Decade in review: Trends that changed the automotive industry

Moving Well | Dave Morley | Posted on 10 January 2020

Looking back at a decade of seismic change in the Aussie automotive industry.

Rewind to 2010 and Holden Commodore was Australia’s best-selling car, the local automotive industry was a major employer, and nobody dreamed that an airbag might kill them. The last decade saw seismic change in what and how we drive so, as we enter a new decade, we take a look in the rear view mirror on a decade of driving change.

Red Holden Commodore

Death of the Commodore signals the end of an era.

Seven trends that changed the Aussie automotive industry over the last decade

The big advance: built-in safety

A car that can sense it’s about to hit something and automatically applies the brakes for an emergency stop? It would have sounded like science fiction a few years ago, but it’s real and it’s here now in an increasing number of cars including affordable models and even light-commercial vehicles. International studies have shown this technology can reduce nose-to-tail crashes by about a third.

Other life-saving tech that has gone from Hollywood to the highway in the last decade includes active lane-keeping programs which allow the car to steer itself to prevent you from drifting into another lane or off the road completely. There are even cars now that have infra-red cameras that effectively give you night-vision goggles for after-dark driving. And the last decade has also seen technologies blossom that warn you of other vehicles and obstacles coming from every direction, as well as detecting when the driver is drowsy.

The global dawdler: electric vehicles 

Plenty of people are talking about electric vehicles right now, but not too many are actually buying them. In fact, Australia rates fourth from the bottom (behind Mexico, Chile and Turkey) on the list of OECD countries when it comes to electric vehicles as a percentage of the total carpark. We’re doing better than we did in 2011 when just 49 EVs were sold here, but we lag way behind Norway, the poster child for EVs, where more than one in 10 cars on the road is electric.

That said, local sales doubled last year against the previous 12 months with 670 EVs sold in the first half of 2018 compared with almost 1300 sold for the same period in 2019, giving a total of something like 2500 EV sales for 2019.

So what’s stopping us? A few things – a lack of government incentives, a lack of charging infrastructure, and our unique geography that values range above running costs. Oh, and something like 80 per cent of EVs cost more than $60,000 to buy. (More: Electric vehicle myths, busted)

The loss: Australian car-making

The reasons are many (and include the types of cars we were making and a federal government uninterested in supporting the industry) but the fact remains that on 20 October, 2017, Holden switched off its car-making production line for the last time. That followed Ford and Toyota Australia doing the same thing just months before, killing an industry that had survived here since the 1940s. 

An estimated 120 supplier companies hit the wall the same day, and as many as 50,000 workers from production-line hands to truck drivers to dealership staff arrived at Centrelink the next Monday.

Close up of airbag sign on steering wheel
Electric vehicle plugged in to charger

Holden's popular VL Calais from 1986-1988 and the VT Commodore (1997-2000).

The scandal: Dieselgate

It was actually a genius idea – design a car that ‘knew’ when it was being emission tested and program it to run cleanly at that point, but switch to another, dirtier but more powerful, computer program at all other times. Genius, yes, but evil genius.

Volkswagen’s now-infamous Dieselgate was the big automotive news story of the decade and it cost not only jobs at the top, billions in fines and make-goods, but also the public’s trust in a brand that had been highly regarded.

The cult: SUVs and utes

The SUV began its rise to the top of shopping lists at least a decade ago, but more recently, the dual-cab utility has turned the car market on its head, at the expense of conventional sedans. The bald numbers tell the story: In 2010, the Holden Commodore was the nation’s biggest-selling model with 45,956 units. The closest a ute got was the Toyota HiLux in eighth place (24,691 sales) and the Nissan Navara in ninth (19,424). 

Fast-forward to 2017, the Commodore’s last sales year, and the tables had neatly turned. The HiLux was the country’s top seller with 47,093 units with the Ford Ranger ute second (42,728). The Commodore? A lowly eighth place with just 23,676 units sold. HiLux and Ranger were 2019’s best-sellers too.

The safety failure: Takata airbags

This was a classic case of the safety device that could kill you. By leaving out a vital chemical in its airbag inflation system, now-defunct Japanese airbag maker Takata unwittingly turned its products into bombs. The missing ingredient prevented moisture build-up in the airbags. Without this, the airbags began to corrode internally, weakening the metal parts which could then be expelled as shrapnel in an airbag deployment. To date, 23 people have been killed by the airbags and 10 times that number injured.

The ensuing recall crippled Takata into liquidation and saw millions of cars across dozens of brands recalled for replacement airbags. Even now, more cars are being added to the list of potential killers. You can check your car’s status at the ismyairbagsafe website. 

The fizzer: autonomous cars

Despite the hype and expectation, the self-driving car failed to materialise in the past decade. While the technology exists (to an extent, anyway) autonomous cars just won’t mix with today’s cars. Which means duplicating the infrastructure, a daunting job if ever there was one.

But what’s really stopping self-driving cars in their tracks is the need to find a government or insurance industry willing to take the plunge and accept the consequences the first time an autonomous car goes rogue.