October 17, 2010
The most interesting thing about revolutionary new kinds of car propulsion, like in-wheel electric motors & hydrogen fuel cells, is nothing to do with the technology or even the environmental impact. It is the fact that it gives designers & consumers the opportunity to start completely from scratch.
With something like the original Audi etron concept, other than the (admittedly still quite lumpy, for now) battery pack, there are almost none of the packaging requirements that lead to the shape & interior layout of the humdrum carbon-buckets we all parp around in now. No engine (motors in the wheel hubs instead), no gearbox to speak of, no fuel tank – nuffink.
Obviously car designers are playing it pretty safe in the short term – they don’t want to panic everyone with a whole new paradigm in transport, and at the same time confuse or damage the visual brand they have carefully built up over the many decades of conventional car production. OK, for some reason Renault are quite happy to, but most of the others aren’t.
But the really interesting thing here is contained in the idea of brands; every now & again a bored but fruity billionaire reawakens the essentially pre-war idea of coachbuilding, and commissions someone to build him a unique motoring icon on the chassis of an existing ubercar – gorgeous autoporn that still rolls over the speed bump at the entrance to the yacht club.
But what if they didn’t need to – since all the oily bits in a car are no longer oily, and what’s more they don’t really intrude above the wheels anyway, then what’s to stop Audi, BMW and everyone else just making the base? Fast, frugal, but above all flat, you pop online and order whatever chassis makes the most sense for you size & cost-wise. Click ‘buy’, and the next step will be to decide which brand you want to be responsible for the outside and which for the inside of your new wheels – probably from a list of companies that this particular manufacturer works with.
Prestige car brands already basically operate as labels that say ‘I’m rich, rich! Now will you love me, mummy?’ (BMW X6) or ‘I’ve done fairly well, thank you for not mentioning it’ (Volvo XC60) or ‘I’ve never actually held money and went into the family arms business at 19’ (Maybach). So it’s not a stretch to imagine bringing other brands from outside the car world into play.
How about an Audi A1 etron chassis with a body by Apple and an interior by North Face? Or a Mercedes E-Class with a Mulberry interior and a nice subtle, grown-up outside by Gieves & Hawkes? We as consumers already see & understand these kind of relationships – Nike & Apple (music to run to) for example. Prestige car brands will still operate as labels – because you won’t be able to get Gucci seats in Ford Focus.
This will definitely happen.
March 15, 2010
There are two interesting things about Toyota’s epic recall-a-thon:
1: They are not alone in recalling cars on a large scale. So far from alone, in fact, that they should get some badges and a special jacket made, and elect a club secretary.
2: They have handled it really, really badly.
To look at the first point, an instructive 15mins spent reformatting the list of all car recalls ever issued in the US from the NHTSA here shows you very quickly that pretty much every car manufacturer you can think of does this all the time. In 2010 alone, so far 22 different proper car marques have issued recalls in the US – more if you include Ford, Chrysler & GM!
Only joking – actually no I’m not. Anyone would think that the US media canon wasn’t very happy about Toyota taking over GM’s world number one spot… I must have missed the torrent of panic & opinion about the Chrysler 300 saloon’s wheel nuts being recalled, or the instrument display of the Jeep Grand Cherokee [both listed as 2010 recalls above].
Anyway, the point is everyone does this, all the time. Are they as serious as Toyota’s issues potentially are? Not always, but definitely sometimes.
So why is this such big news now?
Along with no doubt a number of other important factors, one reason is my second point; how was this issue fumbled so badly by such a massive company? The presumption here is that massive companies are more prepared & well fortified from a communications perspective. That may sometimes be the case, but often the reality is that it becomes another process, just like ordering new wheel nuts or instrument clusters.
In the case of Toyota, one of the things that happened was that this issue blew up 10 days before a scheduled fortnightly PR meeting – meaning no-one did anything until the process told them to. After all, you don’t want just-in-time automated systems ordering more wheel nuts whenever they fancy. And all those fancy haircuts at the PR agency are just another supplier, aren’t they?
So there was a big gap, which inevitably got filled with the opinions of everyone who could be bothered to give one. When President & CEO Akio Toyoda (yes, relation) did make a statement, he immediately personalised it by being ‘deeply sorry’ about everything – rather than appearing in control of what had caused the situation. And then he drove off in a nice big, safe Audi…
Things to learn here:
1) People don’t hang around waiting for you (as the official brand) to tell them what actually happened; they will form conclusions based on the available evidence, and if you’re not there when that happens – tough.
2) Embrace all dialogue. Imagine you’re a Prius owner that gets an email from Toyota, before there is a story at all, saying ‘It’s no big deal, but because we’re so safety-minded and curious, we’d like to check our solution to the problem everyone has – of making cars stop & go – is still the best one in the market. So come and say hello and we’ll give you a free [insert anything of value here]’. It’s the same solution, but doesn’t totally destroy your brand’s core value..
3) Buy an Audi.