles with very low or zero emissions as quickly as resources and technology will allow. It is widely believed that the market for such cars for the foreseeable future will be confined to rich countries with well-organised environmental lobbies and politicians who want to establish green credentials—and indeed much of the pressure on the carmakers to reduce carbon emissions is coming from legislators in Europe and California. But two powerful forces are at work to ensure that emerging markets will get the new clean technologies sooner rather than later.
The first is the global nature of the car industry and its need for scale. Cars made by the big foreign-brand car firms in the BRICs are often tweaked for those markets, but they are no longer discontinued cast-offs from Europe, Japan, South Korea and America. Even those low-cost Renault Logans usually come with airbags, anti-lock brakes and air-conditioning because customers want them and because they are fairly cheap to provide. The well-equipped Hyundai i10s being made in Chennai for Indians differ only very slightly from those destined for export.
The second is that emerging markets often leapfrog old technologies. Many parts of the world that never got round to building a traditional fixed-line telecoms infrastructure now have mobile networks offering widespread coverage and high-speed data transmission; and places that never had analogue television now enjoy multichannel digital satellite television.
Even though the internal combustion engine still has a lot of life left in it, the big carmakers around the world now broadly agree that the move away from mineral energy is unstoppable. Having long derided the hybrid Toyota Prius for its complexity and expense, just about every manufacturer is now planning to launch vehicles with hybrid powertrains within the next few years, taking advantage of rapidly improving battery technology. In particular, car companies think that the lightweight, fast-charging lithium-ion batteries used to power laptop computers and mobile phones are now robust enough to be fitted to road vehicles too.
One of the first of the next-generation hybrids will be Chevrolet’s Volt, which is propelled by an electric motor that can be recharged from the mains. The Volt also has a small petrol engine that acts as a generator to extend the car’s range. Such cars are now seen as essential to the industry’s future; indeed for GM itself the Volt could prove to be a lifesaver. At first they will be more expensive than their conventional equivalents, but as production rises, helped along by favourable tax treatment, their price will quickly fall.
Mr Ghosn thinks that the hybrids themselves may be only a bridging technology on the way to cars powered by batteries alone. His Renault-Nissan alliance, in partnership with NEC, an electronics giant, is pushing ahead with plans to launch all-electric vehicles that look and feel like conventional cars by 2010. Only fully electric cars, Mr Ghosn reckons, will allow the expected growth in car ownership without disastrous consequences for the planet. Governments of developing countries have every interest in combating air pollution and substituting locally generated electric power for expensive imported oil. Alex Molinaroli of Johnson Controls, a big car-parts firm that specialises in battery technology, thinks that electric vehicles might be introduced on a large scale in China ahead of western Europe and America. He says China is well placed to introduce a new electric-car infrastructure partly because it still has relatively few petrol stations. “They don’t have a legacy cost chasing them around,” he explains.
Emerging-market manufacturers are also getting to work on the new cars. In September Tata Motors announced plans to launch an electric version of the Indica in Norway (where Tata has a technology partner) next year before bringing it back to India. In China DongFeng will start making a hybrid car under its own brand next year. Another Chinese carmaker, BYD, a subsidiary of one of the world’s biggest battery manufacturers, has developed a battery technology of its own that it claims has significant advantages over both lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride (the type of battery used in the current Prius). It says its ferrous batteries are not only much cheaper but can also be recharged to 50% of their capacity within ten minutes. The world’s canniest investor, Warren Buffett, recognises the technology’s potential: his Berkshire Hathaway group has taken a 10% stake in BYD.