An alternate look at the world of moving design

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The new Land Rov…er…Ford Explorer?

Ford's new 2011 Explorer

Ford launched its new, unibody contruction Explorer SUV in the States yesterday. Important car and all that, neat design, big departure for the nameplate in terms of strategic thinking, blah blah blah. But hang on. Ford make a lot of noise in the press release about the new terrain management selector knob:

Which happens to bear a degree of similarity to the application used in Land Rover products. Funny that, given that Ford used to own Land Rover….

Yet what no one has yet picked up, is just how Land Rover-like the exterior of the car is, too. So (with apologies for messy photoshop-ing), here’s the 2011 Explorer:

Which in my view, rather too easily becomes a 2012 Land Rover something or other…

Here’s why and how:

Of course, this is not to say that the new Explorer is a bad car. I’m just surprised by how much Land Rover DNA seems to have been injected into it, and how easily and credibly it could pass as a new Land Rover product. A bad thing? I suspect not. But what do you think?

Peter Schreyer introduces the Kia Sportage

Kia introduced their new Sportage SUV at London’s Hemple hotel this morning – and invited me to meet and interview their design chief, Peter Schreyer, prior to the arrival of the UK journo cohort. You can read the full interview and feature piece on car design news very shortly – but in the meantime, I thought it’d be worth sharing some of the sketchwork and imagery Kia were showing for a car which signifies a significant upkick in Kia’s design quality:

Goodwood graphics

Some of my favourite racing car graphics and imagery from the recent Goodwood Festival of Speed

Can’t remember the name/number of this Porsche – anyone help me out?

Porsche 908/3

Maserati 250F

Porsche 908/2

They don’t make ’em like this anymore…shame

The future of the automotive industry – Part I

Chrysler stand

Make no mistake about it, the auto industry that we know and love is in a terrible place right now. While the last few weeks have seen attempts concentrate on stopping the world’s financial and banking sector sailing merrily off down the river without a paddle, things are only a little-less tumultuous over in motor-town. In the past few days alone, we’ve had rumours and confirmed stories that have included… (deep breath)…:

  • Tesla slashing dozens of jobs and delaying the ‘Model S’.
  • Chrysler and GM – or is it actually Chrysler and Renault-Nissan (?) – merging. No one seems quite sure…
  • Cerberus (Chrysler’s owners) getting ready to jump ship – and announcing that they’re culling 25% of the white-collar workforce, and cancelling a new V6 engine programme.
  • Industry darlings Toyota forecasting their first ever loss in North America and cutting car production.
  • Lexus sales in Japan down for 13 consecutive months on the trot.
  • Porsche’s sales down 59% in the UK year-on-year (source: Car Magazine).
  • PSA cutting production by 30% for Q4 of 2008…
  • … and Renault doing something similar – but with a larger shadow hanging over them, that if new Megane III does as badly as the new Laguna (one entire production shift chopped), the whole company could be in the kind of trouble previously unheard of outside Britain and the US.

…and that’s just a tiny fraction of the stories buzzing around.

But let’s assume (and it’s a pretty big assumption) that enough people will be able to get finance to go on buying new cars while the economy bumps along the bottom, and that at some point in 2009/10 things will start to look a lot rosier economically. How will the automotive landscape look? At the moment, it takes a very brave person to predict this (although there are lots of people predicting automotive Armageddon) – but I’ve got a funny feeling that come 2011 the likes of Ford, GM, Renault, Nissan, Peugeot, Porsche, VW et al. will still be present and correct.

But what about that strange group of brands who – despite having the good fortune to proudly wear some of the most evocative, well-loved and best known names in the automotive arena – seem almost permanently on the brink of either being shut down, sold off, or just forgotten? Years of neglect and underinvestment from their owners, incoherent strategies and duff product line-ups do not a happy car company make. So when times are tough, and cash is king, some brands look more in danger than others.

The brands I’m talking about are Alfa Romeo, Volvo, SAAB and Jaguar / LandRover…

Traffic brakes

But those that apparently have the most to lose, may also have the most to gain. While their rich histories and house-hold names don’t currently translate into the sales figures they should, there’s a vast amount of public affection and affinity to tap into. What’s required is a bit of innovation and clear strategy – things that are typically in short supply during a recession. So in the forthcoming blogs, I’ll set out what I think the owners of Alfa Romeo, Volvo, SAAB and Jaguar / Land Rover need to do to ensure these great automotive brands make it out the other side of the automotive ditch.

First up, Alfa Romeo. Stay tuned.

Posted by Joseph Simpson on 27th October 2008.

Greenmonk Volt podcast

Tom Raftery over at Greenmonk, yesterday posted a great podcast about the Chevrolet Volt. In the interview, Tom speaks to Greg Cesiel – programme manager for the Volt, and asks a number of challenging questions – including some posed by yours truly! This is a must listen for anyone interested in the Volt, and the wider future of the automotive industry.

Listen to the full podcast here.

Best of Paris Auto Show 2008 – Photo Blog

Last week, the automotive great and good descended on Paris in their droves for the 2008 Paris auto show, or “Mondial de l’auotmobile 2008” to give it its proper name. Some hugely important cars were unveiled – most of which you can read more about on Car Design News. However, rather than posting some indepth review, here’s a quick, picture round up and commentary of some of the more obscure moments, details and ideas.

Ford launched James Bond’s new car… the Ford Ka (above). Well not quite – Bond himself is still in an Aston in Quantum of Solice, but the Ka makes a cameo appearance in the movie, driven by one of the bond girls.

Nissan’s Nuvu (above) proved the company are happy to plow a completely different aesthetic furrow to everyone else. The ‘Palm-tree’ emblem in the background (left) is significant here – because inside the car, it translates into a vertical feature connecting roof and floor, with the ‘palm’s‘ roof-based solar cells transmitting energy down the interior ‘trunk’ (right) to charge the car’s battery.

A ‘spine’ connecting roof and floor also cropped up in Mazda’s latest ‘Flow’ series concept vehicle – the Kiyora (above). Here, the spine actually takes water from the roof, passes it down inside the spine, through a carbon filter, and then deposits drinkable water into a bottle inside, for the occupants. It seems that the message here is that, whatever you can do in a building (solar panels, rainwater harvesting), you can do in cars too.

Although some might see this as twee, it was nice to see Mazda and Nissan being innovative, experimental and fun. Elsewhere, Paris was characterised by manufacturers who seem to think that daubing great big green (or blue) stickers across their cars touting environmental credentials somehow makes them green. I’m talking about you Volvo, Peugeot, Mercedes, VW, Renault, Skoda…and many more (below).

This is a great shame… essentially the marketing departments driving this thing are scoring a huge own-goal because consumers don’t ‘buy’ the concept, designers hate it, and it looks like greenwashing when, in the real world some company’s CO2/MPG figures are dropping impressively (take a bow BMW). There’s really no need for stickers when some really interesting, tangible future stuff on the horizon will result in seismic changes. I’m thinking here about cars like Chevrolet’s Volt (below)

and Renault’s entirely workable electric vehicle recharge infrastructure system (which highlights and uses Better Place’s technology network)

Renault tied this tech up with the rather plausible ‘ZE’ concept vehicle (below) – one of my personal stars of the show. Ditch the stupid luminous-green glass, camera mirrors and jewel lights, and what you’ve actually got here is the latest Kangoo Be-Bop city van, in funked-up electric form. The idea of small electric commercial vehicles in cities makes an enormous amount of sense, and Renault is already trialling this kind of thing with La Poste and other companies in France. Make no mistake, this isn’t pie in the sky, this is ‘here in the next three years’ stuff.

Elsewhere, no one was quite sure whether Fiat were trying to communicate a subliminal message of ‘cleanness’ and ‘purity’ by making their entire stand white (below)…

…but in the end, most came to the conclusion that it was just the Italians doing what they do best – getting the colours absolutely spot on, and off-setting themselves beautifully with the Alfa stand opposite – where all the cars (bar one 8C spider) were alfa red (below).

Land Rover’s stand contained nothing new or of interest, but a massive video wall with a waterfall in front of it got me snapping away (below)…

..and Honda showed off their beautiful early grand prix race car (below – right of photo), which made the current offering (below – left of photo) look a bit, erm, gross – aerodynamics eh?

Finally, Peugeot were obviously so upset with the ugliness of their Prologue concept car (below), that they decided to set the thing on fire halfway through the show.. (but seriously, have you ever seen a less-pretty rear end on a car?!)

More coming soon. See more Paris obscureness photos in my flickr galleries here.

Bright Blue Future?

Conservative Party leader – David Cameron

Last week’s fringe event at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham gave us a potential glimpse of the future. The Conservatives – or ‘Tories’ are being touted by some as a shoe-in to form the next Government, so “What next for Urban Transport” was a real opportunity for the new ‘listening’ Conservatives to articulate their ideas on a policy area that currently leaves a lot to be desired.

While issues like Heathrow’s third runway, a high-speed train link between northern England and London, and whether road-user charging should get the go ahead all deserve attention, dishearteningly, no one here seemed intent to move the arguments forward on any of these subjects, and – as might be expected with politicians – there was little ‘out of the box’, future-positive thinking.

The Shadow Transport Secretary, Theresa Villiers, had earlier provided a jump-start for the event by announcing the Conservatives would scrap plans for a third runway at Heathrow if elected, and instead build a high-speed rail link. On the panel, David Frost – Director General of the British Chamber of Commerce, warned that this approach risked de-throning London as the Business capital of Europe. But Steven Norris (of Transport for London and LDA) rejected this out of hand – citing that of 400,000 air-traffic movements a year at Heathrow, around a quarter were connected with British and European short-haul flights, which could be displaced onto rail.

What next for Heathrow? Tories don't want more runways.

What next for London Heathrow? The Conservative Party don’t want to see more runways built.

However, no one appeared to have studied what was actually the best, cleanest way of getting from (for instance) London to Manchester. James Governor reported via Twitter, that he’d recently met skepticism on the idea that rail was necessarily lower carbon than cars or planes. Yet when I put this idea to the panel it seemed to completely stump them.

Surely, I suggested, by way of a prompt, what the issue highlighted is that long-lead time, ‘grand projets’ risk becoming irrelevant as they are overtaken by fast-changing technologies and lifestyle patterns. The high-speed rail link was talked of in a timescale of 2015-2027, thus raising the possibility of serious improvements in aircraft efficiency, and the real chance that by the time it’s finished we might all be driving electric cars, charged off a (clean) electricity grid.

Robert Goodwill (shadow roads minister) was unmoved by this, advocating we “let technological changes play out over time and then let the public decide which is best”. Unfortunately, in the context of transport, this approach sounds rather like car companies who for years have told us ‘we’ll build new types of vehicles, such as electric cars, when our customers tell us that they want them’. This hasn’t exactly got the auto industry into a brilliant position, and as an argument, has two key flaws. Firstly, the people who use a product or service (car, train, airport) have little way of feeding back what is good and bad, and inputting into the design process. Secondly, they tend to not actually be very good at articulating a clear, ambitious vision of the future. As Henry Ford famously said upon unveiling the Model T Ford, “if I’d have asked people what they wanted, they’d have said ‘faster horses'”.

It was therefore left to old hand Steve Norris – rather than any of the ‘new’ Conservatives, to articulate some vision and foresight. At the end of the debate, he came up to me and said:

“You’re right of course – by 2027, we will all likely be driving electric cars. So the environmental stuff will be much less of an issue. What we therefore have to sort out is problems like congestion and parking. And the key to this will be to break the link between economic prosperity and rising traffic levels. To do that, we need to have a multi-pronged approach, and look much more at things like the way people work and commute – local ideas, not just big ones.”

It was a moment of clarity and sense in a bitty, turbulent debate all too similar to other ‘future transport’ events I’ve seen in the past couple of years. It illustrates how those hoping for radical improvements to Britain’s transport system under a new and different Government are likely to be disappointed. What’s clear is the danger we risk in looking to politicians, and the political process to provide great future visions. It was clear that few here were thinking really far into the future, about the real potential impact of technology on travel, or about new types of vehicles that would actually be more enjoyable, or quicker to move around cities in. Sadly, this isn’t in the nature of politicians in the current political process – illustrating all the more, why there is need for talented designers, and a better process by which designers, and the public can engage to create better, faster, more enjoyable transportation experiences.

Photo credits: David CameronStar-one on flickr, under creative commons license. Heathrow runway – Joseph Simpson.