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?