The Chinese Car of the Future
@ 12 December 2005     
Thor's Korea Diary

One of the nice things about running a web site is that from time to time interesting people with interesting ideas make contact. A lot of this stuff remains private of course, but sometimes an issue seems made for a wider audience.

China as a social laboratory facinates many of us. The motor car as a prized cultural possession surely tells us a lot about the values of people everywhere. In the exchange below, a Chinese designer is trying to figure out the likely Chinese taste for automobiles in 2015. Along the way, our discussion touches upon some key ideas about what might make China tick...

December 2005

Hello Thor May,

I have read and enjoyed your story 'Individualism or the Group?' and maybe you could give me a little bit more insights about the changing Chinese society, especially their values regarding the consuming behavior.

Do you agree that the 'middle class' consumers now are looking for products (like cars) to express themselves, which is their main desire after decades of experiencing restrictions?

So they are not imitating the American culture at all? From many authors writing on the Chinese consuming culture, I have read that the Chinese are following the American lifestyles.

Are they losing their own Chinese values? What is happening to them in the coming decade? I know they are becoming richer (emerging middle class), but what are their main target in their lives? Just enjoying life as much as possible like people from Europe and US? What are the difference in attitudes? For example, does the concept of face (mianzhi) still play a role in the near future?

Currently I'm working on a design project, a family car for urban China in 2015. I'm trying to understand their basic values and concerns toward the automobile. What is the social-cultural meaning of a car to the Chinese family? Is it status, convenience, both or something else? What kind of factors define those concerns then? How will those factors change in the coming decade till 2015? Some opinions on this?

My aim is to design a car that should fit in the social-cultural context of urban China in 2015. Tough job I guess.

Anyways, thank you for your attention and hope to get some feedback. Have a nice day.

Kind regards,

Hi W,

Thanks for your note. It would be pretty silly for me to pose as a guru on Chinese consumer tastes, particularly since I haven't set foot in the country for five years. Anything I say will be a stab in the dark.

Are Chinese following American lifestyles? I don't think so, at least not in any clone-like sense. The Chinese Communist Party was never the same as European communist parties, though they used a similar jargon. The Christianities of Africa, Europe, America and East Asia are all quite different. In each case, they are a decoration on the underlying culture. Japan has been absorbing American consumerism for a century, but is emphatically not American.

What large numbers of people do strive for everywhere is status. The ways of expressing status are endless. What is culturally and politically acceptable varies tremendously amongst different human groups, and varies over time. So-called American consumerism, as it works through corporate interests, has tried to create global fashions in expressing status. If the advertising works, it is as fashionable to be seen drinking Starbuck's coffee in Amsterdam as in Beijing. This can work for a time, but fashion and status are fickle. In many parts of Asia, the customers in large, air conditioned supermarkets are prepared to pay a premium price because merely shopping in the venue emphasizes their superior wealth and status. Your average European or American supermarket is hardly seen as a high status establishment.

Since the first donkey cart appeared, vehicles have had coflicting roles. They are a useful way of carrying things. They reduce the need for human effort; (most people will pay a price, or even undermine their health, to avoid physical effort). They can sometimes be a kind of public sexual statement. They show the status of the owner. The choices which come out of this conflict are very complex, reflecting opportunity, economics, personality and social acceptability. When you try to project variables as complex as that 15 years into the future, for a large population, any bet will have rather poor odds.

South Korea, where I live, has industrialized from a rural base to the world's 11th largest economy in my working lifetime. It is a small country, now half paved over with motorways, and infested with millions of vehicles. The parents of those drivers would have been lucky to own a bicycle. A large proportion of the vehicles are massive, four-wheel drive boxes which rarely carry more than one or two people. There is something obscene about using a ton of metal and tens of horsepower to carry around a 70kg human. Bicyles were certainly the most sensible and efficient human carriers ever invented. They are non-polluting, and just riding them keeps people moderately healthy. Almost everywhere they have been abandoned at the first opportunity, first for motor scooters, and ultimately for those dinosaur 4 wheel drive waggons.

Left to their own choices, I expect large numbers of middle class mainland Chinese will follow the South Korean pattern of buying aggressively large and wasteful 4 wheel drive waggons, regardless of their family size or real transport needs. However, over a decade, many things could intervene to modify their choices. Fuel prices and fuel availability will force many vehicles to have hybrid drive systems. Improved public transport systems in some places will encourage certain kinds of people not to spend their disposable incomes on cars at all. I sense that the social conflict in China between urban middle classes and millions of poor people (especially the rural poor) might become very acute, and perhaps cause social breakdown. Under those conditions, flaunting wealth might not be a smart thing to do. Rioting muslim youths in France have chosen to torch hundreds of cars. There could be a no more potent way of declaring class warfare. How many middle class Chinese will blow their life savings on a Mercedes if they think the rioting unemployed might burn it as a symbol of injustice?

It may be that the car designer of the future will have to be a master illusionist. They say that men want a whore, a housekeeper, a fashion model and a nun in the same woman. Some women succeed in such trickery. Maybe we should ask women how to design cars :) . So, work on a bicycle that needs no effort, is comfortable in the rain, travels at 200kmh, and looks like a sex symbol but can be disguised as a service cart ....

cheers, Thor

Thank you so much for your insights Thor,

I would love to design a bicycle, but I have accepted the design of a I need to continue with the insights I have gathered so far in relationship to mobility

You have mentioned the wealth gap between rural and urban Chinese.. Probably I shouldn't design a car that flaunts the owner's wealth...but that would be in contradiction with the status they would like to show. Finding a balance between sympathy and status, might be an interesting guideline in this case. I'm not done with only these factors..I will search for more relevant context factors the end I need to create a complete and coherent picture to form the context of 2015.

A nice example of a context driven design is the Volvo car. The theme of Volvo is definitely 'safety'. The contextfactors that influenced the design were:

1) Sweden has long, harsh and dark winters, making the roads dangerous

2) Sweden is known as a peaceful and caring country for many years

So, I hope to find a 'theme' for the Chinese car with the context of 2015 I'm going to shape.

Anyways, thanks for your in depth story and if you are interested I can mail you my findings when I'm finished

Cheers, W

Hi W,

Just another thought on your car : have a look at "The Secret Language of Jeans" on Slate at . "Proletarian hip" seems to be the story of jeans. Whether the Chinese psyche, having barely survived Mao, can handle that in a vehicle is something you'd have to investigate :-) .

Anyway, for my money, I think its time for the modular car. The mechanics are already going that way. In the Australian automotive college where I taught before coming to Asia, the older trades instructors were despairing since all the new guys needed to do for problems was undo four bolts, throw the component away and bolt on a new one; (I wrote a sort of book called English for Mechanics ).

What I was thinking of though was the average consumer, who might as well have white mice on a treadmill driving the wheels for all s/he knows about it. Sales hype boasting xx hundred horsepower aside, what these people are really interested in is the cabin of a car. Modern cars bodies are unitary constructions. However, I can imagine the possibility (with some clever engineering) of having the cabin entirely separable from the chassis and drive unit. Apartments could have kind of compact mechanized warehouses to store these cabin units while the chassis-drives were either leased or shuffled around the city by some centralized agency to optimize usage. Being relatively light, the cabins would be easy to push around. In fact, the separate drive train might even make electric drive units a viable proposition. If the customer wanted to do a bit of intercity driving, he could call up a more powerful chassis-drive from the agency. For that matter, "cabin motels" might allow customers the cheap option of sleeping in their own cabins ... Yeah, well sci-fi does get its wheels on the ground sometimes :-) .

Yes, I'd like to see your final inspiration.

cheers, Thor

Hello Thor,

Thanks for your prompt mail, much appreciated! That story about jeans is interesting and your insights about the modular car and cabin in inspiring, but I may not think of soultions yet.

Well, I'm intending to build on the 'status' factor of the urban Chinese. I have selected 3 context factors that are somehow interrelated and together they are forming a small context that represents the insights I need to work with.

1. Value of status (cultural principle, hardly changing).

Status has a greater influence over people in China than it does over people in the West.

They are paying more attention to the external estimation of their social status, related to the concept of 'face'. The status aspect is deeply rooted in the Chinese cultural values. For many generations, family members are expected to bring proud to the family, in order not to lose 'face' to others.

This principle shows up in many ways and really begins early in life. Chinese children learn it as they are growing up. At school they feel a strong pressure to excel. Failure to gain entry to college or the better college equals to a lost of face. The parent's ultimate goal for their child is: a degree from a prestigious foreign or domestic university.

When they are grown up and starting their career, they are expected to make success. Chinese are therefore generally working very hard to reach a desirable status. Increasing work and school related mental health problems (such as stress, depression and exhaustion) could be interpreted as indicators of the high pressure.

What does this status consciousness mean on a product level?

Two things I believe..

Chinese buy luxury products, mainly foreign premium brands, to show their wealth and social status. They like to show off with material things. Still many are not able to afford luxury products, but they aspire to that lifestyle. Twenty years ago these luxuries were unimaginable. Many people dress fashionably and own a mobile phone or a digital camera, especially young people. Even though these items cost a fortune, they're bought because their owners don't want to be looked down on. In a highly unequal society, where social status is measured by money, the poor suffer discrimination and humiliation, which everyone tries to avoid.In the collective awareness, a car is first and foremost a symbol of social status, currently reserved for consumers from the emerging 'middle class' that is still a very small part of the Chinese population. For many families, the car is a luxury object that is hardly affordable. As the income and living standard are improving, due to a continue economy growth (assuming that this growth is stable for the next ten years), more people are aspiring and able to buy a car.

In China consumer products seems to have even shorter life cycles (also a global trend), especially electronics. For example, mobile phone users tend to replace their models with newer models in a shorter time, compared to the western users. This behaviour can be explained by the improved living standards, but the status factor probably plays a role.

2. Increasing competition (social economic development)

The increasing rising unemployment, income disparity (widening gap between rich and poor within the cities) and the urge to succeed to secure a desired social status, creates a high competitive atmosphere.

In this competitive society, parents are becoming more and more concerned with their child's future success. Currently it is not easy to find a job, not only for laid-off workers and rural surplus labourers, but also for university graduates, and both the government and the public have expressed their growing concern.

In urban China, where the one-child family is the prominent living arrangement, parents are paying high attention to the education and the overall development of their single child. A large portion of the urban family income is being spent on school fees, private lessons, and extracurricular activities. To rise up this child in order to compete with other children, demands not only financial pressure but also mental pressure. Time is becoming even more valuable and therefore higher efficiency is needed in their daily life. More and more products and services will be needed to assist in the efficient organization of social and family life.

The car is one of the tools that can improve the convenience (read efficiency) of people's lives. But does it provide the desired efficiency in 2015? Next factor tells more.

3. Increasing congestion (social economic development)

It is inevitable that China is becoming a car-dominated society, which does not only have a negative effect on the pollution and energy shortages, but in the highly densed cities the increasing motorization also results in structural congestions.

Many cities are already experiencing continuous heavy traffic, which is caused by the fact that the cars are being put on the roads too fast while the expansion of road capacity is going to slow. In addition, inexperienced drivers and improper driving behaviour cause many chaotic traffic scenes. Most drivers have only a few years' experience. It is not surprising that China has the highest mortality rate in traffic accidents: 680 die and 45,000 are injured every day, according to the World Health Organisation, compared with around 115 deaths a day in far more motorised America

It is not hard to imagine how stressful driving can be, as the city roads are rapidly filling up with more first time drivers. Besides, driving in the urban centres is becoming more expensive, as oil prizes and parking fees are rising.

Most important, this slowdown causes danger to the efficiency of their road to their desired status. In this view, the car as a commuter vehicle is getting less popular, as the public transport are improving in time and therefore providing a good alternative. In contrast, the car as a leisure vehicle, making trips outside the cities, will be more popular.

Commuting to work will only make sense again when the car can provide the efficiency that is desired, for example like working/learning and driving at the same time.

I think these factors are giving me insights in order to answer my research question: 'What is the social-cultural meaning of the car in Urban China of 2015'

So, I'm interested to hear your opinion on my shaped context. Does it makes sense? Or let me know if you feel (yes, intuition is the way to do it in this design approach) that I'm missing something relevant, something that has a relationship with the other 3 contextfactors that together might form a more complete context. And comments that support the relevancy of the identified factors are very welcome.

Have a nice day, cheers! W

Hello W,

I broadly agree with your analysis of Chinese values. There is no denying the potency of status, especially at the present time when memories and observations by citizens of China's aristocracy, Communist Party members, are fresh enough to excite imitation; (even today in Chinese public hospitals you are apt to find special luxury sections reserved for the Party elite). It is also true that the status game runs deep with ancient roots, as it does in many cultures. However, as with most cultural phenomena, there are counter-forces which become ascendant from time to time. Part of the instability of fashion stems from this flux of values.

You will be aware of the Chinese proverb, 'head of tiger, tail of snake', which aptly sums up Chinese awareness that 'face', 'front', 'presentation' etc is often a tinsel covering for much that is mean, inferior, decrepit etc. The glorious marble facade of a hotel may well conceal dingy, poorly serviced rooms out the back. The new 'high tech zones' opened by this regional government or that with great official fanfare often turn out to be neglected wasteland when you visit them six months later. I taught in a university which claimed in its brochures to have half a million books. Upon inspection they turned out to be mostly mouldering, bug infested piles of old Soviet era stuff, completely uncatalogued, and minded by janitors who wouldn't know what a professional librarian was ... a story repeated all over China ... well you know this tale. The point is that Chinese people themselves are well aware of the gap between the image and the reality. In their present phase, most are madly pursuing the image, but by the time your 2015 car comes up there may well be a reaction phase.

The ambivalence I have just mentioned is well reflected in South Korean society, which in many ways could be a window on China of the future. Here the affluence has already arrived and been tested. Face ('chemyeon' in Korean) is a primary cultural value. But the counter currents are also strong, and there is a powerful nostalgia amongst many for a mythical golden age when people were worthy and honest ... It goes with a visceral distrust of those who have 'succeeded' - the business leaders, the political leaders etc. A poll a few days ago showed that 4 out of 5 Korean strongly distrust leaders. As usual, such ideas are best expressed in the arts, and this is where it becomes relevant to China. The 'hallyu' - Korean wave' - throughout East Asia often draws strongly on so-called traditional values in Confucianism. Here is a link describing the reverberation of that in China : "What Does 'Hallyu' Mean for China? "

I suppose what I'm saying is that tying everything to fashion/face/prestige for a future product carries certain risks. The lead time in vehicle manufacture is shortening perhaps, but is still substantial. Tooling up costs are enormous.

This is why modular design, in one form or another, makes a lot of sense. For example, if the design allows the entire interior cabin of a car to be stripped out pretty easily, then there is a lot of scope both for customization and for manufacturers to present 'new models'. Just as clothing is sold by brand name and function, you could have fashion brands for seats, interior trim, aircon systems, dashboards ... da da .

The dizzy adances of electronics make it sensible to have the whole electrical/electronic element of a car easily removable and replaceable on a modular basis

... and so on.

The sheer horror of air and water pollution in Chinese cities has made environmental issues a really hot topic with ordinary people, which gives quite a bit of scope for design considerations catering to that (not merely engine design, but more cosmetic issues affecting car drivers and passengers directly). Perhaps the concept of customization could be linked  to environmental issues too.

For example sophisticated car computers make it possible to monitor the effect of individual vehicles on the environment in real time. In principle this information could be transmitted to an external authority and taxed or earn bonus points accordingly. Drivers would then have a direct incentive to keep their vehicles in good non-polluting mechanical condition. With intelligent, dollar specific, instrument readback they could be educated to make choices between economical, low tax driving techniques and wasteful or 'power' driving styles. In hybrid vehicles, they might even switch between power souces depending upon the occasion.   

Bill Gates: If cars were built like computers, they would cost $25 and get 1000 mile per gallon.
General Motors: Yes, but would you want your car to crash twice a day?


The Chinese Car Of The Future
   copyrighted © Thorold (Thor) May 2005
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