Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, worked hard last week to translate its leadership position in vehicle design into one based on sustainable mobility. Yet for many, the shift remains problematic. The leaders of Ford's advanced design studio in Irvine sat soberly on the front row (though a much more lively Larry Erickson - the small car chief designer - spoke pretty lucidly). A miserable selection of alternative-fuelled cars cowered in the spectacular wind tunnel hall. A flex-fuel Focus, that fuel cell Honda FCX again and the absurd hydrogen BMW 7-series looked about as sustainable as Bush junior's presidency.
The rest of the debates, however, were dynamite. The most impressive were those that recognised 'sustainability' as creating a fresh context for a reinvention of transportation rather than merely a problem to be solved through a crash diet.
For me, the stars of the show were a surprising mix. Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, positioned himself beyond mere designer, instead posing as a rather credible leader of men for an altogether more significant revolution. With climate change becoming wrapped into political and consumer consciousness, dramatic developments in information technology and the construction of vast new cities in Asia, we have a "golden opportunity...The world is building new cities. You have the opportunity to design full systems that deal with mobility, to move people." Rather convincingly he argued that the car was optimised to link people who previously used horses and thus lacked a fast and convenient way to move about . But they were never intended for cities, and don't work there because of the density. He suggested "I don’t know how people will be moving around cities in twenty years. But I know what they won’t be doing in cities in twenty years. Driving cars.” To a mainly auto design audience, it was brave to reiterate the message that "if there was ever a time when someone needed to think about the systems level approach it is now – and it has nothing to do with the car as that box, or a Boeing 777, or a Segway, because each one of those things, on its own, is a tiny part of the problem. They are mere cupholders - yet that’s what you (designers) focus on.”
Which leads to the obvious question - what could this new system be? Dan Sturges, founder of Intrago, maintained his reputation as a passionate advocate of a new approach. There simply isn't space for millions of parked cars and cars are not the way to tackle local journeys. "When I started out on this, we barely had e-mail, and now all of a sudden, there’s this digital revolution – who would want to meet someone at the airport without a cell phone? We have this technology, the telematics provides us with the ability to move, in a really nice way, through these urban modes, without having to take a 4, or 5000lb vehicle to go a mile down the road and get your coffee. I mean, Paul MacReady - I think of you all the time - the gossamer albatross was a 78lb aircraft that flew across the English channel, and yet in a Boulder Colorado, 6000lb vehicles are going less than a mile to go to the mall or get a latte – it’s just disgusting!” Sturges predicts we will see the rise of the mobility service provider, a company that offers people a range of vehicles and in-depth information on the best options to help them move effectively and efficiently.
But sense did come from auto industry designers, too. BMW's charismatic Chris Bangle makes a vital point - when designing vehicles we must consider that people seek 'avatars', a persona that enables them to express themselves in their environment. Yet his argument struggles to stack up in one important way. For those who live in cities - and that includes an additional 10 million people every ten days that are now moving into cities in Asia - there isn't anywhere to display your avatar. You can't drive or park where you want to go - or want to be seen.
Someone also pointed out that socialists build the infrastructure and capitalists build the vehicles. Which I hadn't thought of before.
The event also proved just how widely-touted Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has come to be. His presentation was impressive in arguing the reasons why change is needed, and the economics behind it. But just to prove that nothing is yet done and dusted, some of his analysis directly contradicted that of Christopher Flavin, president of the world watch institute, and David L. Goodstein, vice-provost Professor of physics and applied physics, California Institute of Technology, who had dismissed hydrogen as part of the problem.
Of course the future of how we move is directly related to the future of how we work, and there was very little in the way of proper analysis of the likely changes in where, why and when we move. From that perspective it was a bit like watching Microsoft launching Windows Vista - a new solution for an old problem, when really those who are leading are now elsewhere, rethinking way bigger, way more interesting stuff.
Noone was left in any doubt about my views - that there is no technological reason why we now need to commute each day at the same time to sit in a building at a terminal with a coffee dispenser. We have been educated as children of a machine age, where our lives are structured to group in central locations of work at set times, with clear demarcation between work and play. Dramatic falls in the cost of communication, in the ability to collaborate through information technology and the opportunity to organise labour in entirely new ways, could emerge far more quickly than most of us realise.
Today's cars remain great avatars but to a very limited audience. There is a huge untapped market looking for something to help them move around. The question is whether the best of the incumbents have the boldness to realise that our machines of movement no longer provide the utility we require.