Thierry van Kan: “Car industry lost its influence with dieselgate”
After six years at the head of Belgian car importers federation FEBIAC, Thierry van Kan (68) hands on the torch to Philippe Dehennin, ex CEO of BWM Belgium. In an interview with L’Echo / De Tijd Thierry van Kan shares his views on how dieselgate harmed the automotive sector deeply, but also how it pushed forward the move to electric cars. He believes 20% of car sales in Belgium will be electric by 2020.
Thierry van Kan was heading Belgian’s biggest car importer d’Ieteren for 22 years. Before that he was in the food business, last with the famous Belgian chocolate house Godiva. “In that time I had sponsored a little Suzuki in the Tour of Belgium, piloted by the son of the number two at D’Ieteren. He told me they were looking for a new CEO…”, van Kan recalls.
Selling cars is like selling chocolate?
“I brought with me some ideas from the food distribution to D’Ieteren. Sometimes people looked at me with big eyes asking themselves from where I got these ideas”, van Kan tells. Selling chocolates isn’t the same as selling cars, although. “You don’t have problems of after-sales in the chocolate business”, van Kan says. “But there are similarities like working with franchise entrepreneurs who are very dependent at one point, but want to be independent at the same time”.
You sell more and more cars, but traffic jams are growing too. How to solve this?
“Mobility was one of my biggest concerns during my six years at FEBIAC, next to education and rejuvenation and improving the image of the car. Regionalizing mobility with the sixth state reform was a very bad decision. Mobility doesn’t stop at the border. Bad mobility in Wallonia, is bad for Fanders too and vice versa.”
Is the automotive lobby in Belgium losing influence?
“We certainly have lost influence with dieselgate. I’ve learned at FEBIAC that we have to be far more proactive. Both industry and government make mistakes. Everybody wants to prove himself right. Take the example of the recycling of a car. Authorities demanded that the car would be recycled for 96% in two years time. The industry has reacted very brutally saying they never could do that, instead of studying together how far you could go. Today, we reached that point.”
So this could be the same for the discussion on emissions?
“That’s exactly the same problem. Rather than coming together at the table to discuss, rules are imposed and we start to fight. Dieselgate is a direct consequence of that. We don’t forgive dieselgate because it has been very bad for the industry. After that nobody understood anything anymore. You heard that ‘all the world was cheating’, while it were the standards which weren’t adapted to reality anymore. But for the electrification of cars dieselgate was a good thing: the crisis woke up the whole world”.
How will the Belgian car industry be affected by the electric car?
“My successor will encounter transformations, but there is only evolution, no revolution. Electric cars will come, but also car sharing, automated and autonomous cars. But the car as we know it today will remain. The business will change. There is less after-sales with an electric car, but there still is and we will still sell vehicles with the combustion engine. And don’t forget that the biggest drawback of the electric car is its life cycle. A car lives for 10 to 15 years. ”
“Autonomous cars living together with the others will be a big problem. We have airplanes that are completely autonomous for 15 years, but still there are two pilots and two control sticks”.
How do you see the future of the combustion engine?
“The 20th century will be looked back upon as the century of the oil and fossil fuels. We are living the end of this kind of energy, even if Trump claims the opposite. Every car manufacturer is working towards the electric car. The best way to remove the stains on the reputation of the car is to show we’re entering a new era, the one of electrification. It is that way we will be able to restore confidence”.
“Kilometer tax will be unavoidable”
One of the big issues for van Kan’s successor will be the kilometer tax. The project is on the table at FEBIAC since 2013, but is gaining momentum now, van Kan believes. “Mobility is the only thing the consumer isn’t paying for in function of his usage”, van Kan explains. “We pay our electricity in kWh, our phone calls per minute. In a car, the more kilometres you drive, the less you pay. That’s not logic. We think a kilometer tax is the only reasonable thing a state can do”.
Thierry van Kan wants to replace the existing taxes by a kilometer tax. “Somebody who drives between 13.000 and 15.000 km a year will pay the same as today. But this tax shouldn’t be linear, it should be in function of time and place. Driving to Brussels at 8 o’clock should be costing lots more then at 11. And between Bastogne and Namur the tax could be zeroed, because there are no traffic jams”. FEBIAC is convinced that removing 6% of the cars out of the traffic jams, would resolve most of them.
But van Kan sees regional problems. Flanders and Brussels are rather in favour of a kilometre tax, Wallonia is rather reluctant. “Walloons will never accept they have to pay to come to Brussels or Flanders, while the other way around people don’t have to pay”. The kilometre tax for trucks is a good thing, van Kan says, because the infrastructure to monitor is already there and can be used for private cars too. “And the kilometre tax could be a replacement for the excise on fossil fuels when everybody drives electric. How else the government would compensate for this?”.