To say that 2020 has been a bad year would be an understatement of epic proportions. But hang in there everyone, we more than two-thirds of the way through this year and there are promising utterances of a vaccine on the way. Still, this year will arguably go down as the single most memorable year in human history. A World War was certainly terrible but thankfully it really was only fought in a few countries. Covid-19 affected every single sector of human activity in every country, and that also includes cars. It will shape the car industry for years to come. It affected the product line, the design of cars, shared mobility and society overall.
The Product Line
As human activity started to shut down in March, everyone felt the cash crunch. Car sales around the world ground to a halt. Want an eye-popping statistic? The 1.4 billion people in India bought a staggering zero vehicles in April 2020. If your business case for a vehicle line was not strong before, Covid-19 was probably the final blow. Nobody is immune to this new reality.
Volkswagen has been on a tear to turn around its green credentials. Prepare yourself for an onslaught of green ID vehicles of all sizes. With Dieselgate and the Covid-related cash crunch, VW is taking a long look at its luxurious (and polluting) portfolio. The wildest rumor is that Rimac will take over its crown jewel Bugatti. And nobody else in the VW empire is safe, including Lamborghini and Ducati.
Design Goes On
Recently, General Motors issued an official statement: its staff will stay home until June 2021. That certainly does not mean that design work stops. And that has been true for all of the design studios around the world. Sure, there has been contraction and furloughs worldwide, but the work has continued.
Automotive design has always been at the cutting edge of technology. Why? It costs billions to put a car on the road. By investing heavily in technology, you maximize the chances of getting your product right. Those technological investments certainly paid off. With design studios all around the world, OEMs have long mastered conference calls, secure review rooms for 3D CAD reviews and virtual reality tools.
Early in the previous decade, people started to envision what shared mobility could look like. On a rare day, if you need to be in the office, you’ll be chauffeured by your fully autonomous vehicle. While you’re working, someone could hail your car for their own commute. Once it’s done, someone could hail it for some deliveries. In the late afternoon, it could handle the school run. Instead of sitting idle 95% of the time your vehicle would be used round the clock and possibly earning you money.
Forget about the technology needed to make this happen, there is now another huge problem: shared mobility. Covid-19 spreads very easily in the air and lingers on touchpoints. How can people share a vehicle safely? There might be some answers already. It raised some eyebrows when it was released but now Tesla’s ‘bioweapon defence mode‘ might come in handy. California wildfires already put that HEPA grade filtration system to the test. Another approach came from Ford as it tweaked its software to bake the virus for 15 minutes at 56 degrees Celsius. Who knows what happens to the lifetime of your upholstery?
Impact on society
Angelinos had an unexpected treat during lockdown: goodbye smog dome, hello blue skies over L.A. Sadly to the north, San Francisco looked exactly like Blade Runner, surrounded in a catastrophic orange haze of wildfires. In California, a man-made impact on the climate is not really up for debate anymore as ICE engines will be banned starting in 2035.
San Francisco is a beta test for upcoming transformational changes in big cities. Twitter made working from home a permanent option. Pinterest canceled a massive 490,000 square foot office lease downtown. Rent prices have fallen 20%. With Covid-19 on top of it, all people are fleeing the city.
The big city as we know it is about to undergo a massive transformation as commuting and city living populations adjust to their new reality. For some people, public transportation is their only way to get around, Covid-19 or not. People will commute in their own cars to stay safe if they can afford it.
Toyota’s 175-acre ‘Woven City‘ at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan offers some insight into how designers and architects envisioned the future city before the pandemic struck, but it could still form the basis for a new, albeit more segregated, form of living in communal spaces in the future. And the mobility systems within it also propose the adoption of alternative propulsion systems – the fully connected ecosystem will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
Envisioned as a ‘living laboratory,’ the Woven City will serve as a home to full-time residents and researchers who will be able to test and develop technologies such as autonomy, robotics, personal mobility, smart homes and artificial intelligence in a real-world environment. They’ll likely now be looking at solutions to curb the spread of exposure and infection as well.
The bottom line is that we are at a massive inflection point. First, there is no real turning back to the cubicle life as we all knew it. There will be times when you need to be in the office (and some of us are blessed with a state-of-the-art office). Yet the genie is out of the bottle. The pandemic has demonstrated that a lot can be accomplished from our homes. Second, Covid-19 will alter automotive design itself. A shared self-driving car might still be far away, but buses and Ubers are everywhere. And finally, how will this affect transportation around the big cities? Will people use cars more or less? What will the metropolises and transportation solutions of a post-Covid world look like?
It is all difficult to figure out, but at its core, a designer is a problem solver. Think of all the ergonomic, engineering, legal, thermodynamic problems that have to be solved in a car. A virus is, at its core, just another problem to address.