Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Does New Technology Have to be Ugly?

In a highly unusual decision, MOTOR TREND MAGAZINE named the Tesla Model S its 2013 car of the year. Why unusual? Its the first time the first model of a new car company has ever been named and the first time a car without a petroleum based engine has ever been named. Yes, you heard me right. This gorgeous car has a lithium based battery system and is refueled by plugging it in.

Now before you think this is some fluke consider the specifications. Depending on your battery pack, the range for this 4 door sedan ranges from about 140 miles to up to 265 miles on a charge. Tesla is starting to build charging stations and for those trying to go to San Francisco from Los Angeles you will have a 30 minute recharge stop. Before you sneer at this, consider that getting on the freeway will be a breeze - it can take you from 0 - 60 mph in 4 seconds. Not bad for a 4700 lb. vehicle. Oh, and its made in Fremont, CA.

Another consideration - please look at it. It is beautiful. Its not weird, or strange, it doesn't look so odd that you wonder, well, just because its different, does that mean that grace and design go out the door?

I can remember the day we saw the GM EV-1. We had gone up to Santa Barbara, CA and for some reason on their fairgrounds, they had a showing of this new all electric car. The first models only had a 40-50 range, a weight limit, could seat only two adults and had a small space in the back for your groceries. After all that would be about all you could use it for. A trip to the grocery store or the mall.

My wife drove it and was instantly in love. However, you could only lease the car and at about $400 a month it seemed like an extravagance. GM was able to get the milage up to about 120 miles between charges, but the car never really seemed to catch on.

The styling was sleek and attractive. With more promotion and tweeks to increase milage it might have been a success. And in light of advances today, GM not Toyota might have owned the market.

Toyota had an early 4 door, in 2001, a diminutive sized car suitable for Japan but not on the freeways of America sharing the road with 18 wheelers and SUV's. It wasn't ugly but it certainly didn't turn your heart either. It was for the geek crowd who wanted to be on the cutting edge and had the bucks to indulge.

A few years later came Prius 2 that was bigger and more popular. Toyota decided that because the car was different, I guess, that it should look different. And it did. It had a silly smile, way too small tires and a much higher price tag. Many wags pointed out over and over again (even back then) that the difference in a Prius and a regular gasoline car's costs would take you about 8 years to pay back the difference.

 Let the stampede begin and it did. Honda had first a two seater then four seater Insight, the first that mimicked GM and the second the Prius. They have versions now for the Civic and Accord but they haven't been stellar sellers. And lawuits are now in the courts over the loss of battery life.

GM spent years showing variations of what became the Volt. The car was pleasant looking proof you don't have to create some weird design to offer a unique car. The Volt takes a different tact. It uses batteries and a small gas engine, Only when the batteries discharge the engine kicks in and recharges the batteries, they do not directly power the car. It started selling slowly but very aware of the disaster and lack of faith in the EV-1, GM has stuck with this car and sales have been climbing. The fact, after the rise of gas here in California by $1 a gallon in about two weeks, it made the message that most owners refueled about once a month something they could identify with.

The Nissan Leaf is a return to an all electric car. One look and it becomes evident the rules of design don't have to apply. Not only is it an odd assortment of stylistic ideals, it also hasn't improved much on range over the original EV-1. Originally it was announced to have a 40 miles range but now its in the 100-120 mile range.

Which leads me back to the Tesla. Elon Musk of PayPal and SpaceX fame, decided that while it wouldn't be cheap, it certainly didn't have to look weird, or be tiny to show what new technology could be an do.

Design should never and need never take a back seat to technology. After all, remember that some of the first smart phones were geeky things from the likes of Palm and Blackberry. When Apple brought out the iPhone, millions, hundreds of millions of consumers realized they didn't need to squint at terrible screens, laboriously enter facts and that you could really cruise the internet in a device that fit in your hand.

I am not saying that we should reward design blindly, but I am saying that all things considered we should reward the companies and products that take design as seriously as technology. Our lives are complicated enough as it is.

No comments:

Post a Comment