Mike Whitfield learned to drive in the legendary Datsun 1200 Coupe: with its little, indestructible four-cylinder engine, four-speed manual gearbox and wind down windows, but no ABS brakes or airbags, it was a basic piece of transport in the 1970s.
The future is going to be light years away from that, says Whitfield and, save for the odd twinge of nostalgia, he won’t miss “the old days”, because motoring (or human mobility, more correctly) in the 21st century will be more comfortable, safer, more efficient and, above all, kinder to our planet.
Cars will be electrically powered, or a hybrid of electric and “fossil fuel” engines, and they will be equipped with electronic systems which will range from full autonomous to driver safety aids. Eventually, everything will be connected, in the world of big data.
Cars will communicate with each other with systems built into highways, with GPS systems, with emergency services and even with your local mechanic (oops – she will more likely be a “mechatronics” expert) working across the mechanical and electronic disciplines.
But, in Whitfield’s vision, the Datsun heritage of strength and reliability will still be there. Datsun the brand became Nissan officially in the 1980s (although Datsun has recently returned to SA with an entry-level range of cars) and Whitfield is now the managing director of Nissan South Africa and Nissan Group Africa.
“I’ve always been part of the family,” says Whitfield, whose father was chairman of Datsun SA. Whitfield himself joined as a marketing trainee in 1981 and, he chuckles, “there’s not much I haven’t done in the company.”
His passion is advertising and marketing, as well as sales: he rose through various positions to become sales and marketing director for Nissan SA in 1999.
He was offered “a big challenge” in 2005: move to Norway to set up what would become Nissan Nordic.
“Nissan was already a well-established and successful brand in those countries but the distribution was done through family-owned businesses and we wanted to make it wholly Nissan and take it to the next level.”
What impressed Whitfield was that he had a staff of young people – “I was the oldest there” – from a host of different nationalities and that it was “really interesting to see how they all worked together”.
Another thing Whitfield won’t forget from his time in the Nordic countries was the “absolutely zero tolerance approach” to road safety.
Whitfield lived about 30km outside Helsinki in Finland, where Nissan Nordic had its HQ, and “even in the early morning, you’d come upon a road block and they’d make everybody blow into a portable breathalyser”.
End result: “Nobody, but nobody, drinks and drives.”
Another interesting aspect of the way criminal behaviour on roads is dealt with in Finland is that there is a “sliding scale” of fines – “so if you are rich (and they know everything about you because all of the IT systems are connected) then you’ll pay a higher fine than someone who isn’t. That means the pain is equal for breaking the law”.
In South Africa, he believes, there is a double problem when it comes to road safety: lack of training and “lack of respect for the law”.
After the interview, one of Nissan’s people tells me she was offered driving coaching by instructors hired by the company, which is all part of its programmes aimed at upskilling workers, but also slowly improving road safety.
Africa is the “last frontier” for carmakers, says Whitfield. “The potential is huge and I believe that this continent will leapfrog some of the stages in the mobility process, much as we missed out on the desktop PC revolution and went straight to mobile.”
The future of mobility in Africa is, partly, going to entail getting people who use public transport into affordable cars.
“We have a rental system here where our people can get a Datsun and you can see, almost instantly, how it liberates them. They can go where they want, when they want. They are no longer at the mercy of taxis or trains and buses, which are often late.”
It’s interesting to see, too, that these newly transport-empowered workers are soon forming car pools. “One private car can make a difference in the lives of four people.”
Whitfield sees a future where Africans might not even own cars – they might rent them for short periods, as already happens in Europe and Asian cities, or might have partial ownership in them. Then, of course, the Ubertype concept of ride sharing – already gaining traction around Africa – will free even more people.
In that way, the future, says Whitfield, is, in a way, like looking back into the past. He remembers the first time he had a car – that original Datsun – wholly under his control.
It was a sense of freedom that he had never felt before. And that’s what the vehicle of the future – whether electric, hybrid or autonomous – will bring.
“It’s freedom … and once you’ve got freedom, progress follows.”