Photo: Sönke Biehl / Flickr.com

No radical changes expected: automobile industry, politics and the future of mobility

An interview with Paolo Tuminelli on next-​generation vehicles and the challenges that prevent their production

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An interview with Paolo Tuminelli

An interview by Yulia Popova

Many cities’ mobility systems have great demand for new solutions. Expanding populations, urban sprawl, empty car seats and idle vehicles are issues to be considered. Understanding how to deal with existing problems and design the future mobility system are great challenges for the development of the future vehicle. They demand a balance among individual needs, existing infrastructure, politics and global requirements.

Automakers focus on next-generation vehicles, every feature of the automobile is being rethought. However, the automobile has stayed almost unchanged in its function and share during the last century. Existing mobility systems and the automobile itself require the radical and innovative change. What is holding it back?

Paolo Tumminelli studied architecture at the Politecnico di Milano and design at the Domus Academy in Milan. After training as a designer at the Centro Stile of Alfa Romeo he became the design director of Momo Design. Later, as the vice president at Frog Design, he managed the Brand & Strategy area for Europe until 2001. In 2002 he cut off all corporate ties to start his own company, Goodbrands GmbH, a small branding firm based in Cologne (Köln), Germany, and Goodbrands Institute for Automotive Culture, also he became a professor at the Köln International School of Design.

Paolo also serves as a design columnist of Handelsblatt, the German financial and economical newspaper. He is the author of the series of books on automotive history: Car Design Europe: Myths, Brands, People; Car Design America: Myths, Brands, People; Car Design Asia: Myths, Brands, People
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What is car culture for you?

Car culture is something that develops out of the way people appropriate the automobile. The car is a public object, and it influences the usage of public space. It is not only the styles of cars liked by certain groups. In fact, it is the role that cars play in our daily life that is a part of our culture that varies from country to country according to its traditions, habits and perspectives.

What is happening with car culture now?

The car industry became a saturated market, but not yet in China or Russia. In most western countries, young people are losing interest in the automobile. It is happening due to many aspects and one of them is the decreasing enjoyment level. Today, usage of mobility is connected with the presumption of crime. Everything that comes together with a car is about restrictions: speed cameras, payment for parking, payment for driving and other responsibilities that you have to take into account, for instance safety and control. Cars are getting faster, bigger and loaded with various features, whilst we cannot take advantage of the offered qualities. Here we have a problem that has to be solved – otherwise why should people use a car if it is not enjoyable.

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Self-​driving Car Inside. The screen inside of the Volkswagen self-​driving car. The spinning LIDAR on the roof renders the real-​time 3D image of the people around. Photo: Steve Jurvetson

Why is pleasure important? Aren’t cars about mobility – getting us from A to B?

This is a very biased interpretation of the automobile. Politicians like to see a car as a utility, like electricity or gas. Seemingly, utility or the satisfaction of needs is not the point in any aspect of modern consumption. To understand the automobile only as a vehicle for transportation is a little bit limited. I do not know anybody who thinks or speaks of the car in these terms. If someone does, it is already some kind of affection or disaffection. If we apply a political approach to the societal standards and a car would be reduced only to a machine, then why would people want to invest so much money and time into car ownership?

What do you think about public automobiles that belong to all urban residents helping to get around without owning a car, as, for example, car-​sharing?

Car-​sharing adds on one possibility to access automobiles and I see it as a very functional enhancement of urban mobility. Thanks to car-​sharing you get rid of many troubles connected to owning a car. There is no need to waste time on something that is not enjoyable, like refueling or servicing. The question is whether the car-​sharing can substitute the automobile ownership or not, and I do not think it can. Car-​sharing does not fulfill the human need for intimate relationships. Ideally, we can share everything: our homes, pets, kids, partners and mobile phones. There is hardly one thing that we use for 24 hours that is essential for us. I could rent my apartment during the day when I am in the office. My girlfriend could go out with someone else when I am engaged. All this is very logical and practical, but do we like the idea? No. Human beings prefer to have safe points in their lives and develop intimate relationship to objects. Almost 40% of women and 25% of men who own a car in Germany give it a name. In other words, they construct a friendship with the car. In my opinion, this cannot be replaced just for the sake of convenience or higher economy. Car-​sharing will be successful only to an extent, as it does not solve the problem of the overloaded roads. Neither car-​sharing nor private cars offer an ideal solution, the combination of several systems can become successful. Most likely the mobility in the future will be a more open system than the old one of property and long-​term investment. However, car-​sharing can become a point of departure for new usage patterns that will affect infrastructure.

Almost 40% of women and 25% of men who own a car in Germany give it a name

I have heard that the existing mobility system is close to a breakdown. What is your vision of the future mobility?

Here, you have to make a distinction between MEGA cities, large urban conglomerations and the area outside of the urban environment. We will have different infrastructures in cities, whereas in the countryside it will not be changing for a long time. The existing system is performing very well for now: country roads are empty and private driving is both convenient and enjoyable. There would be no need for change if everything around was like the Sicilian, Siberian or Mongolian countryside, where public transportation does not make sense in economical terms. Infrastructure in urban areas is going to transform for many reasons. First of all, the system is saturated and there is no space for more. One big goal is to create a new traffic network based on technological possibilities. As we are used to the automobile, it is no longer about how to split, separate and protect the infrastructure, but rather about how to integrate and make the system less restrictive and more fluid. There are already cars that can park, brake, accelerate and drive by themselves. What is missing is a new regulation framework to make best use of smart technology. In other words, it is only a matter of political agreements until we have the possibility to sit down in a car and say ‘go to work’. Once computer control is implemented in the product and the infrastructure, the traffic quality will be redesigned and change urban mobility completely.

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Self-​driving Car Inside. The screen inside of the Volkswagen self-​driving car. The spinning LIDAR on the roof renders the real-​time 3D image of the people around. Photo: Steve Jurvetson

How will the emergence of self-​regulated vehicles change our perception of cars?

It will completely reconfigure the relationship between the user and the automobile. Imagine the car would drive to a repair shop or to a power socket without us even taking care of this. If we look at the initial meaning of the word ‘automobile’, the word autós (αὐτός), meaning ‘self’, and the Latin word ‘mobilis’, meaning ‘movable’. Generally speaking, an automobile is something that moves by itself. In this sense, we cannot call the contemporary car an automobile, as we have to drive and control it. Probably, the future automobile could perform exactly what it implies.

Cars had relatively unchanging systems during the last century. They are made of steel, fueled by petroleum, weighing a ton or more, designed for four people and require roads. Will car design change in the future?

The automobile industry has never liked radical changes. If we look at car design from a cultural perspective, it must change radically. Why do we still have five seats in a car? To begin with, it is a package that was defined in the 50s. At that time, the average European family had five people: mum, dad, and three kids. Since the car was designed as the family vehicle, its package and weight correspond with their needs. Nowadays, an average European family has one kid. If everybody drives a car, which is pretty much true, then we have too many car seating possibilities. In Germany, for example, there are 50 million cars, 80 million people, 45 out of them with a driving license. In this case, there are 5 million cars more than the people who can drive them. Moreover, we have a 200 million seating capacity in private cars, which is almost three times more the population. It makes no sense! If there would be a similar situation with housing that would be an economical disaster. The society of individuals is certainly one of the trends we are assisting now. It seems more likely that we are moving towards the need of individual vehicles that serve individuals.

We have seating capacity for 200 million people in private cars. This is almost three times the German population

Why are there no radical changes in the automobile industry?

Any car industry cannot afford taking big risks. Nowadays, many companies are focusing on economical and ecological issues, downsizing engines. Meanwhile they do not see this as the way to change the business, rather as a way to express their technical know-​how. Another problem of the automobile industry is that they only produce 20% of the car’s value and the rest is outsourced. They produce the outer metal shell and the engine – two really essential parts of the car. Therefore it is hard to change it. Imagine McDonald’s without hamburgers, but only with salads or cakes. It will not be McDonald’s any more. McDonald’s is the beef and the car is the engine. The automobile industry has an identity crisis and they feel it. On the other hand, they know that countries like China, Russia, India and Brazil are going to need classical automobiles in the short term. Thus they are not too concerned with the development of the high-​end future solutions. The potential for carmakers is where people still are happy with the old car, since they do not know the problems connected with owning it. They could sell an exciting product and resell it for at least 25 years without any problems. Why should the industry risk and invest money in something new?

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BMW Isetta, an Italian microcar for two occupants, was designed in 1953. It is only 2.29 m long by 1.37 m wide and the entire front of the car hinged outwards to allow entry. Photo: Mick /​com​mons​.wiki​me​dia​.org

Why is the automobile industry not eager to improve further?

China, Russia, India or Brazil are going to need classical automobiles in the short term, so carmakers are not too concerned with the development of high-​end future solutions

Every time the automotive industry tried to improve, they had big problems. The Copper-​Cooled engine developed by Charles Kettering for General Motors in 1919 was supposed to become a more efficient kind of engine. Despite many trials the invention was abandoned in the mid 1920s with great losses for General Motors. Later in the 1950s Fiberglass was supposed to become the new material for body construction. The Corvette was one of the first cars to implement the new technology, Lotus followed. As soon as it came to mass production plastic never substituted metal apart from some niche products like Citroen Mehari, Renault Espace, Smart. In the 1960s NSU, American Motors Corporation, General Motors, Citroen and Mazda invested a lot of money in the wankel engine, the rotary engine developed in Germany, that many considered a breakthrough. Finally only Mazda succeeded with it, but it never became the global triumph it was supposed to be. It is not the industry that was improving, rather one company competing with others. Evidently, it is very difficult to establish a new market on your own, when the market is so big and the product is so complex. Even if customers might like the idea of owning the car of the future at the beginning, they would hesitate to be the first ones to buy the innovative product. No one wants to take the risk. Most people will go for the approved Golf instead of buying the car of the future.

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Chevrolet Corvette Roadster Polo 1953. The body consisted of 54 plastic-​reinforced Fiberglass panels that helped the Corvette achieve a low weight. While the Corvette looked good, its performance was pedestrian. Photo: Mashley Morgan /​Flickr​.com

Who do you think will change the current situation in mobility?

Ideally politicians should understand the needs of society and take initiative by briefing the industry. They are the only ones who could really influence big corporations by saying: ‘You cannot sell this anymore’. I believe it will not be the countries that have a close relation with the car industry, as for instance Germany. The question is what country will give the first example of future mobility, designed as a whole: the car, the system and the usage patterns. If we talk about Europe, here I see countries like the Netherlands, Austria and Denmark, the intelligent countries with the constant high income and no automotive industry of their own. They might be able to implement new solutions and probably be an example for other European countries at the political level. This is going to be a European issue within 20 years. I do not see change coming much faster to us due to the automotive industry agenda for building cars in a usual way.