Who Killed Design Innovation?

Audi A7 concept

When I was in school studying Industrial Design I used to dream about designing concept vehicles for the major auto manufacturers what ID student didn’t?! I also dreamt of designing furniture, high technology-oriented objects, and complex environments for movies. Encompassing all of these elements my absolute dream job was to become a conceptual designer like Syd Mead, Doug Chiang, or Ryan Church.
Some of my classmates routinely brought in copies of Auto & Design to our studio classes and I would, on occasion, sit for hours and hours sketching cars —sleek organic and rectilinear forms (with wheels of course). I would illustrate interior views, exteriors perspectives, cut-away views and more, always trying to emulate the bold expressive lines articulated by the polished magazine renderings I found so inspiring. I must have spent thousands of dollars on Tria markers, prismacolors, guides, sketch paper, and other art materials.

Looking back on this formative period of my design education, I used to think innovative design—in particular vehicle design—was primarily an expression of aesthetic form, proportion, and visual composition. Ergonomics, mechanical function and usability, naturally very important design considerations, always seemed to play a role secondary to the aesthetic surface detail of the vehicle or product I was visualizing.

Now years later when I stop to consider many of the contemporary ads for vehicles I see on TV, in magazines, and on the Web, I notice the focus is almost entirely on the surface —exterior form, interior fit/finish, material selection, and technology features. Does your center console have real stainless steel and wood veneer accents? Got chrome aluminum alloy wheels? Got an iPod dock and GPS navi? Features, features, glorious features!

In the same way I was sketching car concepts at school as an inexperienced design student focusing on aesthetics, the car industry continues to focus on superficial surface cues as the defining characteristics of innovative design. The surface, it is thought from a marketing perspective, is the overriding determinant whether a consumer will be emotionally connected to an automotive product or not and is ultimately what drives (no pun intended) the decision to buy vehicle X over vehicle Y. I do not dispute these facts —styling sells automobiles —period.
However, perhaps I am alone, but I wonder what’s going on beneath the surface in terms of how or what is powering the vehicle. In comparing brands, I begin to ask deeper questions such as: how ecologically sustainable are the manufacturing processes used to mass produce this vehicle?
Call me an environmentally conscious geek, but in my mind true design innovation must extend far beyond the mere aesthetic surface titillation and raw horsepower I’ll probably never use sitting in traffic, but encompass more ambitious feats of design engineering. I am interested in the ratio of recycled materials to virgin materials used to manufacture said vehicle; I want to know the overall carbon footprint of said vehicle before I even get remotely excited enough to buy.

Perhaps we need a re-definition of what design innovation means because the automotive industry is sadly stuck in the dark ages.

The other night the CBC re-ran a broadcast of the documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? Remember it? —I do. Released in 2006, this probing exploration into the demise of electric vehicles in the United States -in particular, the sudden death of the General Motors EV1 in the state of California and Arizona, paints a sombre picture of bureaucratic corruption and monopolistic business tactics stifling forward thinking automotive design and engineering.

We all know the story: big oil companies, government policy makers —and ultimately global auto manufacturers all seem to be forever living in a self-fabricated augmented reality where the emission standards of the cars we drive never seems to improve much beyond a snail’s pace; where unambitious fuel economy standards seem directly proportional to the financial disincentives put in place by the current administration in power and their (usually lax) policies regarding climate change and pollution control.

I tend to think we’re living out the tail end of the petroleum paradigm. An era slowly dying away where old establishments of manufacturing and technology built primarily upon industrial-age thinking are going out kicking and screaming as newer, greener technologies gain momentum and take hold in our marketplace.

Every year the major auto manufacturers promise us eco-friendly electric alternatives to gasoline powered vehicles are coming. EVs (not gas-electric hybrids) are just around the corner 5 to 7 years off into the future they tell us. GM, Honda, Toyota, and other global manufacturers tell us they’ve committed significant R+D and their brightest engineers into the field of electric vehicle technology—yet nothing ever seems to materialize in the marketplace. What’s going on here?

Watching Who Killed the Electric Car? again on the CBC the other night I couldn’t help but feel a little frustrated.
I really want to buy an electric vehicle, but here we are in 2010 almost 8 years since the last EV1 was on the road prior to being destroyed by GM and still there are no mass produced electric vehicle offerings available from any of the major auto manufacturers.
Sure, there are numerous gasoline/electric hybrids available —but they still rely (albeit partially) on gasoline and traditional internal combustion components.
You could of course build your own electric vehicle -but who has the time available to rip apart an old car and retrofit all the necessary components? The only mass-produced “highway-capable” electric vehicle currently available I know of (as of this writing) is the $125,000 Tesla Roadster —not exactly a viable option for the average consumer.

Technology can have a strange and interesting impact on our lives. We live in an era where Apple followers have absolutely no qualms about camping out all night to get their hands on one of the recently launched iPads; we all seem to run around craving the latest and greatest mobile Web/GPS-enabled device or technological gadget. Yet for some strange reason we all seem perfectly content to drive around in our antiquated internal combustion engine powered cars—the basic design for which was developed over 150 years ago—how odd.

Maybe we suffer from a sense of nostalgia because a lot of us—like the auto manufacturers—seem to be living in the past. Will this ever change or has design innovation truly died?

6 thoughts on “Who Killed Design Innovation?

  1. Hi Steve, the myxpcar prototype looks promising. It would be great if consumers had the choice of more products like this on the market. The more I read up on EV design, the more it becomes clear battery/charging technology represents one of the most challenging aspects in realizing viable EV alternatives. Thanks for the link!

  2. The best new design has not been funded by the US Government…They gave huge $$ to support GM to produce over priced, over weight uninspired new electric vehicles

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