Interview with Masato Inoue

Masato Inoue has been the Chief Designer of Nissan's Exploratory Design Department for about 8 years in Japan. On the surface he doesn’t seem like your run of the mill Japanese businessman, his Italian tailored suit and styled shoes, slightly longer hair than ‘regulation’ allows, but don’t let that fool you. He is 100% Japanese and this makes him proud of his culture, something which most Japanese have grown up to reject because of the shame of WWII. Inoue-san has an open eye on what is happening around the world, an open ear to listen what people have to say, and an open heart for Japanese design. He knows what Nissan’s customers want before they even know they want it, and likewise he knew what Nissan needed before management did…an electric car!

In his circle he is probably known as the music man, he is in no less than three bands, Pinga, Crossover 7/11, and Log, where he plays the guitar. Sometimes he says that designing cars is his day job but his real job is music, but its a good thing for the environment that Inoue san has a day job; he has dedicated most of his time at Nissan to developing electric cars and his PIVO 2 is one step away from production.

We sat down with him at the Geneva Motor Show '08 to have a few words about where we are heading with environmentally sustainable cars and how that is changing car design.

GCD: You have been green for a while, can you tell me why you started designing electric cars?

Inoue: Ever since I joined the Exploratory Design Studio I have been researching about sustainable mobility. I understood early on that green is important but people don’t want to buy a car only because its green. You can’t force people to buy a car that is environmentally friendly if they don’t like it, so I had to make cars that eveybody likes. In 2000 we made an internal concept car where we used the theory of ‘Dell’ computer assembly which was a built to order car with an aluminum frame and plastic body. Nissan was not so enthusiastic but they liked the shape, which led to the next generation IT inspired IDEO concept presented in 2001 at the Tokyo Motor Show. This project was not followed so I threw myself into research that took me around the world where I listened and talked to people about being green.

Internally most of my efforts when un-noticed because our cars were pretty clean at the time, they kept telling me that no-one would die if they were breathing from our exhaust pipes! And just as I asked the critical question ‘why haven’t you joined the Kyoto agreement’ in a meeting in the US, Prius debuted and took the market by storm. Nissan woke up and realised that they needed a secret weapon, so that is what we started working on. In 2003 we showed our EFFIS concept car based on fuel cell technology at the Tokyo Motor Show, but I still pushed and believed that electric cars will be Nissan’s strength and that batteries were the future.

Perhaps in 2100 there will be a kid studying about history and will ask his grandparent or parent if there really were cars running with combustion engines. If they know about it they might say yes, or even that they used to drive one. The kid’s reaction will be to say ‘what low technology! Is it not better to have no emissions and no sound pollution coming from our cars?’. Thats what I hope.

GCD: What do you think are the most important social impacts of green cars/design?

Inoue: In the short term there will be an array of environmentally friendly fuel alternatives being adopted in different countries. Electric vehicles (Evs) will be good for short distance driving, long distance will be Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV), In Japan we are the most advanced with EVs, while Europe is heavily based on diesel and the US will focus on hybrids. But, I think that by 2040 electric cars will take over the scene and to aid that our alliance with Renault is significant because they have very good motor technology. (Nissan has defined a self-imposed deadline of 2010 of delivering at least one electric car to the public for general sale).

This is where PIVO 2 is interesting. Because of the By Wire technology there is not direct shaft to the axle to steer the car. That opens up the interior space and detaches the driver from any pre-conception about ‘being attached’ to the vehicle and hence to fuel consumption. PIVO 2 sends out a clear message that we do not need a mechanical connection to the car and this not only frees the mind of the driver and passengers but also gives us design freedom. When you drive PIVO 2 you will feel how nice that experience is and your mind will change. For example, there are natural kickbacks one feels from the road, but with electrical technology we can eliminate some of that while making for a smoother ride hence decreasing erroneous movement from the driver.

GCD: How do you express ‘green technology’ visually? Ex. PIVO 2?

Inoue: No company can force people to buy a car, not even one full of green benefits, unless its the car you have always dreamt of. If they are charmed or sufficiently impressed then they might buy the car! Thats why we designed PIVO2. We designed PIVO 2 for young working Japanese ladies, a very specific market, but the design appealed to a much bigger audience. By designing a very open space we were able to showcase all the benefits of our green powertrain, and with the RA (Robot Agent) on board with you at all times, these ladies are comfortable and never feel alone or vulnerable. The only problem we forsee now is that the customer wants to take the RA to other cars or new cars when they grow out of the old ones so we have to develop a way for this to happen. The RA becomes so much part of the family it needs to grow as well. We are designing other segment cars for small families or sedans with a smiliar, or compatible kind of RA technology. Green technology allows the customer to let go of the idea that a car is a machine and bring us closer to our vehicles, speacially with the emotive help of an RA. When the roads are full of PIVOs then we have a sustainable society.

GCD: Can you see PIVO in Europe? In the USA?

Inoue: Proportionally I can see PIVO fitting into Europe faster than the US, specially because US have a lot of requirements.

GCD: What is your personal view of the future?

Inoue: Now we live in changing era of production levels where they are getting higher, in the millions. What we use in terms of materials and systems depends everyday more and more on decisions made by designers. As designers we have greater responsibility to learn about materials and production in order to make more sustainable decisions. ‘Benkyou shinakereba ikenai’, we have to study, knowledge is power.