Green Car Design Challenge Part 1

The Big 3 pull out of Tokyo Motor Show, Honda pulls out of F1, Fiat buys 35% of Chrysler, its all over the news…and its bad news! The news of cutbacks and stops on design projects started at the Paris Auto Show 2008…and was just the tip of the melting iceberg. A friend even commented to me “what will you write about now?”, yes what indeed? So it was time to ask the obvious question, where does green car design go from here? Although R&D centres and studios around the world make up a very small percentage of the overall costs of making a car they will still significantly be affected by credit crunches and recessions. The fact that recently most designs coming from these sources flaunt new green technologies which equates to an entire new infrastructure needed to supply such green car design means that green means ‘stop’ for the immediate future, or does it?

It doesn’t hurt to plan ahead and as most design chiefs will find, car designers have a passion for problem solving and to them, design-wise, an uncertain future is just a window of opportunity waiting to happen. Now that we are not being handed everything on a bling bling plate we have to find new ways of making cars, of designing them, of producing them, that evokes age-old concepts like ‘less is more’ and ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. And as for the allusive ‘green highway’? Well, we might see some new twists and turns but it will not be detoured according to those in the know, in fact it might just become a superhighway as a result of the current financial diet. We put 3 questions to some of the leaders in automotive design today and their answers gave us a very positive view of green car design under duress.

"A leader is someone who doesn't do what everyone else does, if you have a product you believe in, now is the time to make a bigger investment — not a smaller one." Richard S. Tedlow, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School

Jose Wyszogrod is Chief Designer for Interiors of Auto Design at Honda where he heads 35 designers and 40 modelers. Not only do his 12 years of experience at Honda serve as an acute benchmark for what may lie ahead but he also has a unique perspective as he literally lives in two worlds. A native of Argentina who came to the US to attend Art Center in Pasadena he has spent half his time in Honda’s studio in California, US and half his time in the studio in Tokyo, Japan. These two very different locations under one brand make him aware of differences and divergences, that in terms of design, can weed out winning designs from the rest.

GCD: How do you believe that cost cutting in the automotive industry will affect automotive design?

Wyszogrod: Cost cutting was always been present in car design since the days of the Model T. We see cost cutting as a way to add value no to take features away from interiors. ?As in the past, we need to be smart about what the customer really needs and wants and make sure we keep up with the latest safety regulations and technological trends. Designers need to be pro-active and generate new innovative solutions and question the old way of thinking. Everything needs to have a reason, cost cutting helps to eliminate unnecessary things.

GCD: Do you think that the downturn in the economy worldwide will be counterproductive for green automotive design?

Wyszogrod: Green automotive is here to stay. Green processes, green materials, overall "the green effort" adds value to the customer and the brand. People are more conscious about the connection between the car and the environment and they want a better green product from car companies. There is no turning back; we can only look into the future for green design. Green and cost cutting are not opposites.

GCD: Can design thrive in a recession?

Wyszogrod: Design will always thrive because that is the nature of the profession, to solve problems. No matter what will happen with the economy, there are always new challenges ahead to solve.? People have a connection with objects since the cave times, that link is stronger than the economical situation of today.? More problems = more challenges = better cars for everybody!

“Keep the faith, be tough in a tough environment, we will find solutions.”Dr. Ram Charan, author of Leadership in the Era of Economic Uncertainty

Anthony Lo, Director of Advanced Design for GM of Europe, is a veteran in the car design industry. With 20 plus years in the business and a recent flux of green car designs, such as the Opel Flextreme and Saab Aero-X, he is an authority on what has been and what might be. Having revived the Saab brand from oblivion, and rekindling Opel’s fire Lo is not one to take challenges lightly, and for him this a time to push not retreat.

GCD: How do you believe that cost cutting in the automotive industry will affect automotive design?

Lo: As one can see, in the current economic environment, many car manufacturers are focusing on increasing the efficiency of their organizations even more and focusing their efforts. This is especially true when it comes to product programs. This naturally has an impact on the design teams in terms of planning. At the same time, at GM, the majority of the advanced and green projects have not been touched. We need to be ready when consumer confidence picks up again.

GCD: Do you think that the downturn in the economy worldwide will be counterproductive for green automotive design?

Lo: Looking at the development of our future "green" product portfolio the downturn actually has an upside, as this will put more pressure on OEMs to gradually replace fossil fuel based powertrains with alternative propulsion solutions. The electrification of the automobile will stay on course with cars like the Opel Ampera and the Chevrolet Volt. Also our quest for green motoring both within our own company as well as suppliers begun sometime ago and there is no turning back. At GM Design, we have decided that environmental friendly initiatives go beyond the actual products themselves. Our entire design process has been made greener by reducing the number of physical models (clay, foam) and utilizes more VR technology to facilitate decisions where possible. Designers are using more digital tools instead of marker and paper. We are also working on improving efficiency of future cars by using lighter and plant based materials that are 100% recyclable. Overall packaging will be optimized to reduce weight without compromising comfort, space and safety.

GCD: Can design thrive in a recession?

Lo: More efforts in marketing and creativity in design are needed to attract customers during a recession. To boost sales by offering better value is one way but it was proven that majority of purchase decisions were made by emotions rather than facts. The need for better design and convincing brand story is stronger than ever! And as stated earlier, a recession sometimes opens up new opportunities for innovative thinking. The automotive business is one of the driving sectors when it comes to that and I am certain we will see a lot of interesting and 'green' designs coming up in the near future.

Stay tuned for Part 2 - Keeping the Faith