A Trend is a Trend until it Bends

Thank you for your comments on my previous post on ‘Personal mobility – A sustainability journey’. A key driver of sustainability (or unsustainability) will be the number of cars worldwide. As mentioned in the previous post, the International Energy Agency and OECD estimate that at the end of 2010 the number of cars on the planet surpassed 1 billion, and that by 2035 this number could double. Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon in their book Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability make the same claim.

How can they be so certain? As a strategic foresight ‘pracademic’ my motto is ‘A Trend is a Trend until it Bends’ or, in other words, I am always on the outlook for discontinuities – social, technological, economic, environmental, and political.

In its 2001 Global Energy Scenarios, Shell introduced the ‘energy ladder’ concept and demonstrated, based on observations over 30 years in dozens of both emerging and developed economies, that a non-linear relationship (an S-curve type of relationship) exists between primary energy demand and disposable income per person (in constant purchasing power parity terms):

  • At $3,000 energy demand increases rapidly driven by industrialisation and urbanisation and the shift from biomass to commercial fuels.
  • At $10,000 energy demand continues to rise but at a slower pace as industrialisation and urbanisation matures.
  • At $15,000 energy demand growth slows dramatically driven by economic growth from services.
  • At $25,000 energy demand does not change much anymore because of efficiency and the fact that the energy needs of industry and households have been met.

Can we not make a similar S-curve observation in terms of demand for cars? In the emerging markets of India and China, demand growth for cars continues to rise, while in OECD countries demand growth for cars has stalled — in fact in some developed economies it is declining.

There may be another set of phenomena, such as ‘leap-frogging technologies’ and ‘change in behaviour’, which could imply that even historically S-curves are not a good predictor of the future, making linear predictions even less reliable. The Internet and changing human resources policies allow people to work from home part of the weak, requiring less use of cars. In crowed cities with good public transportation systems, people tend to shy away from cars or have only one car per household instead of two.

While it is likely that the number of cars will increase, I doubt that we will see 2 billion cars by 2035.

In the next post we will explore the unsustainability of personal mobility.

6 thoughts on “A Trend is a Trend until it Bends

  1. Very interesting Alexander. Likely we do see many more cars, car ownership is still low in India, south East Asia and China. These nations will see increasing incomes and increasing ownership of cars. BUT..take Hong Kong, my home country, whilst petroleum driven cars are taxed heavily, electric cars are not – hence (other than Norway), HK has the highest ownership per capita of Teslas (electric cars). I suspect that we will see electric cars make substantial inroads over the next few decades – I even here Chevrolet will release a USD 30k electric car soon, so should be affordable to more people. So I would hope the environmental impacts will be reduced.

    I would also say that mass transit is in its infancy in Asia, but has much further to go, I am currently sitting in Tokyo, having taken the shinkansen from Nagoya with several thousand people. Tokyo transports millions of people a day – there is little use for the car here. So I would optimistically say that China is heading this way too, perhaps India less so. We can be optimistic – mass transport and individual electric cars may yet become a core part of our transport systems, at least in Asia.

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  2. Another great post ProfSasha thank you !
    Intriguing statistics on the relationship between household disposable income and energy consumption. I live in China which is a bit of a magnifying glass for trends it has to be said. Some days I feel like I can actually see the people around me have their standards of living rise. Household income feels like it increases daily. Eating in restaurants, shopping in supermarkets and buying luxury goods almost seem like a hobby here, this said I totally recognize that there are still many workers paid very little and dangerous jobs without safety of security are still very common. So let’s hope with this increase in household income the household energy consumption will also start to slow down in China.
    The roads are totally congested and there are cars everywhere. The sounds of the birds here in the cities have been taken over by the sound of the car horn. Luxury cars are very common and due to previous restrictions on people and the risk of second hand car registration fraud you see many new cars on the roads. New cars are at least one positive, as I hope car manufacturers are producing less damaging vehicles now than in earlier years. I say ‘less’ damaging as the damage to our world is of course extreme old or new.
    I am excited to read further post ProfSasha ! Thank you for raising awareness of personal mobility and with this post the potential billion car crisis.

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  3. This is another intriguing blog that provides data and statistics regarding the connection between household disposable materials, energy consumption and creation of sustainable environment. It mentions about the ‘energy ladder’ as introduced by Shell through Global Energy Scenarios but what still needs to be understood is whether the increase in household income and household energy usage will reflect on the trend of demand for cars. For instance, the blog mentions that with regard to the emerging markets of India and China the trend is that there is continued need for cars while those of OECD continue to go down. This to the best of situations in the so called ‘emerging markets’ is not due to their quest for sustainability but due to the fact that luxury cars continues to be popular and in addition, there are a number of restrictions in OECD especially of second hand cars. To the best of my understanding, A Trend is a Trend until it Bends can be well suited had Alexander argued that more electric cars are likely to be manufactured and owned in the next few decades. This way, OECD and emerging markets will not need to mind about reducing or increasing the number or demand for cars. As a matter of fact, we cannot assume that car manufactures are not conscious about sustainability. Of course there is this or that restriction that prevents them from manufacturing anything for the sake of cars. Thank you so much for such a captivating blog, we are happy that awareness is created regarding personal mobility and with this post there is potential million cars problems.

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    1. Hello Haishan, Thank you for your reply to this and to my previous post. I wanted to reply to you to address some misconception:

      1. The next decades will NOT see an increase by two million cars. The most bullish projections anticipate that an increase of one billion cars is possible, but these don’t take into account change in ownership models, etc. Car sharing is having a major effect on the number of new cars brought to the market globally, especially in cities.

      2. Hybrid cars are not a dead-end. In fact it may very well be that in non-urban areas it is the future, especially when the ICE engine is powered by renewable (2nd and 3rd generation) biofuels. An in urban areas they are a means to an end towards full electric cars and electric cars with an ICE based range extender.

      3. Electric cars have several limitations and its sustainability is affected by how the electricity is generated in the first place. Coal-fired powered electricity without carbon capture and storage is substantially worse from an environmental perspective than other fossil fuel alternatives. Electricity is not a primary energy and needs to be generated and its sustainability depends on the type of the primary energy used to generate the electricity needed

      4. The total number of cars is something to be concerned about because of the negative environmental implications of manufacturing cars across the entire manufacturing value chain. The type of fuel used is only a small part of the environmental sustainability of the personal mobility.

      5. The future will likely see a mix of car technologies (Hybrid, diesel-hybrid for trucks, electric, fuel-cell hybrid, etc), and we will likely see less growth in demand for cars because of change in ownership models and more efficient and affordable public transportation.

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