The rental-car design flip

Why designing a great rental-car might be tomorrow's most important challenge

Most car drivers care about what their car looks like.  Even if they profess not to, almost everyone at least cares that their car does not look a bit silly or a bit ugly.  Except for the rental-car driver: arguably they don’t care very much what their car looks like, they just care about being able to jump in and drive off.  And as the established private car ownership model wanes and many cars will be used by several different users – just like a rental-car – it seems likely that tomorrow's car design challenge will be to design a great rental car.  

Rental car sign

A simplistic view of car design is that the exterior appearance of a car seduces someone to buy the car whilst the interior design then has to keep them satisfied after they have bought it.  Yet with a rental-car it is almost the opposite.  Most people do not care so much what their rental-car looks like, but they do care about how it works: we have all sat at a junction in our rental-car and turned on wipers instead of indicating; stabbed at unfamiliar navigation screens; spent many moments searching for the fuel filler release; or failed to work out how to get comfortable as we hurry away from an airport in our temporary car.  This then is the rental-car design flip: the paradigm of exterior being predominant over interior design is flipped such that interior design is more important than exterior design for rental-car drivers. 

Zipcar ad

In a future world where many, perhaps even the majority, of people do not own a car but use them temporarily, it seems quite probable that the rental-car (interior over exterior) design flip will be the new paradigm for most of the car design industry.  Interior design will become more important to more users than exterior design as they care less about their projected image and care more about how to safely, pleasantly and most fully gain value from their car. 

When people drive their own car they cannot fail to be vested in it and the image that it projects to others about who they are (and who they are not), but when people are in a car that is not theirs – and are in it only for a short time period – they are less concerned by the image that the exterior design projects.  With a privately owned car people learn over time the idiosyncrasies of how its controls work, but in a rental-car they have no time to familiarise themselves with its functions and so inherently place very high value on an interior that is intuitive to understand and easy to get to do what they want it to.

Drive now

This interior over exterior design-flip looks likely to be compounded as the general sophistication and facility of car interiors increases, and specifically as multiple layers of digital UX design are added. The potential advent of some level of autonomous driving function would further compound this too. 

So, just as how the software design of the phone has usurped the form factor of its hardware design, so the interior design of a car may likely usurp that of the exterior.  Instead of designing a car for a single user, automotive design will be about designing a single car for hundreds of users; car design will become rental-car design.  After a hundred years of automotive design mostly being about how people see the car, it will change to being about how people experience the car.  

Related Reading:
Autonomous Cars and Design Patterns – Joe's view on how the tech industry will overhaul the car industry through its application of design patterns

Sam Livingstone


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