Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Guest Blog: The problem with cars and sustainable design

When I think of the term, "sustainable design," I immediately picture the pyramids. Still drop-dead gorgeous, the Gyza pyramids were perfectly constructed for the purpose of honouring the dead, and display an intrinsic harmony between form and function. And they're still standing without electricity, water, or the Internet, over 4500 years after being constructed.

Oh, and people still debate whether or not they were built by aliens. Or Transformers.

With vehicles, I wager that we haven't yet created such timeless, sustainable design.

As I mentioned above, design is both form and function. Sure, a Ferrari 250 California is beautiful, so is a Voisin C27 Aerosport, and countless others. Problem is, their function is directly related to gasoline to keep them going into the future. Otherwise, they become very beautiful paperweights — but not cars.

IPods are beautiful objects, but without future support from Apple — or a steady supply of power — they become form without function.

Personal mobility is already a huge issue on this planet — and an issue that changes almost across borders. In the US, it's about meeting ever-more-stringent safety and emissions standards, while keeping costs low for the consumer. In China, to contrast, the issue is in meeting an incredible demand for cars, and the socioeconomic implications that ride along with that.

A well-designed car for American consumers probably isn't going to be celebrated in China, and vice versa. But auto manufacturers know this, and spend billions of dollars tailoring vehicles to suit specific markets the world over.

Problem? A well-designed vehicle — in America, China, or wherever — isn't going anywhere without oil.

And that's why open-source design can transform the well-designed vehicles of today into sustainable ones for tomorrow.

Kudos to Local Motors here in America and Riversimple in Europe, and a few other startups that recognize that sustainable vehicle design isn't just about the looks, the powertrain, or using recycled materials. Sustainable design is about creating a consumer product that can be adapted over time to fit different needs and different fuels.

Making vehicle plans available to consumers means that with a little skill, time, and money, Local Motors vehicles can more easily be adapted to different powertrains, fuel sources, and environments. Sure, Ferraris will remain beautiful, but what happens if the oil dries up in a hundred years? Do you think collectors will rip out the engines and install battery packs and electric motors? Ha! They'll be all form and no function. 

Anyway, I look forward to the next 50 years of the automobile. Vehicles may not be as beautiful as the ones we've loved in the first 100, but you can bet they'll be more sustainable.

I want to thank Michael for writing this impassioned blog.
Michael Banovsky is an award-winning automotive journalist, blogger, and photographer, based outside Toronto, Canada. He contributes to, actively Twitters, and runs his own website at When not writing, he's guarding precious cables around the apartment from his kitten, Arcee, jogging, reading, or drinking coffee to put him to sleep.


Matt Johnston said...

This is a salient, carefully considered observation. Nicely done, Michael.

Michael Banovsky said...

Thanks, Matt!

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