Interview with Mark Adams

Meet Mark Adams, uber Design Chief of GM Europe!  As the Ampera wins one accolade after another and launches in the UK we thought we should pick his brains on what the future of green car design holds starting with the seemingly left-field decision to create the Rak-e.  It turns out he truly believes that positive, green, electrifying change will come to cities around the world and is determined that it not be boring, cookie-cutter change.  But as much as politics and infrastructure around those cities needs to change in order to welcome and accept these new forms of personal mobility he admits that so does the internal mentality of automotive companies needs to move on.  The Rak-e did just that for his Opel team, and perhaps even the board he sits on, as the outside world has taken a unique shine to this unique vehicle.  Its no coincidence that this change happened with the help of an external source, none other that X-Bow and KTM bike creators Kiska, used to dealing with design from a different point of view.  We find out how far and how fun this experience was and where it will take Adams and his team in the years to come.

Green Car Design : Why did you choose to use Kiska to help you build/design the Rak-e? It seems like a total break away from your day-to-day design routine…

Mark Adams : Absolutely! I think that the whole point about electrification of the automobile is starting to build momentum and clearly, as was shown with Ampera winning Car Of the Year, we have got a fantastic core product for our brand that really delivers, lets call it, a mainstream execution.  What we wanted to keep building on was all of the other legs of urban mobility and electrification that support our brand message as well.  So, we were looking at city centres now, more city centres are starting to put up, if not physical barriers, there are sort of this psychological barriers of ‘stay out…you are polluting our cities’.  Even things like the London Congestion Charge hinder movement and many other cities are picking that up so its really sort of pushing out the normal automobile.

I guess in the future we see that's going to magnify, so we are starting to look at well ok how can you create something that is truly much smaller, almost compact around the driver and maybe the occupant.  But how can we do something that is super efficient, very light weight, full electric, zero emissions, but also fun to drive?  And also gives you this flexibility to not have to just stay in the city because some of these concepts are very much focused on only city driving and you can never go out on the open road.  We said, actually, we want something that if you had a long commute, lets say 30 mile or 40 km from outside of a city to a city centre you maybe go on fast roads too.  That's when we came up with this concept (points to the Rak-e) that could be fast enough at the right point to keep up even with Autobahn traffic but to feel like a cross between a car and a motorbike - to get in the fun aspect of a motorbike and sense of freedom and compactness.  In fact the original concept we had a three-wheeler but that didn’t give us the driving dynamic and stability that we also wanted so we created this four wheel concept but it has a very special four wheel, the two wheels at the back are very close together.  The reason for that is the distance between the wheels cannot be any wider without having a differential, if its wider then you would have to have a differential then you would have to have individual wheel braking and extra weight.

Our whole philosophy was about how you can simplify the car to reduce the weight but still be stable and dynamic.  The Rak-e has a very unique braking system that is only on the axle that drives the wheels, and it's a solid axle because of the distance between the wheels so you can get away with it…so its very clever thinking.

GCD : Did Opel do all the research or did Kiska do it?

MA : The engineering mule was done totally at Opel.  So when it was a three-wheeler and when it had the fundamental concept that was done at Opel.  Where we tied in with Kiska was we wanted to tie in with someone who had the other half of the business expertise where they have expertise in motorbikes.  It was an interesting journey actually because they think differently from an automotive company and so we sort of learnt from each other and different ways of designing the vehicle.

GCD : Its seemed like fun! A unique experience…

MA : Definitely, I can remember when I went to review the package and we were picking the final seating package.  As you can imagine getting a two-seater concept in that vehicle was a super difficult challenge so we created, literally a wooden bath-tub (smiles) with wooden stringers and I sat in the back and said ok ‘lower the wooden stringer until it touches my head’.  When it touched my head I said that's it, that's the centre line of the car…it was literally like that, we set it around real parameters.  We didn’t want this second seat to be something crazy squeezed in, it needed still to have the perception of space and fit with our values of what we believe are important for our brand.  As I say, it was an interesting journey, we didn't have every design answer done on a piece of paper at the beginning so some of it just evolved and it was the evolution that made it quite exciting.

GCD : That must be rare these days because everything is so calculated, and it shows in the design, its new and fresh, and free.

MA : I mean, even when it comes to the final thing…one of my guys did the sketch that I really love…it's the one I picked, it had the feel of what we wanted to achieve rather than every design answer.  I can give you an example, if you look at the cockpit there’s the line a that does a little bit what the Meriva does, it dips down before it runs up and that was done again because when we sat in the back of this package bath originally the belt line was here (holds hand almost to shoulder) and I was like seat here (lowers hand), beltline here (raises hand) that doesn’t feel good.  We took some tape and figured out that if the belt line is here then the seat needs to be here (gesticulates) but at least you can see left and right and it feels more open.  Again, its not just styling its true design, its problem solving.

GCD : Its very personal…it resonates with the ENV, there is a lot of invaluable research gained in the process right?

MA : Absolutely, I am convinced this type of vehicle is going to happen.  There is going to be a need for this type of vehicle.  It's a matter of when!

GCD : How does it (Rak-e) fit is the market?  What kind of segment does it fall under?

MA : Because of the weight and the scale of the thing its classified as a quad bike.  Effectively it fits in a unique positioning, but we want to think about it a little bit more.  Yes, ok, the classification of the car could be quad-bike but what we wanted to also achieve was a bit more like automotive safety type standards so if you look at it the thinking behind it is to protect the passengers as well, we didn’t want it to be as exposed as a motorbike we wanted to have much more automotive car-like safety but within a more bike-like environment.  It's a really unique feeling when you sit in this vehicle and the canopy comes down you feel like ‘uuuh’ (worried face), but once its down its an amazing feeling because you never have a 360 degree view, unless you are on a bike, and this is what you have.  You are sitting down low, you are almost in a go-kart position, you are in a fighter cockpit, it's a strange environment and it makes it fun!  It’s actually really fun to drive!  It puts a smile on your face…

GCD : I can see!

MA : Again, its one of those things that you say hey, it hits those emotional buttons as well as being rational because its super cheap to run, I think it worked out to something like less than a scooter…it ticks a lot of boxes, rational and emotional.  That’s our brand, you always hear about the things we talk about, sculptural artistry meets German precision, its emotional and rational joined together.

GCD : Where does it go next?

MA : We are seriously still investigating about doing something for real.  We have a lot of work to do yet before we get to the point of pressing the button but as I say the most difficult thing about this vehicle is not actually being able to do that (point to the concept) its being able to do it at the right time.  Having the infrastructure and the political acceptance of these types of vehicles more.

GCD : Do you think the Twizy does that a bit?

MA : Yeah, but I mean its early days yet.  I would say right now the political environment, if you are talking about Germany as a classic case, the acceptance and the way the political environment is set up its not really set up to accept electric vehicles properly yet.  Other countries are more accepting lets say Netherlands for example, is embracing electrification.  The time will come and true acceptance, we wanted to explore because we truly believe there will be an opportunity.  Sometimes show cars are not always about brining home that vehicle, its about changing a culture or influencing things internally and I would say that vehicle (Rak-e) actually influenced our internal team a lot in the way it makes us think.  We are going to be doing some other things that are more ‘real’ but some of the thinking and some of the changing of attitudes are all about doing this vehicle.

GCD : That makes me smile, because the whole purpose of GCD is to propose another way of thinking about cars…it's a mind shift.

MA : That's been the thing, either more mainstream cars have been electrified or the other end of the spectrum is more the golf cart type of mentality and that has a stigma attached to it which is a negative stigma so again the whole thinking behind this one was to create something that was cool, it does all of the things but its just cool!

GCD : Congratulations on the Ampera winning Car of the Year!

MA : We were hopeful, we genuinely didn't know we were going win. It was very exciting!

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