School Introduction

Dialog with an Uncertain Future / Excerp (Irregular updates)

The 18th Installment“Thoughts about Recent Motor Shows”

by Noboru Koyama,
Professor, Masters Program of Innovation for Design and Engineering

The period from September to October every year was once a terribly busy period as a car designer, as I worked on projects for the motor shows that were held with great spectacle in various parts of the world. At the same time, this was also an extremely exciting period, with a mix of emotions including deep interest in what kind of new vehicles each manufacturer would display as well as sense of expectation, and some concern, as to whether our show cars and new vehicles would be able to pique the public’s interest.

However, this year the mood was not the same as usual. At the Frankfurt Motor Show that I attended last month, there were no exhibits from the American contingent, who can normally be expected to line up against the exhibits by the European manufacturers. Nor were there any products on display from Company N or Company H, who normally make up a significant portion of the Japanese contingent. And at the Tokyo Motor Show, which starts on the 23rd of this month, this year only two minor overseas manufacturers will be making presentations, as compared to the twenty or more overseas manufacturers that normally make an appearance in a typical year. There is something quite sad about this turn of events.

The other day I learned from someone working in the personnel department of a car manufacturer that “Back in the days of the Oil Shock, we cut back on our intake of new graduates for a few years, and as a result we are now really struggling with our organizational structure due to a lack of mid-level managers. So even with the unprecedented severity of the recent economic conditions, we still want to ensure that we have adequate human resources.” Nevertheless, the very first move to be made in terms of cutting costs was to withdraw from the motor shows that are such an integral part of the industry. This decision is not too difficult to understand considering the huge debt that each manufacturer is now carrying, but on the other hand there is also a significant risk of lagging behind in terms of the development of new vehicles and show cars, and in testing new designs, and so on. For the Japanese market, where there is a particularly serious concern about young people becoming less inclined to buy cars, a diminution of the motor shows that have traditionally played a role in stimulating the market may well extinguish the flame that actively suggests the future of the automobile, by pioneering new markets or re-inventing the nature of the car, for example.

This year, all around the world there have been many show models of hybrid and electric vehicles, with a strong awareness of environmental problems. However, with the exception of a few manufacturers, most of these proposals still appear to be in the process of trial and error development. In terms of design in particular, there were many exhibits that left me with many doubts as to whether their design really optimally expressed a new package or a revolutionary technology that can redefine the meaning of ‘car’.

There are certainly high hopes that in the next few years a vehicle will appear with new technology and an attractive design that will fundamentally alter the distribution of market share that has existed until now. In particular, considerable attention will be paid to the future behavior of Japanese companies, which have taken the lead with hybrid vehicles, nor can we afford to disregard the actions of new entrants from other industry sectors that do not depend on traditional technology platforms. As an educator and as someone who has been involved in automobile design for many years, I will keep going to the motor shows – watching carefully for the vehicle that will signal this historic turning point.

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