Tuesday 30 July 2013

Does Carsharing Threaten the Centrality of Design?

With Apple products leading the popular vanguard, the centrality of design has become a common theme in contemporary product development. As it says on the back of my Apple Nano, "Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China." Let there be no
mistake—the added value (and presumably the reason that I paid more for the product than for a competing MP3 player) is in the design of the product. And let there further be no mistake—the design is that of Apple, in the heart of design heaven, namely California. As for "assembly" (what happened to "manufacture"?), that takes place anonymously (Foxconn?) somewhere in China. When it comes to the Apple Nano product (and presumably other Apple products), it is the design that makes the difference.

After all, didn't Apple's success last August in its California-based litigation against Samsung rest mainly on a finding of infringement of several of its design patents (even if the award of damages was later cut back by the court)? Further, didn't the European Union recognize a protectable right in an unregistered design, emphasizing the importance and prevalence of valuable product design in the modern world? Utility patents, with their steep costs and long and complex procedures for registration, might not be the regal pinnacle of IP rights, but the need for good product design (and presumably legal protection) is seemingly everywhere.

The importance of design did not begin with Apple or the consumer electronics industry. Generations before that, the automobile industry had turned design into the calling card of their products. Design, when intertwined with car performance, became the nexus between the brand and the customer. What better proof of the importance of design than the anti-design aura of the Volkswagen. At the end of the day, for the Volkswagen Beetle as for the General Motors's Cadillac, vehicle, the consumer was believed to put design (or anti-design) at the heart of his purchase decision. It was only when the U.S. auto industry decoupled design from acceptable vehicle performance that it began to lose the race with its German, Japanese and later Korean competitors.

Given the centrality of design in product generally, and the car industry in particular, it is hard to conceive of a situation in which car design might become less important. But such a possibility is being suggested by the increasingly popular phenomenon of carsharing. "Carsharing" is not "car pooling", the rite of passage that any parent goes through in getting their children to soccer/football practice or choir rehearsal. Carsharing (or "car clubs", in the UK), as defined on Wikipedia, "is a model of car rental where people rent cars for short periods of time, often by the hour. They are attractive to customers who make only occasional use of a vehicle, as well as others who would like occasional access to a vehicle of a different type than they use day-to-day. The organization renting the cars may be a commercial business or the users may be organized as a company, public agency, cooperative, or ad hoc grouping".

The Carsharing Association, here, describes "carsharing" further at carsharing.org as follows:
"Carsharing is defined by its environmental and social purpose, rather than business and financial objectives.

Carsharing is designed for local users in support of community transit and environmental goals. Its mission, vision and values lead to actions aimed at decreasing personal car ownership, reducing vehicle distance travelled, improving urban land use and development, providing affordable access to vehicles for all constituencies, as well as motivating residents to walk, cycle and take buses and trains, and decreasing dependence on fossil fuels while reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

Carsharing is a membership based service available to all qualified drivers in a community. No separate written agreement is required each time a member reserves and uses a vehicle. All CSOs offer members access to a dispersed network of shared vehicles 24-hours, 7 days a week at unattended self-service locations.

Carsharing is primarily designed for shorter time and shorter distance trips as an extension of the transportation network, providing a public service designed to enhance mobility options. Longer trips may be available to further discourage car ownership. CSOs help members save money over the cost of individual car ownership by encouraging members to drive less often, plan trips more, use other modes of transportation more, and share fuel efficient vehicles when a car is needed."
What stands out from this description are the societal, communal and environmental underpinnings of the carsharing movement. These characteristics are almost antipodean to the notion of individual expression and identification with one's car, which serves as the heart of car design. "You", not someone else, "is what you (own and) drive". What happens, however, where the car becomes a commodity item, for use on "a need to need basis"? In such a situation, will those who become active members of the carsharing movement eschew design in favour of other considerations? This question was recently asked on Bloomberg radio of a former senior GM designer. His brief response was "no"; people will continue to place a priority on car design, even if their use is largely in a carsharing environment. Maybe yes, maybe no, with downside in the event that the answer is "no". If that occurs, we might see a potentially tectonic change in the relationship of car owners to car design, at least in those markets where carsharing reaches a critical mass.


Anonymous said...

Won't the market ultimately decide? To me it seems analagous to the vehicle rental market, in which some will simply book a car based on their needs (2, 4, 6 seats, etc) and financial constraints, whilst others will choose a 1970's camper van, VW Beetle or Ferrari. Car clubs may eventually want to compete on more than just price, efficiency and environmental credentials.

Suleman said...

Well we don't have personalised buses or trains. We just board the next one that comes. That's probably a healthier relationship to have with metal objects. Given that environmental problems and all the other major issues humanity faces will need a collective response then it's important to develop more ideas of 'shared' things, because ultimately we live on a shared planet. Sacrificing personalised design, i.e. making choices for the greater good, is something we're going to have to learn to do

Ron said...

I was really surprised you used the carsharing model, it's an intellectually intriguing step away from what would have been a more obvious topic focus for societal/community-based design, shared content and creation sites such as hitREcord or even fourchan.

Personally if I had to car share, I would treat the car as a rental and not really care about its looks. Rather, practicality and size would be the more salient considerations. Frankly, if I had to use the car in an urban environment I might prefer a smaller, easier to park vehicle than a bigger one. In fact, I would think the best car for car sharing would be something like a Toyota RAV4 or Honda CRV - practical design, not too big, 4 wheel drive (as long as you don't go off road), reasonably thrifty. But then, I could also opt for a new Viper which is so impractical, dangerous to exit, hard to drive, loud, cramped - no one would want to car share.