TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - The three-day car

TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - The three-day car - This may be the age of instant gratification, but buying a new car still takes patience. If you choose the exact model, colour and spec of your wagon, you can expect to wait a biblical 40 days and 40 ni

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This may be the age of instant gratification, but buying a new car still takes patience. If you choose the exact model, colour and spec of your wagon, you can expect to wait a biblical 40 days and 40 nights for your deliver- ance. That's if Swiss Tony down at your local dealership lets you get that far. Chances are he's got one in stock you can have next week - it's sandy beige and has no air-conditioning, but he can do you a sweet discount. Your call.

All that could be in the past if a joint venture involving the universities of Bath and Cardiff and backed by motor industry heavy-weights including Ford, Peugeot and VW bears fruit. According to the recently concluded Three-Day Car project, you'll be able to log on, choose your new motor (complete with as many or as few toys as you want) and have it built to order and ready to go in - you guessed it - three days.

THE CHALLENGE

Achieving this ambitious 10-fold reduction is theoretically possible - most of that 40-day span is dead time. With systems in place to wire your data straight to the factory, ordering becomes more or less instantaneous. And modern car plants are slick and efficient operations - 'lean', in the jargon. Tony might try to convince you that weeks of TLC have been lavished on your pride and joy, but the truth is that, humble Ford Fiesta or mighty Merc, it takes only about a day and a half to bolt a car together.

Which leaves another day to deliver the finished product. Bingo - a car in three days, no more making do with what's available for the customer, and massive savings on stock costs for the manufacturer.

THE SOLUTION

But global economics can dictate that cars are made thousands of miles from where they'll eventually be sold, because those who can afford them live in high fixed-cost economies. So to meet the three-day target, car makers would have to take the unlikely step of re-opening the expensive-to-run factories in local markets that they've been closing down for the past 15 years.

What's likely to emerge from this is a good old British compromise - the two-week car. 'The three-day car is the theoretical ideal, but the two-week car is practically achievable,' says Cardiff University's Simon Elias. 'It's only a couple of years away. Most of the big manufacturers are working on it.'

The two-week car offers most of its nippier three-day cousin's advantages - customers can pick their own spec, and the manufacturer still makes big savings by building to order rather than building to stock.

And as the pragmatic Elias points out, it would be pretty hard to arrange vehicle tax, insurance and registration in three days flat.

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