A question for automotive designers

Miscellaneous 16 1

There sure has been a lot of talk about the price of oil the past couple of days. At work, on the web, on the radio, it seems like that is all I have heard. After the price of a barrel of oil passed the 71 dollar mark on Tuesday, I heard quite a bit of speculation about how high gas prices might rise this summer. Nobody really knows; maybe gas will hit 4 bucks a gallon, maybe 5, maybe even more. People really do seem to be concerned about the rising prices, but not enough to change their driving habits yet. Still, that will come at some point, right? After all, the reason that I am happy to see gas prices rise is that the increase will eventually get people to drive smaller, more efficient cars and, most importantly, get them to drive less (maybe some will even start riding bikes). Everyone knows that high gas prices are here to stay; so fuel-efficient cars are poised to rapidly rise in popularity over the coming months and years. I am sure the auto industry is collectively very busy getting ready to meet the coming demand for sensible cars. It’s about time, right?

With that thought in mind, I took a look at the Spring issue of Innovation, the quarterly publication of the Industrial Designers Society of America. The first article I turned to was about the 2006 North American Auto Show. Cool, I thought, surely a trade magazine for designers will showcase some innovative, fuel-efficient designs (Innovation is the name of the magazine after all). Not exactly, the article is mostly about the new wave of American muscle cars. The newly restyled Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger are all featured prominently. These cars are all aggressively designed and, yeah, I’ll even admit look pretty good, but are they right for today’s market? Surely the marketing wizards in Detroit did their homework. I don’t know, maybe their market research tells them that a large percentage of the car buying public secretly wants to run down trashcans on wet streets in dark alleys. Maybe money for gas is no object for many people when it comes to reliving the good old days. Okay, so maybe that explains those three, but what is the story behind cars like the Chrysler Imperial or the Ford Super Chief? Yikes, that last one is one big, mean, super luxurious monster. I really just don’t get it. I am not going to fault the designers, the styling is fine, though again a bit aggressive. I just wonder who is going to buy cars like these with the price of gas rising daily. I shouldn’t really question the car companies though. Surely, the marketing departments at the big three U.S. automakers know a lot more about their customers than I do. Maybe consumers really don’t really care how much it will cost to fill the tanks of these nostalgic gas-guzzlers. Maybe people really do want big cars with large displacement V8s, 14 speaker sound systems, and built in LCD displays. All of the complaining that I have been hearing about high gas prices, I guess I shouldn’t really take it all that seriously. Detroit wouldn’t be making these cars if people didn’t want them, right?

Of course, maybe I am unfairly targeting the American automakers for producing irresponsible products. Nissan showed a concept car with a built in Xbox. Just flip down the LCD visor and use the controls on the steering wheel to play some silly racing game while the car is stopped. Almost as scary is the Audi Roadjet concept with an espresso machine between the rear seats. The last thing I want behind me while riding my bike is some sleepy commuter trying to drive a car while reaching way back into the back seat to brew a fresh cup of coffee. I could go on and on about automotive features that I think are pointless, but I think I am starting to digress (if that is possible).

Since I am sure that I won over many people in the auto industry with my last post about cars, I will wrap up this one with a question for any auto designers out there who happen to be reading this. Cars may be useful machines but they are also very dangerous, so why are so many of them styled to look so aggressive? I mean, you have to admit that, from a bystander’s point of view, a bitchin’ Camaro is a lot scarier coming down the street than a VW bug. Part of the difference is size, part of it is the driver, but part of it is also the personality of the vehicle. So why not just design friendlier looking cars? After all, there is a market for friendly products isn’t there? I wouldn’t use a mean, aggressive looking toothbrush, or sit down in a mean looking chair, so why are people attracted to mean looking cars? I think I know the answer, but I would love to hear an explanation from someone who actually designs cars for a living. Maybe all of you trans designers out there can please let me know. Why do so many cars need to have an intimidating look to be successful?

16 Comments

  1. Anonymous April 20, 2006 at 4:20 pm -  Reply

    Are you intimidated by the “new” Volkswagon Beetle, a car sold mostly on its retro design? That car is neither a gas guzzler, nor mean looking, but no self respecting dude would buy one.

  2. James April 20, 2006 at 4:29 pm -  Reply

    No, the new VW Beetle does not intimidate me. That is why I used it as an example of a friendly looking car in the last paragraph. Maybe you could elaborate on why no self-respecting dude would buy one.

  3. jeanthibca April 21, 2006 at 3:30 am -  Reply

    Good point.
    Also, I think that America will make efficent cars when the gallon will hit the 5$ mark, like it is in Europe. Seeing a SUV there is as rare as seeing a Porshe in the US.

  4. Anonymous April 21, 2006 at 5:41 am -  Reply

    Causally determining selfrespect and model/brand of a car…
    Sorry, I can’t help but wondering with what organ the person above is “thinking”.
    Or maybe I missed the irony and doesn’t count himself as a “dude”.

    A.C.

  5. Brian April 21, 2006 at 5:59 am -  Reply

    I am really upset at American auto makers. I bought a new car in 1992, 1996, and 2000. They were all Saturns. I typically get about 40 mpg +/- 2 mpg freeway/city. There new car only gets 32 mpg on the freeway. I am currently in the market for a new car but will not buy anything that gets less that 40 mpg. I am looking at the smart car http://www.smart.com It gets 60 mpg. Unfortunately, it is not availibe in the us yet.

  6. Fritz April 21, 2006 at 1:03 pm -  Reply

    The Wall Street Journal had an article a couple of months back about this trend of designing “meaner” looking cars.

    Guilty pleasure: I rented a Mustang Convertible this week and drove it with the top down to Santa Cruz just for the heck of it.

  7. lmw April 23, 2006 at 12:23 pm -  Reply

    America dropped the ball on alternative fuel cars. Check out the movie “Who killed the electric car” at divx.com –> movies. My next car will either be a toyota or honda. American car companies seem to be focusing too much on styling (ie camero, mustangs). That’s not wht we need right now. I say let the gas prices keep rising and people will see that it’s better for the earth and their body to ride a bicycle. But, just telling people to ride a bicycle won’t fix the picture, either. Part of the problem is the way cities are designed. Instead of urban sprawl, cities should be designed where people don’t have to commute so far to get to work.

  8. James April 24, 2006 at 11:20 am -  Reply

    Thanks for all of the comments. I am glad that a few people agree with me that automakers are going down the wrong path.

    After seeing many of them in Europe, I am a fan of the smart cars that Brian mentioned. Last year, Mercedes announced that they were going to offer a version of the smart car here in the US. Unfortunately, they felt that the same small, efficient cars that they sell in Europe would not work for the American market. I haven’t heard much about this decision in over a year, but here is an old link to a story about it:

    http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/91/super-size.html

    Does anyone know if this is still happening?

  9. Anonymous April 24, 2006 at 12:24 pm -  Reply

    We own a smart. (We are Canadian.) It’s a fantastic vehicle. Obviously fuel efficient, and believe it or not, does not feel like a golf cart when driving it.

    The reason it isn’t available in the states seems to be that the market won’t bear it. Likely for the same reason as that for your observation on the aggressive look of American cars. Don’t look past the first poster for the reason. The number of Americans without an ego problem is too small.

    Thanks for leaving anonymous commenting open on your blog.

    mtigges – gmail

    NB: Despite having a fuel efficient vehicle, I still ride 1.25 hours everyday for my commute.

  10. rich nelson April 25, 2006 at 6:39 pm -  Reply

    this is a great blog, I will keep reading it ,check out my blog Cool Cars

  11. tom wright May 7, 2006 at 9:09 pm -  Reply

    I have been hit by cars 3 times.

    One volvo, one astro van, and one so long ago I forget what it was.

    This is one case where size really does not matter.

    Something going 20 miles an hour or faster that weighs a ton or three is going to hurt you or kill you. I do not care how ‘friendly’ it looks.

    Drivers misusing cars kill more people every year, in sheer numbers, or on a per captia basis, than shooters misusing guns do.

    And cars are not meant to injure. That should say a lot about how dangerous they are.

  12. James May 8, 2006 at 4:44 pm -  Reply

    Yes, cars are very dangerous. 40,000 traffic fatalities a year in the US alone is absolutely outrageous. Don’t get me wrong; I do not think “friendly” looking cars are safe (though in general they are smaller). Tom, as you point out, cars are not meant to injure people. That is exactly the point I was trying to make, so why design them to look so menacing? Because those designs appeal to drivers who are careless, aggressive, and shouldn’t be driving anyway. Of course, car companies want money from good and bad drivers, so I don’t expect them to take the lead in reducing the number of annual traffic fatalities. The auto industry is just not serious about safety. If they were, they would produce smaller, slower, and dare I say friendlier cars.

  13. Anonymous April 10, 2007 at 11:40 am -  Reply

    I agree with you there is something psychopathic about the design of these bloated agressive vehicles.

    When I see one of these bloated monsters advertise that they have 540 HORSEPOWER! I visualise a 540 lb supersized impotent like Limbaugh inside.

    Requiring a 540 HORSEPOWER! forklift or a crane to be moved from the couch to the liposuction appointment and back.

  14. Anonymous April 25, 2007 at 6:23 pm -  Reply

    Er what about flying to China to have products made there to then be shipped here? Super freighters are some of the worst polluters on Earth.

    I agree with your article though, but we all need to change.

  15. Will July 17, 2008 at 2:26 pm -  Reply

    Nice job predicting the $4 gas. It’s like watching the movie Back to the Future or something.

  16. Odin O. Gray July 13, 2013 at 4:29 am -  Reply

    Old post, but man is it interesting to see talk about the Smart vehicles this far back. I live in Los Angeles (not much longer… going home to Pittsburgh where I enjoy riding my Big Dummy a lot more), and I see the Smart cars everywhere. At least two daily when I ride to and from work. I see on their website that they only have a 38MPG efficiency, though. I wonder where did 60MPG come from? When this was posted, I was sixteen, so I had no concept of what was happening back then.

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