Q&A: Dan Sturges on America’s “Cultural Inertia” Around the Car

The industrial designer and electric vehicle advocate talks current developments in automotive design and what ways the industry will change in the years to come.

The industrial designer Dan Sturges may have more perspective on electric cars than anyone in the automotive industry. He began working on what he calls “small local vehicles” as early as 1988. He founded trans2 in 1991 and four years later commercially introduced the first “neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV).” Given this long history, Sturges is a firm believer in the potential of EVs, as well as an utter realist. Currently a faculty member of the graduate transportation and design program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, he is also collaborating with Clean Tech Los Angeles to create a transportation think-tank modeled on the MIT Media Lab. An edited version of our far-ranging talk (in preparation for my story on BMW in the October issue of Metropolis) follows:

Martin C. Pedersen: Some sort of mainstreaming of electric vehicles seems to be occurring. You’ve been working on and studying them for a while now. From your perspective, is that what’s happening?

Dan Sturges: Yes. Every major car manufacturer has some type of electric car program either commercially available or in development. Obviously there are numerous ways these products can be designed. You see a lot of range, from pure electric vehicles to plug in hybrids. I think a lot of people believe electric drive is certainly part of our future. The question is, what technology is the winner in that space? Is it one of those that I mentioned, or is it fuel cells?

MCP: Why is it happening now?

DS: It’s the externalities: the downsides of the internal combustion engine, the fact that many cities and government entities are trying to address emissions. The zero-emission vehicle is a way to address those concerns.

MCP: BMW’s i-series is also committed to variety of user options, from traditional ownership and leasing arrangements, to Zipcar-like sharing. What are your thoughts on this shift?

DS: It’s a different dimension of solution. The electric car, whether it’s the Nissan Leaf or the Chevy Volt, is trying to solve one problem, which is emissions, and moving to a clean energy supply. The BMW program addresses a different dimension. It says, “We could turn every car into an electric car, but we would still have traffic jams. We would still have a difficulty moving around. We need to look at comprehensive solutions that not only address energy and emissions concerns, but also look at how we can move people and goods.” We have the Internet and billions of smartphones, so we have new clean-sheet opportunities to rethink how we do this business of urban mobility and the BMW program is a step in that direction.

MCP: How much of this is branding? And how much is it moving toward a different way of thinking?

DS: It’s the very tip of the iceberg, the very beginning. BMW is looking at shared transportation. It’s thinking about this movement towards collaborative consumption, moving away from this idea of ownership to this idea of access. Why own a cow when you only want a glass of milk? If you’re going to rent a vehicle for just an hour, then rent the right vehicle for your needs. Being stuck with one mode for all trips is a last century approach to getting around.

MCP: This new approach, though, upends their current business model.

DS: Some would argue that BMW is focused on premium cars and so maybe this mobility service approach is different. I’m not sure how much it erodes or disrupts the current model, but at the same time I think they see this share-economy as something that’s coming forward and they need to get close to it and understand it.

MCP: BMW’s marketing department would say it’s an evolution, from ownership, to leasing, to renting, to sharing for short periods of tim–just another option.

DS: I would say that it’s more about relying on a network of services to get around. If you’re in Manhattan right now, you know that there’s very little car ownership in Manhattan, relative to the rest of the country. You walk out of a restaurant and you have options. You can hail a taxi, which you don’t own and get on demand. You might walk a block and hop on the subway. You might get on a bus. You’re almost like Tarzan, swinging from mode to mode. That’s not what we do when we own or lease our cars. We’re more or less tied to that one vehicle for all of our trips. These new arrangements from BMW are a different model. It’s saying, I’m going to live in a city that has a network of services. I may want to ride public transportation as a way to get across the region low cost. What I hope is that the region will essentially become saturated with enough services, like Tarzan on his multiple vines, that make movement around an entire region pleasurable, streamlined, while offering lots of efficiency in terms of energy use and the amount of land per traveler. All this would enable cities to have better circulation for less investment in infrastructure, both new and existing.

MCP: What’s holding back the development of this new world of transportation?

DS: We have a nation that is completely saturated with the old model, which is, you buy a car, own it—and it’s your car for all trips. And your car is designed to go across that country. I can drive any car from LA to Florida, although many of my trips may be two miles or less. We’re still in this last century paradigm of automobile monoculture. And now here’s this little network, a connected transportation system, budding and brewing and trying to take form, and it’s really not on the map yet. But I would argue that all this attention to electric cars is going towards trying to replace this old model with this new energy source, and it’s really not suitable to be competitive.

MCP: What do you mean?

DS: The amount of energy you get from a gallon of gasoline is still amazing relative to these other new technologies. But the fact is, do we really think that 20 years from now we’re going to have that same fossil fuel paradigm? Do we think that we’re not going to transition into a networked system of transportation? That our personal vehicles won’t be more optimized for the trips that we take? And that many of those trips are short ones, and that electric drive makes a lot of sense for them? Again, I think people are trying to put a new technology into an outdated format.

MCP: What’s the automotive landscape likely to look like in 10 years?

DS: It’s hard to tell. Certainly we’re at a time where things could be replicated around the globe faster than ever before. But at the same time, when you dive into this transportation ecosystem and ask why it’s not happening more quickly, the reasons are very complex. It has to do with the motivations of certain companies, and what parts of this future they’re interested in, and what parts they’re not interested in. You also have cultural inertia in this country around how we deal with our automobiles and how they define freedom for us. They’re more than just products to us. We get inside these products and they essentially become avatars of us. So those kinds of issues kind of blur this from being a simple equation.

Categories: Transportation