In this issue you will find a story about Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, an airplane that was far from an assured success when it was announced. It replaced the Sonic Cruiser in Boeing’s future product plans for the simple reason that—no matter how sexy a sleek, fast airplane might be —it wasn’t what the airlines wanted or the flying public preferred. (Getting there faster is nice, but that only means the ordeal takes less time. It does not mean that you enjoyed the experience more.) The airlines needed better fuel efficiency and lower operating costs. Fliers want an experience that isn’t one step above a slave galley. Unfortunately for fans of fast planes, the Sonic Cruiser did not answer the needs of either constituency.
One of the things that turned the tables for Boeing—other than imminent death at the hands of Airbus—was a return to first principles driven by understanding what its customers—and their customers —really wanted in a new plane. And that included understanding what happened before, during, and after the flight. Large overhead compartments will make it easier for travelers to pack for their trip, and the roomier cabin is designed to tie the passenger to the flight experience. New engines will reduce fuel use and noise, and the increased range and economy should cut congestion at hub airports by making more flights non-stop.
Imagine if automakers took the same path. Safety has been one of the top priorities for customers—or so they say—and this has given us vehicles with gargantuan proportions and nose-bleed seating positions. Concerns about power have driven engine outputs higher than ever before. Desire for ever-greater utility has created a cottage industry in storage space, third-row seating, and dual-use vehicles that never see a dirt road much less a mountain trail. All are legitimate items, but they are not stand-alone things. Nor do they unite the primal connection between man and machine, the traveler and the journey, that is missing today. Increasingly, the average road trip is as involving as watching the world go by in all its high-definition surround-sound glory from your living room.
It’s time, ladies and gentlemen, to kick the marketing minions out of the temple and reassert first principles. Tacking the latest survey results onto a program will never pull you clear of the competition, it will —at best—keep you even. Let’s rethink how people interact with their vehicles, where they do so (before, during, and after), and determine how to make this as pleasant and rewarding an experience as possible. That means treating each vehicle as more than an appliance, more than an optimized spider chart, and more than a features matrix because the customer can choose from most any car company and most any vehicle segment available. Allowing the decision to come down to who ticks the most boxes at the most competitive price is a recipe for ritual suicide. There will always be someone who can give more stuff for less.
It is time, I submit, to reconsider the role the automobile plays in each person’s life, and reconnect with the fundamental purity and joy of the driving/travel experience. It will mean using new—and old—technologies in different ways to get the vehicle everyone desires, but few know what they want. Even then I doubt this effort will wildly alter the look of new cars and trucks, though it undoubtedly will change the way we feel about and interact with them. Of that I have little doubt.