Whether it was while squeezing into your garage at home, navigating the tight multi-storey car park at work or risking your alloy wheels on one of those narrow-lane Channel Tunnel train crossings recently, you will almost certainly have noticed how much larger modern cars are than their older equivalents.
Size has become a pressing concern of many keen drivers and Autocar readers, with few topics inspiring such regular correspondence. “How much longer can it go on,” we’re asked, “before the cars we drive are patently too large for the roads we drive on and the spaces we park in?”
It’s reasonable enough to wonder. Today’s Range Rover is more than 200mm wider and 550mm longer, in standard-wheelbase form, than the 1970 original. Today’s Volkswagen Polo is considerably larger than the original Volkswagen Golf. The current BMW 5 Series is wider across the mirrors than BMW’s seminal Rolls-Royce Phantom of 2003.
But the forces that have driven the physical expansion of cars over the past 50 years aren’t immutable; and by our reckoning, there’s every chance that, having witnessed this rapid vehicular growth, we will see a mirror-image contraction over the next few decades – and for a host of reasons.
Here, then, are 10 key things that need to change – and, in many cases, very likely will – before modern cars can be cut back down to the sizes, and the weights, that they ought to be.
Winning the war on safety
This has been one of the key lines trotted out by car makers to justify gains in vehicle size and weight over the past 25 years, as organisations such as Euro NCAP have allowed passive safety to be weaponised as a selling point. Quite clearly, safer cars are better cars; it would be crazy to argue differently. Progress made on this score in recent decades has been in adding passive crash safety to cars, putting in the structural strength and the deformation zones necessary to best protect both passengers and pedestrians in the event of a crash. But the next 20 years will bring a technological revolution in active safety measures to better prevent crashes, which might well make those passive measures (which add weight and size, of course) redundant.
A great many new cars already have the sensory equipment and computing power they need to detect hazards and mitigate or avoid certain kinds of accidents. Many are already hooked up with ‘V-to-X’ cloud-based communication, can monitor their drivers for signs of tiredness or illness and can bring themselves to a stop automatically.
How long before semi-autonomous ‘platoon’ driving and networked vehicles make crashes history? A decade? Twenty years, at a push? When it happens and passive safety requirements can therefore be relaxed, smaller, space-efficient cars will suddenly be much easier to make again.
Toppling crossovers and SUVs