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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Toyota sees the light (and it’s on the front of your PS3)

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I’m not doubting that Chris Bangle was right when, in his speech at TED in 2002, he referred to the car as an avatar, or a representation of the self. I’m certainly aware of the efficacy with which my personality was reflected and communicated through the various vehicles I’ve owned over the years.

For a while now, however, the thought that cars no longer connect to a new generation of consumers on the visceral level that they once did has fascinated me. There’s even a video of me somewhere talking about the difficulties of designing cars for people who now see more value in networks and the devices that plug us in to them than they do in the objects that were the symbols of success of generations past.

On the few occasions I’ve dared broach this issue with the old-school of my industry, I’ve been looked upon with suspicion. Because wrapped up in all this is the notion that cars will cease to pull at the emotional heart strings that make us want to consume more cars (for the record, my heart strings are pulled daily. At the moment, Ferrari 400is are playing a sweet rendition of a Haydn cello concerto).  The thing is, when you analyse trends you may not like what you see on a personal level but you’re duty bound to report them. As a design strategist you then need to try and find a way to work them.

Anyway, on to todays bombshell. It seems that someone at Toyota is thinking along the same lines, albeit in a rather fatalistic manner. In an article from the Mainichi Newspaper, quoted on Kotaku, an unnamed Toyota exec came right out and said

“Home game machines are no good. Playing something that realistic makes the need for cars disappear.”

Putting my 2 cents in, I don’t think he’s referring to disappearance of the need for basic mobility per se as we still need to get around. It’s more likely he’s talking about the impending inability of brands to sell on the basis of high performance, noise, luxury, pedigree or any other emotionally based attribute that has previously been used to get someone out of their Toyota Corolla and into a Lexus IS250.

Not only are these aspirational attributes-made-real, otherwise known as cars, increasingly irrelevant in a nation as ill-suited to the car as Japan, but you can enjoy them for the price of a PS3/Gran Turismo bundle in the luxury of your lounge room. Do I long for a day when I strap on my driving gloves, sit down with a cup of tea and bang around a London street circuit in suburban Sydney? No, but anecdotally at the very least, I’m a member of a club whose membership is shrinking. And returning to the notion of car-as-avatar, we have at our disposal devices like the iPhone and services like Facebook that allow us to communicate our personalities in a much more media-rich, not to mention cheaper, way than a car ever could in it’s current form.

The challenge is there for all to see and there are murmurings of recognition within the broader industry, as the Toyota exec demonstrates. An automotive future where I can satisfy my inner geek and petrol head? Yes please.

P.S. That photo 135i above? It’s a screen shot from Gran Turismo 5…

Category: Car, Car Culture, Design Strategy, Social Media, Technology

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© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.