Apr 29, 2010
Now, more than ever, sustainability is the issue du jour being discussed – endlessly – amongst observers of the automotive industry. After years of car makers talking up their environmental sustainability credentials, they are now facing a crisis of an altogether more fundamental nature: the sustainability of their businesses.
To investigate the issues surrounding sustainability, both environmental and business, the Royal College of Art (RCA) held a seminar titled Seriously Now: where is the sustainable vehicle design?, one of a series of 5 events looking broadly at the future of automotive design.
Up first, RCA PhD candidate Artur Mausbach offered an historical context in which to place the current state of sustainable vehicle design, noting that technological developments had far outpaced the ability of designers to significantly alter the package and appearance of the car.
Likening current eco cars, conceptually at least, to the very first automobiles that were technological marvels but lacking a clear design identity, Mausbach called for a change in how designers communicate sustainability to encourage consumers to form an emotional attachment to a new automotive paradigm.
We then heard from Nico Sergent of open-source automotive start-up RiverSimple. Although much has been made of the company’s technology demonstrator, launched in London last year, the real interest in Sergent’s presentation lay in his description of RiverSimple’s 7 point design, production and service strategy.
Key to this is discarding the traditional sales model, which is predicated on people becoming bored of their car after a few years (or, indeed, the car going wrong) and thus trading up to a newly manufactured vehicle with its associated environmental deficits.
River Simple has instead focused on the leasing of the car and, more interestingly, the components from suppliers, thereby forcing the design of the vehicle as a whole to be more robust. As the lease model guarantees River Simple income for the life of the car, it’s their interests to produce a long-lasting design to underpin the sustainability of the business.
Sergent also touched on the distributed manufacturing envisaged for the vehicle. Freed from the economies of scale demanded by pressed steel monocoques (the car is made of carbon fiber and plastics), co2-intensive supply-chain logistics can be simplified, in turn making localised factories producing only 5000 cars per year financially viable.
In an entertaining look at the aesthetic development of the car, Geoff Hollington, industrial designer and writer, argued convincingly that we have entered a new era of baroque vehicle design at a time when the socio-political context should, logically, result in something vastly different.
Hollington eruditely observed that we’ve moved, in design terms, from the era of Venus [de Milo] cars – which he typified as “multi-purpose, caring, multi-tasking things” – through an era of Michelangelo’s David cars to a new age defined by Arnold Schwarzenegger. But it’s not “Arnie the man, it’s Arnie the machine that’s become the paradigm…” illustrated, to much amusement, using an Audi Q7 with red “eyes”.
Relating this back to sustainable vehicle design, Hollington stated that design should encourage people to “drive for enjoyment, …not for sport. …To savour the journey rather than crave the destination, to be generous rather than competitive and to value smartness over brute strength”.
He argues that out of this perceptual shift from aggression to equanimity, the car can evolve a calmer aesthetic and a new format that is slower, lighter, and crucially, more efficient and sustainable. In closing, he said it was our responsibility as designers “to get people to fall in love with a different type of car”.
For Nick Talbot, of Seymour/Powell, one of the keys to sustainable design is shifting from design as a consumption driver to a reducer, a view championed by Alan Chochinov in his influential 1000 Words manifesto.
He talked of research conducted by Seymour/Powell demonstrating that the rate of phone churn by iPhone owners has reduced to around two years (from a period of months for some phone brands), a substantial improvement that he put down to the higher intrinsic value of the device communicated through it’s design and it’s price tag.
He related this back to the auto industry via a 60s Porsche 911 that, owing to the higher initial quality of materials, engineering and design remains a desirable product today. He said the lesson was simple: “Make things that are higher value, that are more robust, that people want to keep for longer [and] derive more value from” and through extending the product lifecycle, you can improve sustainability.
The final speaker was Rob Holdway of Giraffe Innovation, a low carbon design and environmental management consultancy. Perhaps to the despair of some in the audience, Holdway stated that there “is no such thing as a sustainable car… it’s not sustainable, and never will be sustainable” but went on to suggest that a smart car could form a component of a networked, systematised approach to mobility.
The barrier to the inclusion of the car in this mobility network is that automotive designers, in his experience, work in “a very narrow field”, operating within a model of isolated innovation that often only allows for evolutionary development, actively discouraging the cross-disciplinary, collaborative processes required to develop a holistic mobility solution.
With Holdway having finished on a note that was, no doubt, somewhat unsettling for the largely student audience (he jokingly referred to it as a therapy session…), it was perhaps inevitable that questions from the floor would focus on employability in an increasingly fractured jobs market.
As panelists encouraged students to choice edit who they want to work for on a sustainability basis, it was noteworthy that all either suggested or agreed with the notion that real change in the automotive industry was not going to come from established industry players, but from start-ups or, indeed, outside the industry all together.
Part PR exercise for the RCA, no doubt keen to be the European ying to Art Centre’s American yang when it comes to sustainable automotive design events, and part mind-expanding exercise for the assembled students, for those working in the industry that made it along there was little new to be found.
The seminar did, however, raise the issue of another kind of sustainability: that of the education offered by schools like the RCA.
In his treatise, Restarting Car Design, RCA alumni Peter Naumann sounds a clarion call for a decisive shift away from automotive design courses “almost exclusively… developing stylistic skills”. Instead, he argues, that educators should prepare students “to be much more closely involved in the entire design process and to be used more broadly… to work in a problem oriented way and to be involved in coming up with solutions in interdisciplinary teams”.
In this light, the value of the RCA opening up dialogue between educators, students and innovative thinkers shouldn’t be underestimated. If educational institutions can continue to capitalise on these sorts of events, we may see some of the fundamental shifts in automotive design education required to prepare students to design for a sustainable, post-consumer mobility context.
The Royal College of Art is hosting further “Vehicle Design Sessions” over the forthcoming weeks – looking at “Mobility needs, mobility wants” on 11th May, “Future forms” on 27th May, and “Women in Vehicle Design” on 1st June.