In cars, “less is more” used to either be a lie (less is not more, less is less in all ways) or something only a car enthusiast or designer might subscribe to. For most people, a smaller, lighter car with few features is less good than a larger, heavier car with lots of equipment. But this is beginning to change: from Japan to America to the UK we are seeing new small cars, electric cars, and even super-cars, espouse being less to be better, and there is one big reason behind this that has nothing to do with engineering, legislation, or the climate: people don’t like looking stupid.
Since the oil-crisis of the 1970s cars have increased in size, mass, and complexity. Whilst a big reason for this is the advancement of passive safety (packaging airbags, making strong structures, and leaving space for controlled deformation takes up space and adds weight), it’s not the biggest reason. No, cars have become bigger and heavier and more complex because of the conspicuous value of things. Size and features have actual value which give direct benefits, but they are also very perceptible measures of value: from cakes to TVs to kitchens, until now, bigger things with more features have tended to provide more actual value and also clearly show more conspicuous value. So the incremental growth in size and amount of equipment that a new car offers over its predecessor makes tangible the greater value if offers, and plays to the customer’s desire for something beyond what they had and what others have. And, just as the customer looks over their shoulder to be sure they are getting a little more of everything, so brands target ‘best in class’ cabin and trunk capacity, and equipment, and performance. People are getting more value as cars are delivering it, but they are also getting this conspicuously — they are getting evidence of this value, which they know is also seen by others, so it gives them status too and makes them look good in the eyes of others.
So if the actual value and associated conspicuous value are the main reasons cars have become bigger, more complex and heavier, why might the market shy away from this? Why would any normal car user not want a car that is larger with more features than the car they had before?
One reason is a macro-trend for reduction in size and complexity in leading consumer products. Desk-top computers are smaller and simpler to use, streaming devices take up no space compared the the complex to use video recorder (or even hard-drives) of yore, and products like the Nest thermostat evidence an emergent AI based automation that further simplifies products in our home. Perhaps most notable is how leading domestic sound systems have become compact and simple and speak quietly of modern luxury interiors, where once they were proudly massive and complex technical sound reproduction devices. People around the world are valuing smaller, less complex things. Actual value, and perhaps more significantly, conspicuous value, is decoupling from more-is-more and aligning with less-is-more. Large complex products are increasingly looking old fashioned and are not making people look so good anymore.
A parallel reason behind the shift away from a mindset of more-is-more generally, and from large and proliferate cars in particular, is that people are starting to feel socially uncomfortable with them. Whilst it is probably a middle-class ‘Eurofornian’ mis-conception that environmental concerns will actively affect the purchase decisions of the majority, there is a growing public understating of a short-hand of the cradle-to-grave environmental impact of cars, including EVs. People are realising that there is a finite amount of resources to make things from, are gaining an awareness that manufacturing cars and batteries takes a lot of energy too, and are appreciating that ‘zero emissions’ is an incomplete, if not misleading, description of EVs. Because of this, large, proliferate cars — including EVs — will increasingly be seen as the environmental burden they are by a growing minority of people, and this will then tip-over to become a sufficiently widespread view amongst opinion informers such that those who use them will notice they are countering societal acceptance, which will feel uncomfortable. So even if most people continue to not actively choose to buy a smaller, simpler car to be less environmentally burdensome, they will get one anyway because they will sense the social stigma attached to more proliferate cars. No one wants to be the only one in the room not wearing a face mask. No one wants to feel stupid.
Both the trend for a reduction in size and complexity in leading consumer products, and the dawning of a societal norm that sees large and proliferate cars as socially unconscionable, connect to the socio-cultural motivation for behaviour change that is about not feeling at odds with the leading direction of society: not feeling stupid because you bought the old-fashioned big complex thing, not feeling stupid because your choice is seen as bad. And choosing a car to not look stupid is way more important to way more people than choosing a car to do the ‘right thing’.
This desire to not look stupid will drive an exciting new dawn for less-is-more in cars. Already we are seeing some brands and products evidencing the start of this trend: the Honda e and Mazda MX30 from 2019 are the first EVs to champion smaller batteries and size, lighter weight, and less complex UX design to emphasise a simpler and purer user-experience over straight-line performance, range, and other expressive forms of conspicuous value. For several years now there has been a marked Tesla-led interior design reductionism in many cars, noticeably in Chinese EVs, which also quietly clearly demonstrates a more mainstream appetite for less-is-more, as well as the international reach of this. And in the UK last month, the GMA T.50, the spiritual successor to the famous McLaren F1, debuted at the pinnacle of the super-car tree by championing its incredibly purest and reductionist design with a resultant weight of 986kg.
So whilst today and in the immediate future the evolution of car design is being unprecedentedly driven by new legislation and technology, it will perhaps be people’s perception of what is contemporary and what makes them look good that will drive the biggest single trend in car design. Not looking out of step with the times, not looking like you made a bad choice, might sound like trivial matters and rarely be considered significant purchase motivations, but they may be the biggest factors behind the trend for simpler and smaller cars that we are on the cusp of. Not looking stupid is important. Less is going to be more.