What next for the car? E&T discusses the challenges faced by car designers and the whole of automotive industry with two prominent academics.
If aliens scanned the Earth from space, they might easily mistake humans for insignificant parasites scurrying around an obviously more dominant species: the 800 million cars on the road today. At least one motorised passenger vehicle exists for every eight people. Last year, global industry churned out another 53 million of them.
The consensus is that something's got to give, or else the environment threatens to collapse under the density of traffic. All this and a recession, too.
With all this in mind, E&T magazine held a wide-ranging conversation with two men ideally placed to consider the key question about the car today: where is it headed?
Dale Harrow is professor of vehicle design at the Royal College of Art in London, a globally renowned centre of excellence in automotive design education with a near 100 per cent ability to place its students in the industry. The course was recently nominated for a Queen's Award for Excellence in Education, while Harrow's radical yet pragmatic redesign of the London taxi cab was awarded Millennium Product status by the Design Council.
Harrow's guiding philosophy is simple to express, but bringing it to fruition will require a dramatic paradigm shift. "Most people want to travel. By any measure of mobility, we are covering more miles than our parents, and far more than our grandparents. It's just that the privately-owned car shouldn't necessarily be the only product that the big makers aim for."
Harrow's friend and colleague, Peter Stevens, has a long association with the RCA. He was a founder lecturer for the vehicle design course and became visiting professor in 1999. Among his best known designs are the McLaren F1 road car with its carbon composite bodywork and integrated monocoque chassis, the 1999 Le Mans-winning BMW, the Lotus Elan and the limited-edition Jaguar XJR-15: machines at the fastest and most indulgent end of the car spectrum.
But speed isn't necessarily Stevens's first priority. He began his career as a sculpture student at St Martin's School of Art and trained under the sculptor Frank Martin and the painter Peter Blake. He thinks of cars as "sculpture in motion. As environmental circumstances and clogged roads and cities force cars to slow down, all kinds of new opportunities for artistic expression will start to emerge".
Harrow agrees that cars will be in the slow lanes from now on, but cautions that "the major manufacturers are dominated by men who were petrol-heads in the 1970s, and who still think that horsepower is a selling point". Sleek curves and turbocharged muscle power score surprisingly low on the wish-list for most car buyers. An elevated driving position with good visibility scores higher, even if it spoils the lines. "Too many car makers have spent the last 40 years barking up the wrong tree. Most people just want to get to the shops," continues Harrow.
Design and market
If some of the giant car manufacturers are reeling from lack of demand right now, they have only themselves to blame, says Harrow. Lack of dialogue between designers, engineers and marketing departments has distorted the industry for too long. "The designers fall in love with the look of a car, so they send it to the engineers, who add their own touches and work out how to manufacture it. Then, finally, they throw it over the fence to the marketing people, who have to sell it."
The problem, of course, is that when consumers show that they never actually wanted that particular car, the manufacturer gets a savage chunk torn out of its bottom line. That's why, as Harrow insists, "the entire process needs inverting. Marketing has to be the lead item. Designers should be encouraged to ask consumers: 'What do you actually want from a car?'"
The answer, strangely enough, might be: as close to no car as possible. Harrow suggests that in the future cars should be manufactured in far smaller numbers, with each vehicle serving the needs of not just one family, but dozens. In his 'Mobility for Life' scenario, the manufacturers reinvent their business models. Instead of selling consumers a new car every three or four years, they offer door-to-door integrated transport options that blur the boundaries between public and private vehicles.
"Suppose I could order a taxi whenever I wanted it, or a car, or a coach, depending on the journey I was taking," he explains, "and all from the company I once bought cars from. Imagine a trip abroad, beginning with a courier collecting you from home and delivering you 'fast-track' to your plane, and then someone else meets you at the other end and delivers you to your destination."
The various legs of such a journey today are typically handled by different providers. Harrow sees "a clever mixture of information technology, imaginative service concepts and specialised vehicles reducing environmental demand, improving the quality of life, and at the same time, offering new opportunities to the very companies under threat from the reduction in demand for cars".
Mobility for life
Mobility for Life customers would pay only when they are on the move, whether at the wheel or as passengers. "Car ownership gives us independence, but driving is not without its displeasures and drawbacks. If there were a reliable alternative, many of us would prefer someone else to take the strain. A car costs money just sitting on your driveway: insurance, road tax, depreciation and the loan that paid for it. Patterns of ownership are bound to change as more vehicles are banished from town and city centres."
Harrow also observes that "young Web-savvy people are completely accustomed to buying products and services that aren't physical objects. I know that from the experience within my own family". The coolness of a particular Mobility for Life brand could become just as significant, perhaps, as the vehicles employed to deliver the service.
But is the car industry equipped to sell intangible service concepts instead of chunks of metal and glass, rubber and plastic? "The vehicles that turn up to your door would still be made by them," says Harrow. "They'd still be selling a specific brand and style. And through the global financing operations that enable consumers to buy their products, they already have a 'service' infrastructure in place. It's just a question of thinking afresh about the physical product that they're selling."
Stevens isn't quite so convinced that the industry is ready for such a radical rethink, even despite the shocks of the recession. "They base their designs around the slow and calculated evolution of existing generic products. Experience tells them that, if they get things wrong, the costs can be enormous, so advances in new directions are difficult to accommodate." The big-name companies seem powerless to change their ways. "They keep churning out vast numbers of vehicles because they can't help themselves. Even when there's no demand, they don't know how to do anything else."
However the automotive industry evolves over the next decade, its impact on the environment will set the agenda. Harrow cautions that "the rush towards electric vehicles or hydrogen-fuelled engines won't solve the crisis, because the carbon account still has to be settled at the power station or the hydrogen plant".
He proffers a heretical alternative: "I think a better solution is likely to be a significant improvement in petrol engines." He cites the new Volkswagen BlueMotion range, with some cars capable of getting from London to the South of France on a single tank of fuel while emitting a modest 120g of carbon dioxide per kilometre.
Stevens predicts even better fuel economies, using "smaller grilles and radiators to reduce drag, and engines that run hotter and more efficiently". The downside is the cost of components capable of withstanding greater temperatures without imposing weight penalties. "There will have to be major improvements to engine seals and gaskets. Radiators will have to operate at higher pressures, so cheap plastic caps won't be up to the mark."
Lightening the load
Lighter car bodies would also greatly reduce the drain on fuel. Stevens is frustrated by the "800-odd kilos of metal" in the front, rear and side protection armour for a typical family car. He knows better than most people how to protect drivers in gossamer-light cars against high-speed crashes.
"Unfortunately it's eye-wateringly expensive to use composite materials or honeycomb structures, such as you find in F1 racing."
Lightening the bodywork while keeping within strict safety regulations will be a huge task for car designers. Stevens reckons that driverless guidance should play a significant role. "The speed and resolution of GPS, allied to collision-avoidance radar, is already good enough to ensure that no self-guided vehicle need come within range of an impact," he says. "Those 800 kilos could be eliminated at a stroke."
All these difficulties offer tremendous scope for designers, engineers and marketing gurus. "The car has evolved into a very reliable product," says Harrow. "I'm old enough to remember people 'resting' their overheated bangers in lay-bys with the bonnets open. Today we don't think twice about travelling hundreds of miles. The next phase of evolution promises to be very challenging, but potentially even more impressive."