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February 2014: To race for Sustainability

I would hazard a guess that the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Sustainability (assuming one comes to mind at all, given the complexity of the subject) would not be racing cars. At least, it would unlikely be as an exemplar of sustainable practises. I hope in the next few paragraphs to show otherwise.

Car manufacture is not an area in which I have conducted any specialist research or in which I am expert, but it is certainly an interest. For the past century, that activity has been dominated by an approach to production that has changed processes in nearly every manufacturing production system from food to fabric and chemicals to cars. There are those who consider Fordism, or the reorganisation of manufacturing around labour specialisation and bulk delivery, an example of the most unsustainable of practises. Famously, Henry Ford declared, if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. The Fordist model brought new technologies to the masses through processes that reduced costs extraordinarily. The resulting high private car ownership and use, once limited to developed countries, now also a major issue in developing countries, contributes significantly as one of our most popular, yet unsustainable practises. Whilst unsustainable for reasons of, at the least, pollution and congestion, it is popular, we use it to compare ourselves with others as a measure of wealth (it is in the census) and it will be restrictively painful to remove it from our individual aspiration.

We have fantastic specialism within the ISSR in sustainable transport. Professor Jon Shaw, along with co-author Professor Iain Doherty, has just released, this month, their newest book called “The Transport Debate”. In it, they guide the reader on a series of journeys, imagining, if they can, themselves as different members of the demographic, attempting to bring together the understanding of personal experience of travel with the different modes available. You might argue that it is hard for two, rather-larger-than-they-would-like-to-be, white, middle-class, middle-aged gentlemen to truly understand the experiences and motivations for transport of, say, a young, lower-income, single mother and the challenges or enjoyments that she would face to fulfil her transport needs. However, through a robust methodology including in-depth interviews, the authors achieve this excellently. The result is a compelling case for the need for re-imagination of both the study of transport and also the delivery of transport provision.

The case for public transport is particularly profound, but the argument is made that the quality of the experience of transport must be improved to win footfall from private vehicles. My personal feeling is that the time that it will take to overcome the organisational inertia and barriers to investment that restrict the development of public transport will be too long and hence be overtaken by the wonderfully disruptive innovation taking place in private vehicle provision. Electrification of private transport will not deal with the unsustainability of the practise of private transport use, but it will certainly help make a change to global greenhouse gas emissions and the urban health dangers from breathing fumes during congestion. Several major car companies have already introduced mass-produced models for the consumer market. Indeed, other major organisations, seeking to manage their brand reputation and reduce marginal costs associated with fuel use, have sourced large volumes of these vehicles as fleet cars. Ask any cars salesman after they have finished work, however, and there remains the challenge of broad-based uptake. This is based on three key concerns: range, performance and reliability. The last of these is largely based on perception of the longevity of performance and will necessarily take time to establish and cannot be easily overcome. The first and second are a challenge for technology.

It can be argued that the sharp end of innovation occurs at the far end of what is possible, or was previously impossible. I found it refreshing, then, to see recently just how much has been achieved in so little time in the innovation cycle of electric racing cars. One British firm recently smashed the world record for the fastest speed recorded on land by an electric vehicle; the video of which is available here ( This new record of 204 mph over two consecutive runs, set in June 2013, improved upon a previously held record of 148 mph just less than one year before. The scale of improvement is truly spectacular. We are clearly a long way off the mass-production of 200+ mph-capable electric vehicles zipping through the roads of nations. Indeed, that would probably be undesirable for safety reasons. Nonetheless, it serves, splendidly, as a marker that performance of electric vehicles is improving and, perhaps, as a first step towards achieving some of our sustainability goals, that private transport can become less of an enemy to inevitable destiny. Perhaps, Fordism (as a tool for the efficient allocation of resources) can be employed to deliver sustainability?! As Lord Drayson mentions in this interview “…the technology that is used in this electric racing car will filter down to the cars that we use every day…” (

My argument here is that to be truly adopted as a global practise, sustainability must not only re-invent, as all good brands do, but must recognise the shifting nature of the problem it seeks to serve. The foundation of intergenerational equity is unwavering. How it is achieved, however, must recognise that new solutions will throw up new challenges. Dealing with those challenges may involve step-change in our behaviour, or, as seen through the electrification of private transport, technologically-enhance existing, perhaps individually attractive, behaviours. Of course, the gaseous emissions from private vehicles are only one element of the unsustainable practises associated with their use. Congestion remains a drag on productivity and on the enjoyment of the experience. Reducing volume of private transport will remain a challenge and one for the next re-invention of sustainability. As a first step, though, it seems reasonable to increase urban health benefits and decrease global greenhouse gas emissions through innovation in private transport, allowing people to still enjoy those behaviours that many have come to enjoy. The route to that milestone must be through high-performance and if the British can break some records and lead the way then may it, indeed, be celebrated!

Dr Tim Daley is Director of the Institute for Sustainability Solutions Research (ISSR)

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