Words of warning

There are distinctly mixed messages to be taken from The Engineer’s interview with Dr Clive Hickman, veteran of the UK car industry and now head of engineering at Tata Motors.


There are distinctly mixed messages to be taken from The Engineer’s interview with Dr Clive Hickman, veteran of the UK car industry and now head of engineering at Tata Motors.

On one hand it is heartening to see a man steeped in the UK automotive sector leading the engineering operation of one of the emerging giants of the global industry. Reflecting the newly found confidence of India itself, Tata Motors has made no secret of its ambitions to take on what might be described as the worldwide car establishment. The home-grown talent of Hickman is playing a leading role in making that happen and the European hub of the operation is here in the UK at Warwick. Three cheers certainly for that. There is, however, a sting in the tale. Hickman’s time with Tata has enabled him to compare the UK sector with where he is now, and it seems that in one respect at least the verdict is not favourable. He paints a picture of an Indian auto industry that is, so to speak, highly driven and a UK and European one that is in the slow lane.

Complacent is the word Hickman uses. He pulls few punches in contrasting what he sees as the can-do attitude and work ethic of his colleagues in India with the more leisurely attitude of their counterparts here. He says that we used to have that determination but somehow it has diminished down the years and if the fighting spirit is not rekindled our industry will suffer the consequences.

You can agree or disagree with Hickman over this and we suspect there will be plenty of people in either camp. It is important to note that as an executive at an Indian automotive company he is bound to laud the virtues of his own engineers. He was also making a general comment about the UK industry and he could doubtless point to many highly motivated individuals within it.

An engineer of Hickman’s seniority and experience does, however, deserve to be listened to, and he makes his point in a spirit of sorrow rather than glee. This is by no means the first time over the last year or so that we have heard the word complacent used in connection with the established order of the automotive world.

Hickman’s comments chime with a sense that the twin shocks of recession and the emergence of competitors from developing economies have left the giants of the US, Europe and even Japan looking like they thought nothing would ever change, and that the only battles left to be won were with the remaining inefficiencies in their existing structures, not with forces that would threaten the existence of those structures.

If there is any complacency in the UK industry or elsewhere it has surely been shattered by recent events. Hickman’s insight into a determined Indian automotive sector is another reason to conclude that the world, in this respect, will never be the same again.

Andrew Lee, Editor