Merci Dix, EVs impact explained, smallness and slowness, the circular bandwagon, Jobs' legacy, and cars as art.
20th of October, 2021
Welcome to Looking Out, a newsletter about the auto industry, mobility, design, and the cultures that surround us. Looking Out is brought to you by Joe Simpson and Drew Smith of The Automobility Group. If you like what you see, tell your friends!
Boy oh boy it’s been a year, huh? My fiancé and I moved to Amsterdam, and I started a new job. Joe and his family moved to Sweden to continue in his existing one. And we’ve both been dealing, as you all have, with, well, everything.
For both Joe and I, this little community of folk - you! - who read our words (and sometimes even write to us in return!) help us feel just that little bit more sane, that little bit less alone, and that little bit more collectively intelligent as we explore the world of automobility and what it all means for us.
So thanks for hanging around. And thanks to Andy Polaine for giving me the kick up the arse I needed to get this out.
It’s nice to be here.
Image credit: Sam Christmas
Merci beaucoup, Merci Dix | DS
Why it’s interesting: Automotive circularity is nothing new. Just look to the Grands Taxis of Morocco.
As the (former) caretaker of a number of old Mercedes, and as the beneficiary of their long-lived design and engineering, this story of the "Merci dix" of Morocco has a particular poignancy.
Forming the backbone of a long-distance car service known as the Grand Taxis, the Merci Dix (a play on the local pronunciation of Mercedes, which translates as "thanks times 10") have been the motivating force for millions of Moroccans.
Starting in the 1980s, as used Mercedes W114s and W123s reached the end of their life in an upgrade-driven Europe, they found new lives over the Med, where their robustness, ease of repair and the availability of spare parts has ensured their longevity in an unforgiving environment. In fact, in 2011, it was estimated that over 35,000 Mercedes W123s were still on the road, more than 30 years after production had finished.
Seen through the lens of the circular economy, the strength of Mercedes' original design has enabled both longer and more intense usage of the product, and has facilitated both remanufacturing and refurbishing.
The Merci Dix are also a wonderful example of what can happen when the dependability of a product leads to the development of entire service ecosystem. In addition to enabling the provision of mobility in a country underserved by public transportation, the cars have supported a web of providers that have kept them on the road for 50 years.
The era of the Merci Dix, however, is slowly grinding to a halt. In an attempt to combat the pollution caused by the diesel-engined Mercs, the Moroccan government has introduced a scheme that gives owners GBP6,500 to put towards a new car if they crush the old one. No doubt, the scheme will also help to further establish Morocco’s domestic automotive industry; Dacia manufactures the the Lodgy 7-seater, the preferred replacement for the Merci Dix in the kingdom.
Why it’s interesting: a host of factors call into question the true sustainability of electric vehicles. This FT visual explainer is one of the clearest and most balanced takes yet.
We’ve been here before. A host of articles and studies over the past few years have either discredited or amplified arguments for a large scale shift to electric vehicles, as part of a drive to reduce CO2 emissions. The upshot is that while OEMs are rapidly ramping up their electric vehicle offerings, and consumer take-up is growing apace, EVs are new, still relatively unknown and the overall energy / emissions picture is complicated. In some quarters this is leading to a natural degree of cynicism about the true potential for electric vehicles to have a positive environmental impact.
In that context, the Financial Times’ visual explainer on the pros and cons of EVs is great - and very consumer-centric. Balanced, visual and requiring little previous initiation, it’s great to see this sort of informative piece come from an impartial and trusted source. But it’s surprising that more car companies aren’t building and creating this sort of content, as they seek to promote and explain the benefit of all the EVs they’ll build in the future, to the consumers who will buy or drive them.
Image credit: Drew Smith
Smallness and slowness | DS
Why it’s interesting: this delightful exploration of the Tokyo streetscape holds lessons for others wanting to reclaim the public realm for humans.
In 2016, I made a life-changing trip to Japan to see my friends Aidan and Yukari. It was a challenging period in my life, rife with chaos and confusion - so much so that I forgot that I was even booked on a flight to Haneda until two days before… A change of scene would do me the world of good.
Japan would go on to enchant me in ways I never envisaged and for someone obsessed with how we move around, the streets of Tokyo were an enchanting place to spend time.
Being completely green to the country, culture, and city, I had fully expected that Tokyo’s status as the world’s most populous urban agglomeration would mean traffic, noise, cars everywhere and a general air of automotive chaos.
Au contraire, mon frere!
As Dan Hill points out in his survey of the small vehicles of Tokyo, the city is one defined by smallness and slowness. Vehicles, on the whole, skew towards the truly human-scaled (think hand carts, bicycles, mopeds and delivery trikes), and move at more humane speeds. This also means that, away from the main thoroughfares, the city is a remarkably quiet, safe, and soothing place to wander.
Where there are larger vehicles they’re either on the road moving, or they’re off it completely, because there’s no on-street parking. As Dan says:
The key to Tokyo street life is not its moving cars, but its stationery cars. In most other cities, car parking is perhaps the most obviously problematic ‘privatisation’ of public space of the street. Yet here, given the Tokyo’s parking laws—no overnight on-street parking; proof-of-parking before purchase—cars are ingeniously wedged into all kinds of spaces, unable to encroach into the shared space. Parking spaces sliced across building envelopes, scooped out from underneath stairways, tucked under eaves and awnings…
Having just returned to Amsterdam after a couple of weeks away, and with Dan’s observations and memories of Tokyo in my head, it’s been interesting to look at Amsterdam in a different light.
For all its famed cycle-friendliness, central Amsterdam is still a city heavily defined by the car. They line its canals and narrow streets, where they often pedestrians out in to the road. They disrupt flow of trams and cyclists, and induce a friction to getting around that was blissfully absent in Tokyo.
But cyclists can also contribute to the discomfort of getting around this city: residents and shop owners have complained of high volumes and unsettling speed on certain roads. As a result, in addition to the long campaign to reclaim the streets from the car, the city is now trying to reclaim some of its streets from cyclists (much to their irritation).
Which brings me back to Dan’s original observation: that Tokyo and the manifest charms of its streets are defined by both its smallness and its slowness. While Amsterdam is instituting 30 km/h zones for cars across the city, it seems that the key to a more gezellig city will be, in part, about reducing the speed of its cyclists.
See also: The citizens of Berlin are voting on whether to go car-free, while VanMoof is preparing to launch a 60km/h (37mp/h) bicycle and is proactively working with authorities to regulate eBike speed in cities.
Why it’s interesting: the concept of change is deeply psychological - Barcelona’s joyous bike bus teaches us about how fast it can happen, and about the deep ingraining of concepts in childhood
You might have seen the video by now. Every Friday morning, in Barcelona’s Eixample district, hundreds of kids cycle to school together. Posted to Twitter by Adam Tranter, the clip is a sweet reminder of how fast change can happen. This programme began just a few weeks ago, with only five kids and their bikes, and it’s robust food for thought when people tell you that they can never envisage cities becoming truly car free.
But perhaps more important than that, the video reminds us of how habits and ideas get ingrained in childhood. I’ve often pondered, as I read bedtime books to my 4 and 7 year old, how the world these books paint is of my childhood, or the world we inhabit now. The idea that - for a typical given journey - you move around in a car, is deeply impressed on them. But as Adam says:
Few kids around the world would see this and think “i’d like to be driven to school instead”
I know that my two would certainly share his view - this simply looks like far more fun. And that idea of fun, happiness and what we learn in childhood, is perhaps given too little thought as we consider our future mobility.
Image credit: Drew Smith
BMW’s circular vision | DS
Why it’s interesting: continuing with the circular theme, a poke under the hood of the BMW’s latest concept leaves too much to the imagination.
At the Munich motor show in September, BMW presented the i Vision Circular, a concept vehicle said to embody the principles of the circular economy.
Superficially, the use of recycled materials is laudable, and the design team spent some time thinking about how to make components like seats easier to disassemble at the end of their life.
But dig a little deeper and - based on publicly-available information at least - and the circularity of the i Vision Circular falls apart.
The success of a circular economy rests on more than just the intelligent design of a product. It also depends on the orchestration of the entire supply chain and the provision of the infrastructure and the design of the interactions that enables users to take part. In other words, circularity depends on design at a services and systems level. Sadly, BMW’s presentation leaves the consideration of this kind of complexity to the imagination, rather than presenting a clearly-articulated vision of a path forward.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. When I interviewed former BMW Design chief Chris Bangle for The Next Billion Cars, he was clear about the challenges faced by automakers as they try to move beyond manufacturing and in to the design and delivery of service ecosystems*. I can only imagine that the transition from a business model designed around the failure and replacement of parts to one in which long service life, enabled by refurbishment and repair services, will also be a challenge.
As an indicator of BMW’s commitment to sustainability, the i Vision Circular raises more questions than it answers. Some would argue - as some of my auto industry friends did - that that’s the point of a concept car.
But until brands start openly addressing the the complexity of the shift to a circular economy when they present their ideas, it’s hard to see these concepts as little more than hopping on the next big bandwagon.
See also: The Fairphone and Framework laptop show how to make circular work. They make it easy and obvious for end users to repair and upgrade their products. QR codes on replaceable parts direct you to stores for purchasing, and instructions for installation.
* The same challenge was evident when Renault presented their EZ-GO autonomous taxi concept at the Geneva Motor Show in 2019. Absent any serious indication of the kinds of physical and digital infrastructure that would be required to make the vehicle play nice with the context and communities for which it was designed, it struggled to communicate much beyond its form.
Why it’s interesting: It’s ten years since Steve Jobs died. In this article, Jony Ive remembers Jobs, his impact and reflects on his own feelings since his former colleague died.
October 2011. I can still remember where I was. I’d just stepped off a (very) small plane back from Edinburgh, having started the day at some unholy hour. It might have even been a message from Drew that I saw first, upon turning on my iPhone. Steve Jobs had died.
The ten years that have passed since have marked a significant series of changes, both for Apple in its post-Jobs era, and for us as a society and our entire relationship with technology. sS much of that relationship has been driven forwarded, mediated and defined by Apple. So it’s interesting to reflect on Jobs’ legacy and impact on the man who was very much the co-creator of Apple’s world, designer Jony Ive. If you’ve a WSJ account, you can read the full reflection and remembrance from Ive here. If you’ve not, there’s a neat summary in Wallpaper* here.
As I constantly struggle with my own creative role and capabilities, a few points really stand out. For instance:
‘for Steve, wanting to learn was far more important than wanting to be right’.
this concept really resonates with me personally. But it’s this idea:
It was a reverence of tentative ideas, and a lack of fear for the ‘terrifyingly new’, that made Jobs a visionary. ‘He understood creating should be afforded rare respect – not only when the ideas were good or the circumstances easy and convenient.’
that I’ll carry with me over the coming days and weeks – and it’s a concept that perhaps anyone working in a creative space, and particularly design management, should try to protect and hold dear.
Image credit: Drew Smith
Cars as art | DS
Why it’s interesting: for die-hard petrolheads like me, the argument that cars can be art might allow them a continued presence in our lives.
Yup, this is another riff on Dan Hill’s Tokyo piece.
In it, he references a delightful film, Tokyo Ride, that follows architect Ryue Nishizawa around his home town in his Alfa Romeo GTV, and uses the pleasing relationship between context, culture and car to suggest that, in future, we could reposition
the private car as art rather than tool, craft rather than product, self-expression rather than utility, and thus gives it an entirely reasonable walk-on part in the broader drama of the city—whilst also limiting its numbers along the way.
Given you’re reading this newsletter, it wont come as a surprise that I love this idea. The best pieces of automotive design are, quite literally, sculptures that simply happen to be replicated at industrial scale. In this way, are they any different from a Damien Hirst painting?
Reframing the car as urban art will further entrench its status symbolism. But in contrast to other forms of art, which are hidden away in galleries, there is, perhaps, a democratic element to the display of cars on the street as more people can enjoy their beauty.
Then there will be the vexed question of what constitutes the automotive art, craft, and self-expression at the core of Dan’s suggestion.
Dan says that he’d love to see the policy design sessions such an proposal would entail. I humbly suggest that he could do worse than joining Joe and I over a glass of wine or two of an evening.
Disclaimer: This newsletter represents our individual thoughts, not those of our employers.
That's it for this issue. We love feedback (positive and negative), and to answer any questions you have. So email Joe or Drew and we’ll get back to you.
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