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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…

Robin Chase speaks about the social and financial value of car sharing

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Although Robin Chase may not be a household name outside the transport strategy sector, her work has had a major impact in the development and acceptance of car sharing in the US, Canada and the UK.

As the co-founder of Zipcar (a shared vehicle service) and the CEO of the US-based GoLoco (which uses social networking to allow members to maximise the use of their cars), Robin has been at the forefront of changing the way we think about either maximising the use of what we already own, or abandoning ownership all together and sharing a network of cars.

Robin was recently interviewed by Eric Steuer (creative director for Creative Commons) over at Good Magazine and it’s great listening for anyone who’s interested in the future of open sourcing and product-as-service. Crucially, Robin outlines not only the manifold financial benefits of her take on future mobility, but also the social benefits. Head to Good Magazine for the full audio interview.

[Image: Good Magazine]

Mornings Become Electric

If you happen to find yourself in any major urban centre from about 4am onwards, there’s one unifying feature no matter where you are in the world: vans.

Although the size and shape may vary – from the delightful but filthy Paggio Apes in Italy to the vast Ford Econolines found across the USA – every day, across the world hundreds of thousands of commercial vehicles ply the streets of cities and towns making hundreds of short-hop voyages as they make their rounds.

While their necessity is undoubted, the negative impact of these often diesel-powered vehicles on the urban environment is likewise indisputable. It was therefore heartening to hear of the Movement Design Bureau’s new project investigating the potential for electrification of urban delivery fleets.

As Joe and Vinay explain in the introductory video, the limited range, short-hop nature of a typical delivery van’s usage cycle makes it an ideal candidate for electrification using currently available technology. No finicky lithium ions or expensive fast charging required.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the positive impacts of a wide scale electrification of urban delivery vehicles could be huge and MBD, over the next few months, will be looking into how such a program could be implemented and, importantly, whether White Van Man is ready to ditch the dino-fuel.

Head over to Re*Move to watch the video and keep up to date with how the project is developing.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons, butchered by Andrew Philip Artois Smith]

BMW Project-i: Paradigm shifting for rich folk

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Car magazine is carrying a story regarding the development of the Project-i vehicles, BMW’s oft talked about but as yet unseen foray into the future of urban transportation.

That BMW is putting it’s weight behind such a programme is laudable. As I’ve often remarked on these pages, a radical shift in thinking regarding how we move about our urban centres will be vital to the return to good health of the automotive industry. It’s just a little galling that BMW is sticking to the notion that these vehicles must be “premium”.

Dr. Ulrich Kranz, the leader of Project-i, even goes so far as to say “They will not be Tata Nano rivals – no way! We can and will only build premium cars”. Wanting to distance his project from any associations with the tiny tot from India is understandable, having seen just how rudimentary it is (Euro facelift notwithstanding), but to stick to the concept that BMW will “…only build premium cars” seems a little short sighted.

Car also cites Shanghai and Mexico City, among others, as targets for the vehicles. Last time I checked Mexico City and Shanghai were flush with the cheapest wheels available, Beetles and bicycles respectively. These are not markets ripe for the introduction of premium urban mobility. They just need urban mobility full stop.

It’s been regularly discussed in the motoring press over the past year or two, and I see fit to bring it up again here: BMW is sitting on the perfect brand for reaching down out of their ivory tower and providing intelligent mobility for the masses. It’s called Isetta.

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Sure, it may not be terribly well known by name outside of Europe and groupings of predominantly old men who worship at the alter of slow, smelly and insane microcars of the mid-20th century. But nobody knew of Lexus when it launched, and it has done a passable job of establishing a presence for itself, answering a question nobody asked.

Crucially, Isetta has the all-important story behind it: it produced highly efficient, intelligent cars that intended to mobilise the masses. And as I’ve mentioned previously, having a great story is half the battle in getting people to fall in love with a new product.

Story aside, if BMW managed to nail a suite of solutions to urban mobility, no body would give a damn what it was called and whether it was “premium” or not. Our predicament is far more serious than that.

You can counter that the big changes in technology always start at the top of the market and work their way down (I remember when my first iPod cost €400 and held 500 more songs than the Shuffle that launched this week for €75. The thought of using it as a tie-clip was also a non-starter…). I honestly feel, however, that should we not work towards far-ranging, cross-market changes to the car industry, our recovery is going to be even more painful and protracted than we’re currently predicting.

According to Kranz it will be 2015 before we see the first fruit of his Project-i labour. From where I stand, we have until 2015 to convince him to spread the love.

[Source: Car Magazine][Images: Wiki Commons]

@drewpasmith = Yes, I'm on Twitter!

Not having full connectivity on my pony somewhat limits my spontaneity with Twitter but I’m there for better.

Or is it for worse? Blog, Facebook, Twitter, Xing and LinkedIn combined makes me feel a little like a character in the cartoon below. “Just take ten deep breaths and relax, everybody’s doing it!”

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[Abstruse Goose via PSFK]

Adventures in Brand Extension Pt. 1: Audi's Virtual Assistant

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Audi Australia has just installed it’s first virtual assistant in a Sydney dealership and, sadly, it’s a case of  implementation not meeting expectation. This happens all the time (T-Mobile G1 anybody or Apple MobileMe anyone?) but not normally to companies with an otherwise unimpeachable image such as Audi.

For a brand whose presence is so tightly built around Vorsprung durch Technik (Advancement through Technology for the non-German speakers), this 10mm sheet of plastic (rigid hair cut-outs and all) and some projection technology seem positively crude.

The limitations of the technology also mean that the actress had to stand still and try to not use her hands for expression which contributes to an awfully forced experience. I can’t imagine many prospective customers standing around as she delivers her spiel about how great the latest Audis are, it’s just not engaging enough.

To top it all off, she does not posses an “Audi” voice. To those of you unfamiliar with the Australian accent we may all sound the same. We do however enjoy a diversity of accents and manners-of-speech down under and unfortunately the actress used here comes over a bit (see below after watching the virtual assistant and you’ll understand what I mean). It just doesn’t communicate  the level of refinement and sophistication that people normally associate with Audi.

Although I recognise that this is a product of Audi Australia, or perhaps even the dealer, the fact that I discovered this poorly resolved gimmick through Autoblog and YouTube demonstrates that even localised branding decisions can have a global reach.

Head over to YouTube (no embedding was allowed) and decide for yourself whether the virtual assistant is a case of advancement through technology or technology without a cause. As always,  let me know what you think in the comments.

PDM via Autoblog.

About DownSideUp Design

I'm Drew Smith and I'm an ethnographer and strategist. By day I shape culture and strategy at Seren. By night I sleep (mostly). And once a month, I host an event called Rising Minds, at Shoreditch House.

DownsideUpDesign is a place for me to collect stuff that I like, often love and sometimes hate for safe keeping. All views represented here are mine and mine alone and do not represent those of anyone else.

Get in touch at drewpasmith (at) gmail (dot) com or tweet me (@drewpasmith) to rant, contribute or collaborate!

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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.