Will new government cash make electric cars less hideous?

The development of low-carbon vehicles is set to benefit from Government cash, but will it make the cars themselves less hideous? asks Gina Lovett

Those choking on the miasma emanating incessantly from city traffic will no doubt be applauding Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s latest initiative to kick-start a revolution in Green motoring.

The Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, along with the Technology Strategy Board, are laying out more than £100m for the development of new technologies, hoping to propel the market for low-carbon vehicles from niche to mass faster than you can say ‘credit crunch’.

The UK, the Government says, is primed to take the lead on low-carbon vehicles, tailored to usage, with innovative power streams harnessing a mix of technologies such as fuel cells, hybrid engines and electric propulsion (www.designweek. co.uk, 27 October).

The delivery of low-carbon and electric vehicles for motorists, however, has a few obstacles to overcome first.

James May, presenter of BBC motoring show Top Gear, says, ‘People think it’s about style or performance, but it’s down to the science. There has to be a hydrogen infrastructure in place to provide the energy to make electric vehicles work properly. We are nowhere near that point.’

Far from ‘kick-starting’ the revolution, May says the Government is simply ‘window-dressing’. ‘There’s a feeble bit of Congestion Charge relief if your drive an electric vehicle. This is no more a Green-vehicle strategy than my cat,’ he says.

But, while the industrial designers and engineers take on the challenge of creating low-carbon vehicles sophisticated enough to transport their owners from London to Scotland, giving the Duracell bunny a run for its money in the process, branding experts are preparing to tackle a minefield of styling and image issues surrounding low-carbon vehicles.

Andrew Everett, lead technologist for low-carbon vehicles at the Technology Strategy Board, says the precedent for electric cars up until now has been set by a number of aesthetically unpleasing models, such as the Toyota Prius and the G-Wiz. Rather than encourage consumer aspirations, these have attracted ridicule and won only a very small market, he says.

Everett adds, ‘G-Wiz has not been a good image-maker for electric vehicles. We need a real-life vehicle that people can aspire to. The danger is if [low-carbon] vehicles don’t achieve consumer expectations, it creates a bad image and takes a lot longer to encourage others to adopt it.’ He says those behind the low-carbon initiative are aiming for a ‘trickle-down effect’.

Landor EMEA region director of corporate branding Andrew Welch says lessons should be learned from the Prius, which he calls ‘one of the biggest errors in marketing history’.

He says, ‘For me, the Prius might have been technologically brilliant, but it’s aesthetically horrible. If you want to convert the masses, you can’t sacrifice the aesthetics. It costs just as much to make an ugly vehicle as it does a beautiful one, so why not make a beautiful one? Can you imagine what Apple could have done if it had got its hands on the Prius?’

Welch adds it is unfortunate that, in the process of paying attention to what is ‘underneath the bonnet’, low-carbon car manufacturers have forgotten to think about what is on the outside, resulting in a tag for the low-carbon vehicle market that ‘worthy equals ugly’.

Jonathan Sands, chairman of Elmwood – a shareholder in G-Wiz and the group behind its naming and branding – defends the quirky electric car. He points out that it could only ever be suitable for driving in particular urban environments, such as London.

Sands says, ‘Some of our peers in the design industry snigger when G-Wiz is mentioned, but it was never developed to be a classic. It’s been made cool by association with those [celebrities] who drive it. Rather than having a design by Priestman Goode or Seymour Powell, G-Wiz’s ugliness has made it famous. I absolutely believe that we have helped create acceptance for electric cars.’

He says that, rather than side-stepping the car’s aesthetics in the branding, Elmwood has played this up humorously, creating a strong character for the brand.

He says, ‘The name G-Wiz is comic book-like, picking up on the car’s almost Mr Magoo-ish quality.’ He adds, ‘For a brand that has had little marketing support, everyone knows about it. G-Wiz drivers don’t take themselves too seriously, but the reason they’re driving the car is [serious]. It’s like a yin-and-yang effect.’

In creating a brand proposition, Welch warns car brand-owners backing the new low-carbon technologies to be careful not to base this solely on technology. ‘Technology moves so fast, you will always be superseded,’ he says.

Sir James Dyson, however, naturally disagrees. He says, ‘You should absolutely base your brand on your technology. Keep on innovating and not be overtaken by others.

‘Brand is an odd thing. I think brand should be determined by product or service – it’s what you make or provide that informs this. We should spend less time worrying about being clever in what we say, and spend more time making things. Manufacturing, anywhere in the world, can make absolutely anything now,’ he adds.

With low-carbon technology, Dyson’s money is on the electric motor. ‘I don’t think the petrol engine will be around in years to come,’ he says.

As for the commercialisation of new technologies, Dyson says, ‘There’s no art to innovation. It’s a science, and sometimes you get it wrong, sometimes you get it right. The market can’t tell you what it needs – people want something different, but they don’t know what it is. It’s about getting the right mix of design and engineering.’

Carbon Baiting

• Less than 0.1% of the UK’s 26 million cars are electric

• Government targets are to reduce the amount of CO2 emissions by road transport by 80% by 2050

• For further information on low-carbon technology competitions and initiatives, visit www.cenex.co.uk, www.dft.gov.uk, www.berr.gov.uk and www.innovateuk.org

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