By Charles Krome
Coincidentally, the reason I recently found myself in a Detroit parking structure taking photos of a dramatically designed Citroën C6 was that I was attending the 8th Annual Automotive Press Association Designers Panel, held each year to help build buzz for the Michelin Challenge Design program. And that, in turn, is a contest sponsored by Michelin that gives auto designers from around the world the chance to see their work shown at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. (I posted some images from this year’s winners.)
The APA event was essentially a panel discussion built around the theme of the 2012 Challenge Design: City 2046—Art, Life & Ingenuity. More specifically, according to Michelin, “We are asking our participants to present their vision of city transportation for Paris, Shanghai, Mumbai, Rio de Janiero or Los Angeles for the year 2046. Each of these cities has a specific set of challenges, and disruptive innovation may be what we need to see to get transportation from the formula we use today to that of 2046.”
On hand to do the discussing were (from left to right in the accompanying photo): Larry Erickson, who holds the Transportation Design Chair at Detroit’s prestigious College for Creative Studies; Joe Dehner, head of design for the Chrysler Group’s Ram and Dodge brands; Joel Piaskowski, design director at Ford; and Chris Borroni-Bird, GM’s director for advanced technology vehicle concepts. Moderating the panel was noted auto critic Jim Hall, from Autoline Detroit (although that’s Michelin marketing exec John Moloney at the podium in the picture).
Now, you might expect an event like this to focus on something like “automotive design”—I know I did—but the reality, especially for gearheads, was significantly more depressing. There was an almost palpable tension amongst the panelists as they circled round and round whether personal transportation as we know it today will even exist by 2046, at least in crowded urban areas like those mentioned in the Challenge Design theme.
That is, there was clear concern that we’re heading toward a future in which autonomous vehicles—those that drive themselves—will play a big role in city transportation. And that’s not just for reasons of enhanced efficiency, but also because more and more drivers in coming decades won’t be interested in driving.
As Borroni-Bird told us (and I’m paraphrasing here): How people use cars today is different than it’s been in the past. The concept of just “going for a drive” as something to enjoy in and of itself has been replaced by the mere desire to get from point A to point B. And as Dehner pointed out, this change in attitude isn’t going to be limited to younger drivers. He posited that as baby boomers continue to age, their physical limitations are going to make autonomous vehicles an increasingly attractive option.
Then there’s the fact that, especially on a global basis, newer cities, like those growing in China and India, are going to be able to proactively plan out their infrastructures beforehand to support their transportation and quality-of-life goals, not try to do things the other way around. Translation: These cities will be designed from the ground up for autonomous transportation and the like, and could very well end up banning internal combustion engines entirely. We’re already seeing the first forays into this kind of approach with efforts like London’s congestion charges and Beijing’s decision to make it easier for drivers to get licensed with electric vehicles than gas-powered ones.
It’s all a natural extension of the whole “today’s buyers only think of cars as transportation appliances” meme. But I’ve always had a problem with that line of thought as it applies to building an emotional connection between people and their vehicles—a vital function of automotive design—so it was interesting to hear Borroni-Bird state that the iPhone represents a viable template for how design should work as we head toward 2046.
Clearly, people have a very strong, design-supprted sentimental attachment to their iPhones, and anyone who really studies consumer behavior should realize that these feelings can be part of the ownership experience of plenty of appliances. Companies like Viking certainly manage to produce Porschephile-levels of fanaticism in their customers, and they’re literally selling appliances.
In terms of how this affects the auto industry, Erickson reminded us that the OEMs are in business to make a profit, and you don’t make a profit by selling appliances, but by selling “desire.” Which is where effective design comes into play, even if, as Piaskowski believes, we’ll start seeing consumer electronics companies moving into the transportation sector to build on the increasing convergence of cars and computers. Remember, Google already has its own fleet of autonomous vehicles and Best Buy—which sells electric motorcycles in a few West Coast stores—now appears to be looking for a startup EV automaker it can partner with for in-store EV sales.
And frankly, I wouldn’t mind shopping for a new car at Best Buy some time in the future—as long as I’m still able to drive it home by myself.