Where did Subaru’s design go?

Ang and I have been tossing around the idea of getting a new car soon. We’re not actively in the market, but enough so that I started to look around at what’s available at the moment.

I have a couple of friends that have (second hand) Subarus, so I thought I’d check out the current range, only to be very disappointed. There are a number of great looking Subaru’s out there, but the current range look terrible. They seem to have lost their way some time around 2006/2007.

The New XV holds a little bit of promise (provided you like orange — which I do), but apart from that, I have trouble telling the Forester, Outback and Tribeca apart, and they all look very ordinary — I’m not sure which market segment they were targeting exactly, but they seem to have missed the mark terribly. This is from the company that developed the WRX and Impreza, which are now just shadows of their former glory.

Contrast this with Mazda’s appealing KODO design language across the range. This is a wonderful example of how to translate a design and brand concept across a wide variety of products, to great effect I think. Most directly look at the Tribeca compared to the CX-7. Yes, they are probably very different cars, but I think are compatible in intent/market (certainly they come across that way to a lay-person like myself). The CX-7 is not the most attractive vehicle in the fleet, and given the form factor was probably very difficult to translate the KODO design to. But the CX-7 has so much more character than the Subaru.

So, if we do go ahead and get a new (for us) car, I think we’ll be skipping the Subarus and looking elsewhere. At best, we’ll keep our search to pre-2007 models. Much as I would love to go on those fab recommendations from friends, the lack of good design is just too much to skip over…

Old ideas painted new

Over the past few years I’ve been following the automotive industry, especially in relation to electric cars and efficiency improvements.  I have had a long time love of cars from an aesthetic/design perspective, probably rooted in the many drawings and lego vehicles I made when I was a kid.

Perhaps it was watching Who Killed the Electric Car, the talk of biofuels (and their positive and negative aspects) and hydrogen (with many questions relating to hype vs. reality) – I’m not sure which, but something clicked over the past few years that really opened my eyes to just how little innovation had actually been happening in the space, and I suppose piqued my interest from a sustainability perspective.  I also think that the industry is somewhat of a bellweather for the broader market shift to sustainable technologies.

I was interested to note that this week Lotus Engineering have unveiled a concept car design, based on the Toyota Venza, that achieved a 30% weight reduction – a critical component of efficiency – over the Toyota design.

2020 Toyota Venza concept by Lotus Engineering

GoAuto.com.au reports:

With a combination of lightweight materials and efficient design, Lotus claims to have achieved a 38 per cent reduction in vehicle mass, excluding the powertrain, for only a three per cent increase in component costs.

In other words, the Venza’s 1290kg mass was reduced to just 800kg on the Lotus-engineered 2020 concept.

… The company’s findings were released this week by the International Council on Clean Transportation and show how significant reductions in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions can be achieved for a regular mass-market vehicle through means other than the powertrain.

(egmCarTech has published an article of their own exploring the concept with further pictures.)

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading the excellent book Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawkins and Amory and L. Hunter Lovins.  In the chapter entitled Reinventing the Wheels the authors outline how lighter materials, better aerodynamics and alternative drive-trains (hybrid-electric) can radically improve the efficiency of cars.  They call this concept the “Hypercar”, and note:

Detroit has long focused on improving the efficiency of the drive-line – the fraction of the fuel’s energy that’s converted by the engine into torque and then transmitted by the drivetrain to the wheels.  But there is an even better approach.  The Hypercar concept attacks the problem from the other end, by reducing the amount of power that is needed at the wheels in the first place.

They go on to outline how efficient use of more expensive but lighter, stronger and more adaptable materials can reduce weight and manufacturing complexity with only mild increases in costs while at the same time reducing the resource intensity (how many resources are required in energy, labour and natural resources) of the car.  Lotus’s concept seems to be taking this approach directly:

Still committed to founder Colin Chapman’s ethos of “performance through light weight”, Lotus Engineering says the 2020 vehicle architecture uses a mix of stronger and lighter weight materials, a high degree of component integration and advanced joining and assembly techniques.

Whereas the benchmark Venza’s body-in-white contained more than 400 parts, the 2020 model reduced that number to 211.

Body materials in the Venza were 100 per cent steel, while the 2020 concept uses 37 per cent aluminium, 30 per cent magnesium, 21 per cent composites and seven per cent high-strength steel – which Lotus says reduces the structure mass by 42 per cent, from 382kg to 221kg.

This is great news, and fantastic that Lotus is taking the initiative.  It’s noteworthy, I think, that Lotus are heavily involved in Tesla Motors‘ development.  However, I can’t help but have a twinge of disappointment that it’s taken over 10 years since Natural Capitalism was written (it was first published in 1999) for these techniques to be seriously considered, for a 2017 horizon.

Perhaps the technology and costs are only just starting to catch up to the vision, but I suspect it has more to do with the recent spur of activity in the automotive industry around electric vehicles that have resulted in this approach being applied.

Hopefully more of the ideas in the book start to come to fruition in the same way soon…

Arketype update

Just a quick update on Arketype, given I’ve been quiet on that front of late around these parts. (For new blog readers – a bit of background here.)

Today I’m heading down to Rise Up to pick up our second fit sample – the dress shirt. The t-shirt fit sample was good, but we’re refining it further and that’s currently with the pattern maker.

I’ve been speaking to Sonny and Biddy at We Buy Your Kids (WBYK) about creating the designs for the initial range of tees. I’ve also been talking further with sustainable fashion designer Timo Rissanen about working together. So far our discussions and the ideas being generated have been very promising.

(As an aside, be sure to head down to Incu at The Galleries Victoria and check out WBYK’s instore displays – v. cool!)

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking on the business plan (especially in light the current economic climate) and have been doing some more market research. I’ve come to a point, though, where I could really use the help of someone with solid retail management experience involved in the project.

So if you happen to know someone (in Australia, pref. Sydney) who’s working in fashion retail as a manager (or store owner) – i.e. someone who has managed a store or perhaps is interested in starting their own fashion retail business, who has experience in the area and knowledge about volumes etc. – that you think might be interested in engaging on the project, please feel free to pass on my details or let me know.

Cradle to Cradle

After having a late night coffee, I sat up last night and finished reading Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

I’d heard good things about this book, especially from the folks at work, and given I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where I want to go professionally, and eco-design being a big part of that thinking, I thought I’d borrow a copy and have a read.

It’s a fantastic book for anyone interested in eco-design (in the broadest sense of “design”, but especially product design). Although some of the core ideas are now finding wider acceptance (I first heard about the Cradle to Cradle approach through Worldchanging, and further via Joel Makower and Gil Friend) there are still many insights, ideas, methods and examples throughout the book that make it well worth the effort.

McDonough and Braungart’s vision is a compelling one. The basic gist of it (and I certainly can’t do it justice in a short review) is that we have an opportunity to rethink the way we design things – from architecture to products to systems – that work in harmony with nature, rather than just doing “less damage”. Not just doing “less bad”, but actually playing a restorative role – or moving from “sustainable” to “nurturing”.

They use the metaphor of a cherry blossom tree, and how in the tree and surrounding ecosystem – there is not concept of waste in nature. The “waste”, as it were, become nutrients to the earth and organisms around the tree.

They invisage a design thinking that creates products that become nutrients for both biological (e.g. can be safely buried) and/or technical systems (re-used in original form for industry etc.). They imagine buildings acting like a tree – cleansing water, purifying the air, creating habitat for local species (including humans). And if we have buildings that act like trees, they extend the metaphor to imagine a city acting like a forest.

As the book progresses they introduce additional tools and insight into how we might make this shift in thinking – from “eco-efficient” (less bad) to “eco-effective” (nurturing).

The book is not a “how-to” guide – it is very much putting forward the Cradle to Cradle. The examples serve to show that, in fact, it can be done – factories that clean the water that they use, that are net positive in terms of energy consumption (i.e. they collect more energy than they consume) – rather than demonstrating how it can be done.

Overall I was really inspired by the book and got a lot out of it. Even though some of the concepts were already familiar, reading them “first hand” really cemented some of the ideas much more solidly – I feel I now have a better sense of the nuance in the argument, rather than just the broad brushstrokes I had previously.

I’d highly recommend it – 5/5 stars – I really can’t think anything that could be improved…

Cost/opportunity – the sustainability equation

I’m a believer in the idea that sustainability doesn’t have to mean increased costs. Particularly in business “extra cost” is raised as a roadblock to making sustainable choices.

If we focus on the costs of doing what we currently do, but more sustainably, often this is the case. But if we instead focus on the opportunities that being more sustainable presents, then perhaps we can turn that equation around.

Treehugger has a brief article on Bags from Keen Shoes which is a great example/case study.

They have managed to recycle much of their excess material – which previously would have been considered waste – into bags. And they’re looking to raise the amount of recycled material in the bags from 40% to 100%.

Subsidising the wrong things

So, I was reading in Wheels magazine today that Ford Australia received $100 million in funding from the government so that they could keep open their manufacturing operations here.

To put that figure into perspective, the government has committed $75 million towards the recently announced “world’s largest” solar energy plant [Replaced broken link 14 Mar 2017].

Obviously the intent is to maintain a manufacturing presence in Australia which will support Ford’s workers, but also the component manufacturers that supply Ford. I’m not a fan of subsidies for uncompetitive industries, but on balance it sounds reasonable. (I’d love to know how many people would be affected by Ford closing local manufacturing – could that $100 million be better spent re-skilling the workforce? But I digress…)

Of course, that mag went to press before the layoffs announced the other day. These layoffs are blamed on rising oil prices, and a drop in “big car” sales.

This is not a new trend. Car manufacturers that are relying on “big car” sales, like Holden (Commodore) and Ford (Falcon) have been seeing declining sales of their bigger models for years, with a particularly steep drop in the past year. The biggest selling cars for some time have consistently been smaller cars. And the dominant player at the moment is Toyota.

You’d think they’d cotton on to the fact that maybe they should be looking to develop smaller cars. Or more efficient engines. Or something! Not just keep building the same old cars that aren’t selling. Certainly it doesn’t seem to be a winning strategy.

But I nearly fell of my chair when I continued reading the article to see that the funding was specifically for development of large cars (specifically V8s if memory serves) and related technology – with a view to export markets. So not only is the government propping up an uncompetitive industry, but it is throwing money at a strategy that is clearly a dud.

In the same edition of Wheels, they interview last year’s Wheels Young Designer of the Year who is close to finishing an internship at Ford (the internship is a prize for winning the award). He is environmentally conscious, and clearly wants to work on cars that are more efficient and environmentally friendly. But Ford aren’t doing a whole lot in that area, are they?

Now to me, connecting the dots is pretty easy. (Am I being too simplistic?) Yet high-paid executives at Ford seem unwilling to see the writing on the wall and change course. Instead of looking for government handouts to prop up their unsustainable “big car” strategy, they should be looking to utilise Australia’s strong design talent to deliver innovation – cleaner, more efficient cars might be a good place to start.

And perhaps our government could think more strategically about spending our tax dollars on a dying business and instead focus it on research and development of cleaner and more efficient technologies. Focus on the development of “green tech” – one of the biggest growing industries worldwide – with a view to position Australia as a leader in the field.

What would it take to switch from subsidising “business as usual” practices to spurring innovation? I do hope we find out soon, coz I fear for the continued economic success of our country if we don’t start changing course soon…

Update 2006-11-10: Just a pointer to the comments section – John has some really interesting points in his post there…

Everything Sensis touches turns to…

I read the other day that Telstra is betting on Sensis as a way to increase their profits by becoming a “media” company. I nearly spat my coffee out.

I can find the contact details to a business or restaurant quicker using Google than I can using the Yellow or White pages websites.

I tried to list something on the Trading Post website, only to come up against an error in the site that stopped me from becoming a customer. I reported the issue. Three weeks later the issue had not been fixed and I had to phone the order in.

Directions on WhereIs are simply broken – don’t trust the times they give. And when I access the site using Camino I get a big “your browser isn’t supported” – Camino uses the Firefox rendering engine, so is virtually identical. But when I get into the site – because they use graphic buttons, I get two whopping great blank buttons beneath the address form. I’ve learnt from trial and error which one to click, but this is a simple, simple, simple thing that they could fix with a tiny change to the site.

But what prompted me to post this? The recent “upgrade” to CitySearch.

Gone are the simple tabs and navigation that have worked so well (instead replaced with some hybrid that places more importance on the weather than usability). Gone are the clean URLs (which replace this “http://sydney.citysearch.com.au/section/film” with “http://sydney.citysearch.com.au/servlet/Satellite?c=Page&cid=1119945819951&city=sydney&cityName=Sydney&pageid=1119945819951&pagename=CitySearch%2FPage%2FCSWLayout&vertical=film&verticalName=Film”) – not only that but they didn’t even have the foresight to remap the old URLs to the new crapness. Gone is the good performance (it runs as slow as a dog at home – and my connection isn’t that slow). Now when I go to the film section it asks me to install a plugin (and I have most common plugins already installed, so that’s saying something). And gone is the simple and easy way to find session times and cinemas.

I wouldn’t be so negative if I actually saw some value in the changes that they’ve made to the site – but I honestly can’t see how it’s better than the old one, so the net impression I get is that it’s a step backwards.

So I wouldn’t be counting on Sensis to be Telstra’s saving grace somehow…