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Design Sustainability and the Race to Green

Pasadena Art Center summit features car design experts plus a green racer girl.

by on Feb.27, 2009

Chevrolet Volt: Wishing will make it so?

Chevrolet Volt: Wishing will make it so?

The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California is a storied institution that has brought forth numerous automotive styling luminaries, including Wayne Cherry, J Mays, Henrik Fisker and Chris Bangle. For the past several years, the Art Center has hosted a Sustainability Summit that explores the role of design in addressing key environment challenges.

Among the Center’s graduates is Bryan Nesbitt, General Motor’s vice president of design for North America, who opened a panel discussion of what might lie around the many curves ahead on the road to sustainable mobility. Perhaps predictably, that panel — which included Bill Reinert, manager for advanced vehicle technology at Toyota USA, and John Waters, president of Bright Automotive and formerly of GM’s EV-1 team — didn’t agree on what’s just around the bend, let alone farther down the road.

Nesbitt’s talk of course featured the Chevy Volt, an example for his theme that technological breakthroughs are a key part of what has to happen. Stating that the Volt’s 40 mile range covers most consumer everyday driving needs, he said that even though it’s not how people approach cars now, “recharging can become a normal behavior, like charging your Blackberry overnight.”

Nesbitt also noted about the need for reduced consumption in vehicles — smaller sizes, an even greater emphasis on aerodynamics — tasks that are keeping GM designers busy and will provide plenty of challenges for the design community in the years ahead.

Bill Reinert, in contrast, threw a bit of cold water — or at least tepid coffee — on the electric vision. He affirmed Toyota’s work on rolling out plug-in hybrids, but said that it will be cautious and targeted.

Reinert contrasted what he called the first law of Disney — “wishing will make it so” — with the first law of thermodynamics — “your coffee will get colder if you leave it sitting on your desk.” He then proceeded to systematically deconstruct the plug-in hybrid storyline, taking apart the assumptions behind the reports from government agencies and others that talk about how much oil could be saved in just a few years by converting the American fleet to grid-connected cars.

With John Waters, the view beyond the curves was back to electric, as he outlined the Bright Automotive vision for a plug-in hybrid vehicle that aims to achieve 100 miles a gallon while remaining economically priced.

As a veteran of GM’s earlier electric car efforts, Waters recalled how GM shared inductive charging technology with Toyota. He said he worked with Reinert on that effort, provoking a quip from the Reinert that “that was one of the worst experiences of my life.”

Earlier, the summit heard an opening call by beamed-in Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey that the industry needs to race hard to get to a greener place, and of course, that government was needed to push everyone forward. But that call was amplified — in fact, greatly enlivened — by the late morning keynote speaker, Leilani Münter, the self-proclaimed “carbon-free girl” who happens to be one of the top women in motorsports.

Münter’s mission, in addition to winning races, is to educate the nation’s 100 million racing fans about the perils of global warming and enlist them in a campaign to stop it. She’s unabashed about using her charisma — and curves, as a model for Lucky Jeans and Glamour Magazine’s green issue — in service of the cause. Buying an acre of rainforest to protect for every race she runs, Münter said that even though offsetting fossil fuels by planting trees isn’t the ultimate solution, it’s a place to start and that getting started is what everyone needs to do in any small way they can.

As Münter put it, “if I can inspire 10 million racing fans to shop with reusable canvas bags … no more paper, no more plastic.” With gasoline prices down while pressures for fuel economy remain up (thanks to Mr. Markey, among others), automakers do seem to need to figure out how to engage customers with Münter-style messages. After all, it’s those customers who will be the deciders on which of the many competing visions of sustainable mobility can be turned into sustainable business.

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