Automobile industry moves with the times

As carmakers are beginning to rebrand themselves as ’mobility providers’, Guy Bird considers the implications for design

London’s new public cycle scheme made big headlines last month, but it wasn’t the first in the capital. It was beaten to the punch by a carmaker. Earlier this summer, and admittedly on a much smaller scale, Peugeot launched a new on-demand hire scheme where customers can borrow its pedal bikes – or, for that matter, an electric bike, scooter, van or even a sports car – for half a day or more from one place.

nusually for a car brand, Peugeot makes all these types of vehicles so it decided to capitalise on its diversity. Called Mu from the French verb mouvoir, meaning ’to move’, the scheme is already well established in several French cities and is being trialled in two UK dealerships – one in Chiswick, west London, and the other in Bristol – before a planned roll-out nationwide in 2011.

The move is also a key part of the company’s clear brand repositioning in its significant 200th anniversary year as a ’mobility provider’ rather than a carmaker. As its UK managing director Jon Goodman said at the scheme’s unveiling, ’We have to face up to the fact that people’s requirements are changing. This is the future of mobility and as exciting as any car launch we’ve ever done.’

In mature Western car markets suffering from chronic oversupply and a slump in demand only partially solved by a tentative scrappage-led recovery plus long-term resource scarcity, Peugeot’s scheme is one of the first to look at new ways of selling personal transport. Its targets are existing customers seeking more fuel-efficient, lower-emission and more compact and sustainable vehicles for trafficand pollution-choked cities, plus a new breed of customer who may not currently own a car, but could be attracted to forthcoming products such as its all-electric Ion city car.

Arguably the most important car designer in the world, Walter de Silva, head of VW Group design – responsible for leading brands including Audi, Skoda, Bugatti and Lamborghini – is adamant the fixed notion of a ’car’ and thus ’car design’ will soon become near redundant. Despite being a clear car aficionado himself, he says matter-of-factly, ’In ten years we won’t talk about cars, we’ll talk about mobility – micro mobility, personal mobility, global mobility. I’m sure. The young aren’t interested in cars. They are more interested in the effect of the mobility, so we have to offer products that appeal to this new generation. In Japan, for instance, it’s much more important to have an iPad than a car.’

With more than half the world now living in cities, the need for more flexible personal transport that suits such confines is clear, as Mohamed Mubarak, industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, states. ’In developed economies, mega-cities will undergo a transformation. The vehicle ownership trends in these cities will see a higher adoption of electric vehicles [bikes and cars], city-centric cars and other forms of compact motorised vehicles not seen before,’ he says.

The implications for design are vast. Carmakers are not only looking to reinvent the personal mobility sector with new four-wheel, three-wheel and even two-wheel options, but also to integrate these products better with customers’ portable devices and, indeed, the fabric of the city itself. Even out of town, where efficient combustion-engine cars will still reign, the car will not be a product in isolation. Smart phones with satellite navigation and digital music already have the potential to replace much of the fixed on-board car infotainment electronics and, in the future, could easily become the key to the car itself.

Joe Simpson, visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art’s Vehicle Design department, senses a real shift in the sorts of graduates car companies are recruiting. He says that while five years ago they might have been the best draughtsmen of exterior bodywork, now they’re more likely to be just as savvy at digital and interaction design. As he says, ’Students who want to sketch the next Ferrari are all well and good, but at the RCA we’re trying to go a bit beyond that.’

New sustainable means of manufacture and propulsion – from hybrid to full electric and hydrogen – will create the need for new shapes and materials within the car too. For example, BMW’s Megacity Vehicle project due in 2013 is set to become the first volume-produced car with a carbon-fibre reinforced plastic passenger cell – a currently expensive material, but one that due to its ultra lightweight and high-strength properties can offset the extra weight of the batteries needed to power its electric motor.

And, as BMW notes, this new vehicle architecture, devoid of the need for a conventional engine bay, ’gives vehicle designers additional freedom when it comes to creating a new aesthetic for sustainable urban mobility solutions’. There’s that word again. Better get used to it.

Guy Bird is a freelance journalist specialising in cars and design

Peugeot’s Mu scheme

  • On-demand bicycle, scooter, car and van hire under one roof
  • Part of a brand repositioning to be viewed as a ’mobility provider’ rather than a carmaker
  • Start of a wider movement by carmakers to reintegrate their brands and designs better within society

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