Transportation's Fit-for-Purpose Future


This morning BBC World Service's Business Daily featured an interview with Richard Parry-Jones, CTO of Ford, discussing the future of the consumer vehicle--the word "car" hardly seems to suit all of the definitions he put forward. Among other things, Parry-Jones discussed the changing nature of the vehicles we use, and where they may be in the future.

His practical, engineering-driven vision is shaped around a fitness-for-purpose model where urban commuting is marked by increasing use of small, lightweight, probably electric, vehicles perhaps "rented" on an as-needed basis for one or two passengers, resembling a Smart more than today's heavy SUVs and big sedans favored in the West. Think Zipcar meets Tata Nano for the masses, designed to meet the requirements of driving in the world's expanding megacities. He implied that such vehicles would probably not venture far outside the city boundaries due to their lack of power vis-a-vis longer range vehicles.

For mid-range travel from city to city, lighter weight frames and components will allow this class of vehicle to look roughly similar as today's vehicles, but be powered by a more efficient engine, probably a mix between conventional and hybrid, to take account for the mixed usage patterns of in-city and longer distance travel (hybrid engines are less useful for the latter). Lastly, Parry-Jones points to diesel power as the engine of choice for long distance vehicles, potentially biofuel-based, because of their efficiency. What he doesn't say, but is clearer from the way these vehicles are used to carry more passengers and cargo, is that the form will likely remain similar to today's trucks, vans and SUVs, but like their mid-range peers, use lighter weight components as well to lessen fuel demand.

One implication of this vision is that we are now moving from a model where consumers are presented with a range of style and functionalities in vehicles, which they can somewhat freely choose to fit the stylistic and functional requirements of their lifestyles, to one where economics become far more important, and choice is more directed by frequent usage patterns. Up till now, it has cost relatively little to choose a long-range vehicle for short-range use, i.e. the SUV for short, in-town trips to the grocery store and school runs, and likewise one could choose to run a hybrid for long-range commutes where it is less efficient. However, fuel costs, regulation and other external factors are forcing more attention to this "fitness-for-purpose" criteria, something certainly American consumers have had to grapple with very little in the past 50 years.

So, we potentially face a substantial period where function regains prominence over form in vehicle design. Car makers will argue that the two can be balanced carefully, and economical function can be balanced with beautiful form today. A look at the current examples would contradict that assertion in many cases.  Further out, however, this will stimulate a new emphasis on marrying attractive design to efficient construction and function. I, for one, can't wait.