VEHICLE DESIGN: A NEGLECTED BUT CRUCIAL INSTRUMENT
OF TRANSPORT POLICY
Vehicle design has been regulated since the
early days of motoring, but the vast potential of vehicle regulation
as an instrument of transport policy has so far hardly been tapped.
The explanation of this paradox is that vehicle regulation has
not been based on a systematic set of principles. Instead, regulations
have been introduced in an ad hoc way to deal with the
particular nuisances which from time to time have aroused public
What principle should vehicle regulation be
based on? The following seems appropriate:
No vehicle should consume more non-renewable
resources, in its construction, use or ultimate disposal, or cause
more danger, pollution, noise or other nuisance than is required
for the performance of its function.
Part of the function of a vehicle is to provide
a reasonable degree of comfort for its occupants at all appropriate
speeds. A conventional car, for example, should be able to cruise
comfortably at or near the national speed limit.
This principle would have five important implications.
First, the use on the public highway of any vehicle capable of
exceeding the national speed limit, except perhaps by a small
margin, would be forbidden. Even with the present national speed
of 70 mph, the effect in reducing the incidence and severity of
accidents, fuel consumption, noise and pollution would be considerable.
If the national speed limit were reduced to 55 mph, which according
to the Policy Studies Institute report Speed Control and Transport
Policy may still be too high, these benefits would be still
Second, all vehicles would be fitted with variable
speed limiters, perhaps operated by the driver, perhaps switched
on automatically by signals from roadside equipment, which would
ensure that they could not break the speed limit on roads where
it was lower than the national limit. This is of particular importance
because the accident rate on these roads is far higher than on
motorways and dual carriageways where the national speed limit
Third, the present excessive powers of acceleration
would be cut back. They are not necessary and contribute in an
important way to all the present dangers and nuisances.
Fourth, cars would be much lighter than at present.
It is an anomaly that the vehicle should weigh so much more than
its load. Modern materials of construction and new methods of
propulsion make it possible to construct far lighter vehicles.
The major gain is likely to be in reduced fuel consumption and
pollution, but lighter cars would also reduce the severity of
Fifth, the shape and materials of cars and other
road vehicles would be such as to minimise the damage to pedestrians
and cyclists if there were a collision.
As well as more civilised conventional vehicles,
there is a need for a new type of car and a new type of lorry
designed for local use. A significant proportion of the cars now
on the road are used only as local runabouts; it would probably
be better for their users, and certainly for everyone else, if
they were designed for that purpose. Runabouts would have a top
speed of, say, 25 mph, and would be built to particularly high
standards with respect to safety, fuel consumption, exhaust emissions
and noise. They might well be electric or hybrid-electric vehicles.
They would not necessarily be small, since some people might require
a relatively large car or van for their local purposes, although
in practice most of them probably would be. They would not be
allowed on motorways.
At present, one important deterrent to owning
and using a runabout is likely to be that people would feel intimidated
when driving one in traffic dominated by conventional vehicles.
Lower and better enforced speed limits, in particular a properly
enforced 20 mph limit in towns and on minor country roads, would
go a long way towards removing that deterrent. Fiscal policy could
be used to supplement the natural advantage in capital and running
costs that runabouts would have over conventional cars. If long-distance
travel by conventional car became slower, because of lower speed
limits on motorways and other trunk roads, or more expensive,
through the introduction of road pricing on motorways, that would
encourage people to own a runabout rather than a conventional
car and to rely on public transport for their longer distance
travel. A deterrent to using public transport for long journeys
at present is the difficulty of making the final leg of the journey
from the station to the ultimate destination. Cheap car hire,
making use of runabouts and available at every station, would
often be a satisfactory solution. It is possible to envisage a
not-too-distant future in which local runabouts would be the norm
and only people with exceptional travel requirements would own
cars of the present type.
The local lorry would be best introduced in
connection with a move towards area-based rather than firm- or
product-based methods of distribution in towns. As the diagram
illustrates, area-based distribution minimises the vehicle mileage
required to perform any given task of distributing goods, which
is in everyone's interests. The local lorry would have a low top
speed and would be especially frugal in fuel, quiet and non-pollutingthere
is no conflict here between the operator's requirements and a
safe and pleasant urban environment. There might be some conflict
with respect to carrying capacity, but probably not much. It is
only for long hauls, and perhaps even then only for large single
loads, that very large lorries become economic for operators.
Some manufacturers already prefer to use a local
consolidated delivery service rather than handling their own distribution.
Suitable changes in the legal and fiscal framework governing lorry
operation would tip the balance in favour of those services for
other shippers too. Two changes in particular are required. The
first is to replace the annual vehicle excise duty for lorries
by a distance-related tax, as already applies in some other countries.
The second is to confine the largest and most intrusive lorries
to a restricted network of motorways and selected "A"
roads; there would have to be individual exemptions, most of which
would be phased out over time. Shippers and operators would respond
very quickly to these reforms.
Abbreviated versions of this article have been
published by RoadPeace and by the Environmental Transport Association.