Future vehicles needn’t be heavy, rationed and merely functional. Joseph Simpson talks to Marek Reichman, design director for Aston Martin.
Q: Do you think we have to accept a future where we move around less?
I think it’s an interesting point, particularly in the context of the city. Technology is already changing the way we live, but what’s interesting about developments such as working from home, and the knock-on reduction in commuting, is that potentially people will have more disposable time. More free time will mean there’s actually a temptation to move around more. Humans aren’t programmed to sit about; tendencies hark back to the days of the ‘hunter gatherer’. We’ll always desire to go places, because it’s in our nature.
Q: But when we talk about the idea of moving around a city like London, people are suggesting that if we’re to avoid gridlock, then we have to accept that we can’t just travel as we please.
Well I think it’s very important to think about the local picture as well as the big picture. London is an interesting example because historically it has always done its own thing. Think about the punk movement, and that element of rebellion that’s always bubbled under. There’s a time-honoured tradition in London, that if you’re told to do something, you’ll almost go out of your way to do the opposite. I think in the context of what we’re talking about, what this means is that what might work in Tokyo won’t necessarily work in London. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, due to cultural differences. That’s why I don’t think a city like London will ever accept modes of transport which say ‘to go here, you travel via there and use method X’.
"Think about the punk movement, and that element of rebellion that’s always bubbled under. There’s a time-honoured tradition in London, that if you’re told to do something, you’ll almost go out of your way to do the opposite. I think in the context of what we’re talking about, what this means is that what might work in Tokyo won’t necessarily work in London. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, due to cultural differences."
What I think people forget when there’s talk of ‘prescription’ is that private travel is all about choice and freedom. You have to understand the psychology of why people want and like that – and I think that’s why the car has endured, and why I think people will probably put up with congestion getting a lot worse before they give up their cars. Assuming it does get worse, however, there is bound to come a day when people say they’ve had enough.
Q: Are you worried then that there’ll be no place for luxury sports cars in future?
It comes back to consumption. People enjoy having and owning things, and obviously capitalist society works on aspiration and repeat consumption, so to have aspiration, there’ll always need to be the luxury or sport version of however we’re moving about. The other aspect of this is that, if you look at the car industry itself, it is changing, and the positive thing for a company like Aston is that we’re small and fleet-of-foot enough to change and adapt quickly, which is what I think will need to happen for a company to stay successful in the future. The problems that much of the industry face stem from their size. Volume and historical context mean that you are seeing many of them struggle to adapt quickly enough to changing market forces.
Q: Surely part of the problem for a company like Aston is that they need the big companies, the ones facing the big issues, to survive?
Businesses tend to go in cycles, and at the moment, we’re in a cycle of decentralising. So Aston is decentralised from Ford. Ford owns it and Aston needs Ford to an extent, but because we aim to a specific market, we’re able to adapt, and the size and volume we have now allows us to do that and gives us a real advantage.
Q: So where will you go in the future? Will you expand production?
As I said, we’re small and specific, so it’s hard to see us producing more than, say 6000 cars per year, but in terms of who we’re selling to, companies like Aston differ from the rest of the car industry, in that we’re not really competing directly against other car companies. An Aston Martin is a purchase that might be considered instead of another property or yacht for instance.
Q: Doesn’t legislation and the thought of cars like SUVs being excluded from city centres worry you though? Surely, if it’s being talked about with SUVs, sports and luxury cars can’t be far behind?
Yes I think you have a point. Although it’s certainly less of a problem for a company like Aston than say Land Rover, due to volume. I think people underestimate owners of cars like Aston Martins. Many of these actually run things like Smart cars as well, and they’ll bring that into the city if they need to, because they know an Aston isn’t in its natural home in an urban centre. I can see some legislation being problematic for certain manufacturers, but the good thing is that legislation drives innovation and generates debate.
"I think people underestimate owners of cars like Aston Martins. Many of these actually run things like Smart cars as well, and they’ll bring that into the city if they need to, because they know an Aston isn’t in its natural home in an urban centre."
So someone who works for Land Rover, as an example, will be proud of the products they produce. They don’t want the planet to be damaged any more than you or I, so what criticism of their vehicles does is really spur them on. So they’ll go into work with a mindset to try and make better, more innovative, more efficient products that cause less environmental damage. Ultimately, they have as much interest in making that a reality as an environmental campaign group, because everyone still wants to have a job next year. And I think we’ll see technology, innovation and new materials making vehicles lighter and less polluting in the future. So I think sometimes you have to welcome legislation as a positive thing.
Q: So in a strange way, government legislation and the green lobby might lead to better, more exciting vehicles?
I think that you innovate for a reason. You’re either pushing yourself – trying to pull a company forward and maintain an advantage, or you’re being pushed by legislation to change things. As I said, legislation definitely helps us, and sometimes gives us reason to innovate, but ultimately we are driven by public demand. With this in mind, we tend not to plan much further than 10 years ahead, because in this time, too much can change. I’m sure that one day people will stand up and say they’ve had enough of things like congestion, and maybe that’s the day we will all start moving around in the pod-type cars envisaged in movies. What I think it’s important to do is to retain the desirability factor. At present, people perceive ‘green’ as something boring or worthy, and I think creating design that people want has always been about creating something desirable. One of the best ways to do that is to make a product look beautiful.
Q: When we get to this point, though, surely luxury and sports cars will be a thing of the past?
I think in the far off future, one might imagine the role of sports car similar to race horses now. 150 years ago, people travelled around by horse and cart. The car effectively replaced this as a form of transport, because it moved things forward. Now horses are kept by those passionate about them, and raced and watched as a sport by millions. You can envisage a similar thing happening with the car, although perhaps not in the foreseeable future. I think however we move around in future, there will always be a call for different versions, such as the sporty and the luxurious though. It’s part of society’s make-up to aspire to such things. And the best way to generate aspiration and consumption is by making something look beautiful and by improving on what’s gone before.
Reichman was appointed design director for Aston Martin in June 2005. Prior to this, he served for two years as director of Design for Product, Interior Strategy and Process for Ford in North America. In that role, he led the development of interior design, strategy and execution for future Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles and was responsible for designing future Lincoln vehicles. Reichmann has an MA in Vehicle Design from London’s Royal College of Art.
Joseph Simpson is a research student in the Vehicle Design department at the Royal College of Art and a researcher for The Movement Design Bureau, which works with those exploring the future of how we move.
The interview was conducted during Reichman’s recent visit to the department as an external tutor to students on the MA course. Simpson spoke to him about how he saw the future of cars.