Monday, July 7, 2008

What is the future of transportation?

Transportation is one of the hottest design fields that our students could prepare for. As gas prices pass $4 per gallon and continue rising, more and more people are finally starting to look for alternatives to our typical oversized, overpowered, gas-guzzling American cars. The Toyota Prius hybrid seems to be winning in the traditional car category. Dean Kamen's Segway personal transport has yet to catch on. Bus and train ridership is rising but still suffers from racial and socio-economic stigmas. More people are riding bicycles, scooters and motorcycles. And Volkswagon plans to release a car that is just up from a motorcycle but less (in size but not price) than a car.

VW's 282 MPG super fuel efficient car 1-Liter car has been around in prototype since 2002 and environmentally conscious drivers everywhere have been drooling at its 282 miles per gallon fuel economy (or 1 liter of gasoline per 100 kilometers, hence the name). VW has decided to make more and sell them, and a limited edition (estimated in the thousands) should start selling in 2010.

The One-Liter car (or 1-Litre, over in Europe) weights only 660 pounds. The body is made from carbon composites and it is shaped to be extremely slippery, giving it a coefficient of drag of only 0.16 ("the average car comes in around 0.30 and the Honda Insight had a Cd of 0.25"). The prototype was powered by a 1-cylinder diesel engine, but the production model should have a 2-cylinder diesel (which means it could be powered by algae-biodiesel!), and maybe even a stop-start anti-idling feature (to cut the engine when the car is stopped).

We pretend that auto design is about engineering and science when it is all about emotional insecurity. The closest most American car companies has gotten to fuel efficiency is the standard American hybrid - it runs on gasoline and testosterone. Many Americans are still afraid people will question their masculinity if they drive anything that isn't a ridiculously oversized muscle car, truck, SUV, or Hummer. It is telling that, for Americans, cars have genders. The real challenge in auto design is to create a vehicle people want to be seen in.

American car ads still show people breaking speed limits on curving mountain highways because they know that our emotional insecurities are still more powerful than our economic, safety, or environmental needs. For Americans, transportation design and successful automotive advertising are still forms of emotional design to appeal to our inner child with little relationship to engineering, safety, or sustainability.

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