We’ve seen these ‘trendy’ brands come – and go. Can you say Hummer? So should a car brand be built on something beyond todays fleeting fashion and style?  In Hummer’s case, how many militaristic 4x4s can a consumer market absorb – regardless of gas prices.  As a new series of products, they were novel and intriguing. Enough so to make you look past the compromises to everyday usage. And even if gas remained cheap, I suspect the novelty of Hummer would have gradually faded. But certainly not before there were Hummer mid-size sedans in order to grow volume at any cost (the H6 or H7…)  So now we have Scion and can it and a dealer network be supported by a brand that markets only to hip young people who like to party and customize their rides? The 90’s are over and squadrons of customized Honda Civics and the Tuner Mags have seen their rise and fall as a trend. Sure, some will remain but the mass marketization of customization has likely run its course. Now all we have left are cars that are built with quality, well designed, and full of the latest technology – for young and old people. But to say that Scion and Hummer weren’t the right decision at the time would be too much. They may have been the right decision if there was incremental revenue and profit. And what if these Fashion Brands are treated as such – brands that are hot and then cold. They could come and go with the seasons or decades never meaning to last a century. There would be no pretense for unique dealer networks but perhaps just a showroom. As the trends come and go, so would the brand. Toyota is now planning to expand the Prius name to a larger van and smaller coupe/sedan. It seems like a natural progression and one wonders why they haven’t done it sooner. Toyota should definitely take advantage of the Prius ‘trend’ while its still hot.  Eventually the market will be flooded with high quality, well designed hybrids and BEVs so Prius had better exploit it’s brand equity before it too shall fade.

I’ve always had a soft spot for VWs ever since my first driving instructor couldn’t stop talking about his VW Rabbit. Later, a couple of my friends bought a Jetta GLI and Corrado. Both were quick, sporty cars but both were terribly unreliable. Neither ever bought a VW again but the cars sure were fun! Seeing the Jetta TDI Cup cars with the massive mesh front air dams, somehow brought back the youthful and fun spirit of the brand. Combined with the TDI engine and here was something unique (at least in North America). Despite being common place in Europe, diesel engines are still rare on passenger cars in the U.S. To see and read more about this one-of-a-kind car, you can see this review on Autoblog.

 

The Solar Impulse is a Swiss aircraft designed to fly without fuel using only batteries and solar energy. Although there have been long distance and human powered airplanes before, this will be the first purely solar powered aircraft. It just completed it’s first real flight using pre-charged batteries so the concept is becoming reality. Someday, aircraft like this one will be able to remain continuously airborne and operated remotely. The age of remotely piloted aircraft is here thanks to advances in electronics. In the future, remotely piloted aircraft, spacecraft, ships, etc. will become the norm I expect as each succeeding generation becomes more comfortable with the technology. 

In terms of design, the Solar Impulse has the immense wingspan found on gliders and other long distance aircraft like Burt Rutan’s Voyager. But the rest of the airplane is unique with it’s box-like fuselage section and dramatic vertical over and under rudder. It almost looks more like a spacecraft designed for inter-planetary travel if it weren’t for the scale. For more information about the Solar Impulse, go to www.solarimpulse.com.

.A low-altitude flight

dscf4402This isn’t an idea but a problem in need of a solution or new product idea. In most parts of America, having a car is not a luxury – but a necessity. Without one, you can’t get to work, get to the grocery store, or get anywhere further than you can walk or cycle. And for the northern United States, walking or cycling isn’t even an option during the winter!  

But our world is changing. Issues like fuel prices, the environment, energy iindependence, national security, and infrastructure cost are taking center stage.  And the image of the new car shine is declining – but still part of the national culture.

If this trend continues and follows similar patterns in Japan, cars will soon become more  of a niche purchase while people allocate more of their disposable income to iPhones, internet access, and other communication and entertainment costs.  20 years ago, we didn’t pay for anything more than a land line phone bill and perhaps a cable TV bill.  Now we’ve got new devices, HDTV, unlimited cell phone calling and data plans, satellite TV, on-demand, etc. etc. 

When these two trends intersect, people will need transportation alternatives that are cheaper.  This is especially true of rural and suburban areas where traditional mass transit options aren’t available today and where people are sometimes most vulnerable to economic downturns.

Therefore, it’s time to focus our nation’s design and engineering creativity and effort on this problem. The return on investment would be magnitudes greater than on the next luxury hybrid batter electric vehicle! Maybe the cause needs a celebrity or business tycoon champion…

In a previous post, I previewed the original Venturi Eclectic.  The design was unique in a toaster meets golf cart meets cute toy robot sort of way.  Billed as an “Energy Autonomous Vehicle”, the design is now referred to as the Eclectic Concept.  The new and production Eclectic debuted at the Paris Motor Show recently and is shown here. The 3 seater vehicle is now smaller with a narrower track. The cabin now features a very prominent door oriented and molded design.  (For a more extreme example of door oriented design – see the new Nasa Lunar Rover). The front end graphics and details are less cartoonish. the side view graphics, dominated by the door and side glass, are very dramatic and really show how form can follow function and create a pleasing aesthetic.  At the rear, a detachable storage pod or module acts like a backpack, defining itself as an accessory that is separate but fits the overall shape of the vehicle. The look is that of a space age micro cargo van. Overall, the design is much more mature but retains a futuristic, hygienic, pod-like, and modular Space 1999 feel. Best of all, it’s a far more interesting design than just about every other hybrid or battery electric vehicle. To learn more about this interesting vehicle, click here.

Yesterday, Daimler’s internal innovation group launched a new car-sharing service called car2go. It’s very similar to Zipcar but with some added flexibility in drop off location. It will first be tested in Ulm, Germany by Daimler employees.  Once this trial phase is complete, car2go is expected to expand across major European cities. 

It’s one thing for a start up company like Zipcar to offer this service but what would cause a traditional car company to invest in such a revolutionary business model?  There are 2 converging trends driving Daimler to sell transportation vs. cars: (1) global urbanization and (2) urban car restrictions due to parking, emissions, and usage regulations. So if you’ve made your money manufacturing and selling cars to individual drivers, the above 2 trends foretell a future where private car ownership for city dwellers not only becomes impractical – but also undesirable. Combine that with emerging bike-share programs in Europe and car-share businesses operating in America (such as Zipcar), and you’ve got some pretty strong indicators that the growing urban market is changing. The car2go service allows  you to reserve your Smart car (owned by Daimler) using a mobile phone or through a website.  You can pick up and drop off the car anywhere within the city limits and the service takes care of cleaning, insurance, fueling, and maintenance.  You just pay by the minute for the use of the car – all inclusive.  The Smart cars will come with a variety of diesel, hybrid and electric power-trains. It will be interesting if Daimler can really establish themselves as a transportation service provider vs. a vehicle manufacturer. For more about car2go, click here for a video demo. So what do you think? Is this something a car company can do? Have you tried such a service or would you in the future? And what if Daimler’s car2go service offered a selection of AMG Mercedes or even an SLR..

We’ve seen electric cars, trains and bikes – but how about an airplane? This was my Master’s thesis project from 1993.  Yes, even 15 years ago, people were thinking about the environment! It’s an electric solar powered sailplane/glider for 2 passengers.  All the wings and the main lower fin fold up for easy storage for ground transportation too.  The propellor turns about the fuselage and the landing gear is retractable. 

And what is it about a sailplane or a sailboat that inspires?  It’s the direct connection that a pilot can have with the air he’s flying through. The only sound you hear is the sound of the wind. You don’t have to even look at the airspeed indicator when you can just listen to the rush of the wind over the canopy. You stall when there’s silence! A thermal rise of warmer air can be felt through the shuddering wings and fuselage letting you instinctively react with the purely mechanical controls. It’s a great feeling!

The above image is of the 1/4 scale model.

Here’s a clever Citroen concept called the C-Cactus which you may not have seen in North America.  It’s a very Earth friendly concept.  The green theme permeates every aspect of the car with many interesting details – from the negative floral patterns on the interior trim and seats to the minimal, exposed climate control unit.  It’s a car that communicates a ‘oneness’ with the environment and a gentler co-existence with our planet – in contrast to other technology over-kill ‘green’ cars… 

If you want to improve your fuel economy and save money, just slow down on when you’re cruising on the highway.  You can usually and easily improve your highway fuel economy by 5-10% by cruising at or slightly below the limit.  Most cars seem to do the best around 60 mph.  If your car has a mileage computer, try driving at different speeds until you can optimize the fuel economy vs. speed tradeoff based on your situation.  Don’t forget the other things you can do such as ensuring proper tire air pressure and reducing weight. For more ways to improve your fuel economy, click here for Ford’s eco-driving tips.