About 110 years ago the "motor-car" had just established a new design template for personal mobility as it usurped the formative petrol powered "horse-less carriages" — literally petrol powered versions of the horse-drawn carriage that had been the core vehicle design for centuries. Today we think there is something similar about to happen, but it isn't quite yet there.
Last month at the Paris Auto show the Mercedes EQC and the Audi e-tron debuted: two of the most significant new car designs — the first wholly electric mass production designs (and both with semi-autonomous driver assistance features also) from two of the most successful and influential car brands on the planet. Arguably cars on the bleeding edge of car design — yet, paradoxically, designs most notable for being very similar to their normal petrol and diesel powered siblings: in the same way that the first petrol powered cars were described as "horse-less carriages", so perhaps these designs might be described as "engine-less cars".
Meanwhile Volvo showcases the 360c concept and Renault the EZ-Ultimo concept; vehicle designs much driven by being autonomous and shared use, as well as being electric powered. These visions of tomorrow not only look radically different to the e-tron and EQC — or any other production car design — they also use design to realise new ways to create exciting and valuable user experiences: the Volvo majors on the idea of carrying a sleeping passenger on longer distances instead of a short-haul flight, whils t the Renault would be part of an airline or hotel brand's high-end transport mobility service and so has a boutique waiting room-like interior to suit.
So on one hand we have two normative designs that indicate the direction that the core mainstream-premium car brands — at the least the incumbent ones - look set to take in the immediate future; baby steps from Car 1.0 of the 20th century. And on the other we have a few visionary brands exploring both new ideas and creating new designs of Car 2.0 for the further future. There has never been such a yawning gap between the leading car design of today and the leading car design visions of tomorrow, and this tells us several things.
Firstly it underscores the way that personal mobility design has just hit the fast-forward button — that the rate of change that we are and shall see over the next fifty years will massively exceed that of the last fifty. The EQC and e-tron stand as today's leading practice, the 360c and EZ-cars as believable realisations of cars nearer fifty years away — a bandwidth of progression that massively outstrips the jump from a 1968 Audi 100 or 1968 Mercedes 200 to their e-tron and EQC descendants.
Secondly it suggests that the e-tron and EQC could have gone — or should soon go — further forwards in being designs that at least are better solutions for car-share and ride-share customers (the fastest growing customer-type in the world) in the the many subtle but significant ways they could be. Doing this would benefit these new types of car customers which would then lead to the brands reaping commercial reward. It would also enable them to learn more about this new and changing type of customer and how to reach them...
Thirdly this large gap between leading practice today, and believable vision for the far future of personal mobility, suggests that there is a space between the two to explore; vehicle designs that realise a less radical or technically ambitious solutions than the 360c or EZ-cars, but that go far further conceptually than the EQC and e-tron — to be true beacon carriers by being potentially feasible in a 10-20 year period.
Just as the first cars over a hundred years ago took a couple of decades to usurp the "horse-less carriage", so without design now being properly vested in finding exciting and better (but realistic) future vehicle designs, we may have many more "engine-less cars" coming through in the next few years.