by Mark Charmer.
Shai Agassi has the potential to shake up how cars are powered and sold. But how cohesive is his vision?
Coming from the perspective of a design analyst, the first thing I would say is that Agassi isn't really a transportation visionary, though he is an energy visionary. The downside of a single sense of purpose entrepreneur is that they start to believe theirs is the only solution that matters.
When we talked on Tuesday in Munich, Agassi demonstrated naivety on the complex interplay of social and cultural factors changing how people move. His rhetoric is full of the need to power the commute, but any argument that information technology is dramatically changing structural factors shaping where, when, why and how we work gets short shrift:
"I’ve worked in a company [SAP] where, if the telecommuting office would have worked I wouldn’t have needed to travel four million miles in six years."
Well that's nice, but as he himself says, techies often don't address the whole problem at hand, just a few pieces. It's a cheap and blinkered dismissal that shows a lack of understanding of the deep structural changes underway in how technology supports work, commerce and lifestyles.
Then we talked about other options than conventional car ownership:
"Cycling in London will never become big because it rains too much there," Shai quips. When I point out that the Dutch cycle all the time and it's always raining there, he retorts "That's because they're Dutch".
I'm pretty well placed to assure Shai that this assertion is nonsense (and I'm not a big cycling man right now). For many reasons cycling will become a much bigger thing in cities of the future than it is today. And anyway, as Joe Simpson pointed out to me, apparently it rains more in Madrid* than it does in London (*I haven't bothered to check. If it's wrong, blame Joe).
If it ain't got five seats, forget it
Agassi also insists people want five seats in cars, "because at any point you'll want to stop in the street and your four college buddies will all pile in". He's joking but serious and it's a fair judgement. The new Tata Nano, carefully researched as India's next megacar, echoes this philosophy and can accommodate four (big) adults. But the likelihood is a wider range of vehicle formats, probably including new categories of light electric vehicles much smaller than a car. He also completely dismisses carsharing systems such as Zipcar. People want their own vehicle, with their own CDs and junk floating about. That sounds fine and populist, but the reality is that the world's cities are jam full of parked vehicles, typically only moving for an hour or so per day. The Velib bike sharing system in Paris proves that people love to use vehicles they can grab from one place and dump somewhere else, and simply get on with their life without organising their day around where the car is. Congestion-based taxation of car use in cities is real and, as London's Mayor has proved by going cool on letting low emission cars into its congestion zone, an electric battery might not be enough to get the entry key into the city.
Ironically it's a top Nissan guy who highlights the difficult relationship that cars have with cities. In an interview published last week on CNN.com, Tom Lane, Nissan's product strategy chief in Tokyo claims that as car ownership becomes more expensive and cities impose congestion pricing on car usage in city centres, he sees car owners switching to mass transit for their daily commute, and then renting cars for longer trips.
New mobility veterans with long established auto connections are turning quickly into entrepreneurs that could follow Agassi's lead. Dan Sturges, president and founder of Intrago Mobility is addressing the challenge of making the last mile or two of a journey much less congested, more convenient and less polluting. Indeed, talk to Sturges and you'll find his vision at once more radical than Agassi's but also completely in tune with what the best minds in auto, those unconstrained by politics and defensive corporate positioning, are saying.
Voices such as Ford's former product chief and guru Richard Parry Jones, who argued this month to UK auto magazine Car that:
"If CO2 remains the issue I can see a diversification in the purpose of the car. Right now I could take any car from the Ford range, be it a Ka or Discovery, and drive right now from here to Bologna. I'd be a bit less tired stepping out of the Discovery at the other end, but they will have done the same job. In future I foresee three types of car: small zero-emission electric cars for people who live in cities, larger plug-in hybrids that are capable of crossing over between tasks, and then large, long-distance cruisers powered by highly efficient diesel engines."
Choose your market, choose your method
But I don't want to be unfair here to Agassi, who is really focused on devising a way to get off oil. I highlight the deficiencies because it's important to acknowledge Agassi's extraordinary talent but not run away with his vision. But he does grasp what it means to find your market and focus on it, and to understand which design assumptions have to stay in place (note he describes both his customer and his company as "I" - evidence he's trying to really think like a designer):
"You need to understand what the social project is with your product. I don’t really need to solve the problem of a car that commutes four hours every day in each direction because I know what the rules are. The rules are that if I drive more than an hour in the morning, I either change my work or I change home. And if not, I’m not my customer."
"So it’s ok, we can narrow out the extremes. When you narrow out the extremes and you focus on the definition of the market, which is the mainstream market, now you have the harder part which is to create for me a complete product. 'Techies' [and here I think he means both pure IT people and car engineers] like to solve for everything and they like to narrow their view on partial products. So they settle for an easy solution that can go anywhere but forget about infrastructure and energy. We say it’s the exact opposite, that you have to view the entire energy equation and you have to solve for energy, infrastructure and carbon or you don’t have a complete product. Because none of us buy the car, we buy a personal commute. And by the way, it’s a service. Not a product.
But don't for a minute think this is the only future for cars. Agassi's vision has unlocked anything up to a billion dollars but there is surely more to come and many things are happening right now. The Art Center Summit: Systems, Cities & Sustainable Mobility, in just a few weeks' time, will bring together an amazing base of talent that uniquely connects many disciplines to look at "..the broad systems thinking and systems integration needed to create a better future for society. How can design encourage large groups to rethink how they move from Point A to Point B? How does one design attractive, efficient and financially viable solutions for new communities? How can new systems be designed for existing environments? How should the design process integrate with cross-disciplinary systems and teams?"
We hope to be there. Be sure to come and share your vision if you are. There's plenty of space left for new approaches.
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