Credit where it’s due

If you believe some commentators, the UK automotive sector’s plea for government support to help it through the economic downturn is little different to the banks holding out their begging bowls for billions in taxpayers’ cash.

One national newspaper said the car industry was demanding a ‘banks-style rescue’. In fact, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has made some relatively modest requests for assistance, some to stimulate consumer demand, others to underpin its manufacturing and technology base, that it hopes will give the UK sector a chance of weathering the current storm.

Please let nobody put our automotive industry in the same boat as our bankers. While the pinstriped brigade indulged in a decade of reckless abandon, the UK auto sector was quietly completing its transformation from 1970s black comedy to international success story.

That success came in various forms — among others, as a vehicle manufacturer to most of the world’s big car groups, a centre of innovative R&D and the home of global motorsport technology.

When the phrases ‘state aid’ and ‘car industry’ appear in the same sentence the first response of some is to raise the ghosts of the 1970s, of hopeless state-run enterprises hoovering up taxpayers’ cash to produce cars that nobody wants to buy. Those spectres were laid to rest long ago, and if the dubious accolade of state- supported basket case belongs anywhere it is in a different sector — perhaps you can guess where.

The UK industry is not even really comparable to the US automotive sector, which is preparing to ask the new president for a support package that really is a ‘banks-style rescue’.

The US industry is at least in part the author of its own misfortune, clinging to the gas-guzzler for too long while more nimble international competitors launched models more in tune with the energy-efficient age.

Of course, the UK-based plants of overseas car groups, whether US, German or Japanese, are at the mercy of decisions made in those nations. But any measures that can be taken here to keep the UK sector in as good a shape as possible should receive the government’s serious consideration. The industry has earned that right.

Andrew Lee, editor

The last of our 2008 special themed issues returns to the topic of energy technology, and how innovation will shape the way the UK and the world meets its power needs in the decades to come. It seems like years ago that the soaring price of oil was the subject of greatest concern to the world’s economy. In fact it was only a few months. Energy, however, remains one of the greatest challenges facing the world’s engineers and technologists. We hope you enjoy our latest series of features.