A concept car isn't enough anymore, brands need to start showing their work

Renault EZ-GO exterior-46_web.jpg

When I was in school, my math teachers fought constantly to impress upon their students that finding the answer to the problem isn't the end game of an exercise, showing that you understand the process is. Their constant cry of "you have to show your work" still rings in my unmathematical ears to this day. What I didn't understand then, but do now, is that sometimes the right answer can come out of a flawed equation, but if the methodology is right, the answer always will be too. Showing your work is a way to demonstrate that you understand why you're doing what you're doing, and didn't just happen upon the answer. The same applies to the brave new world of experience design, and it's clear that automakers need to start showing their work to be taken seriously.

If you attend a motor-show press conference these days, it’s likely that you will be bombarded with buzzwords about new mobility, adventure lifestyles, or autonomous systems. After the initial crowd of journalists and executives leave the stand however, we are almost always left with just a car.

If you attend a motor-show press conference these days, it's likely that you will be bombarded with buzzwords about new mobility, adventure lifestyles, or autonomous systems. After the initial crowd of journalists and executives leave the stand however, we are almost always left with just a car. Sometimes it impresses, sometimes it doesn't, but what we see on the show stand rarely conveys any of the thought behind the concept or any sense of the new experiences being touted. While occasionally a new concept will hit on something genuinely interesting, the thought behind it—the work—is rarely clear, leaving doubt about the process and the foundation it's built upon. 

The EZ-GO shown in Geneva is a self-driving vehicle concept based on Renault's vision of a buzzword-filled future of shared, autonomous, connected mobility. In short, a self-driving ride-sharing minibus. In future Paris, according to Renault press materials, people could summon the pods via an app or at special boarding locations spread throughout the city, where up to 6 passengers would get in through the giant front-opening door and trundle off (at max 50 kmh) to destinations around the city. Inside the pod, large glass areas would allow passengers to see the sights and feel part of the urban environment while the solid metal structure provides a sense of safety—even though in Renault's future vision, accidents are a thing of the past. All of this was presented on the Geneva show floor with a beautifully-executed concept car—and a tree.

What they needed to do was show their work.

Questions about the concept were abundant. How would you summon an EZ-GO? Would you need to get one at a specially-built stop, or can they take passengers door-to-door? If the former, what's better about this than a bus that can carry 6 times the number of passengers? If the latter, is the front-opening door safe for ingress and egress? Why is the concept so big for just 6 passengers? Wouldn't its size be a limitation in an old city? What happens if I press the "go" button while someone's still getting on? Do I need to buckle my seatbelt? Is it usable by elderly or disabled passengers? Is this an infrastructure project that needs government investment or could this be implemented unilaterally by Renault? Well, you get the point.

Even after having the demonstration ride and asking these questions directly to the Renault spokesperson, the answers aren't clear. If the design process was done well, these questions would have come up, and so should the answers. In the product on the show floor, it's anyone's guess. When it comes to experience design, that already indicates a big problem.

If we can't understand the context of this future mobility taxi without it being explained to us, perhaps there's a problem with the concept itself. Paris is one of the the world's most visited cities, so many of the future users of the EZ-GO would not necessarily be familiar with Renault's ecosystem, or have the app, or know how the system works—or speak enough French to figure those things out. It must be intuitive and easy. It must be self-explanatory. It must be universal. Renault's stand could have shown their understanding of the future customer or user needs. That might mean the bigger picture of infrastructure and ecosystem, but also the little details that make an experience come to life.

Renault missed a trick by not having a downloadable app to reserve rides in the car, or by enveloping the concept in a virtual experience of Paris. While VW used a HoloLens to show a barely-functioning prototype interface in their ID Vizzion concept, Renault could have much more effectively used one to create the context and explanation for their EZ-GO. In the commoditized automotive future that the EZ-GO is designed for, experiences will be the difference-maker for products and services. Some, like the Renault, rely entirely on the intellectual backing they're built on to make sense. Through videos and press releases and dedicated mini-websites we can piece together the story they've created, but by not showing the "car" itself in its future context, they've devalued the whole. Renault have shown us a product to explain an idea, and that's just not enough anymore.

Presenting us with a future experience would have elevated the concept to something much more tangible and real. It would have turned a flight of fancy into a realistic view of a future transportation. Automakers are currently spending billions investing in future mobility systems, ride-sharing companies, and autonomous technology, but all we usually ever see of these investments are cars. Autonomous cars. Shared cars. Concept cars. But always cars. These cars may not have the shape we're used to, they may not be designed for ownership, and they may not even have a steering wheel, but if they're going to be considered valid concepts for the future, automakers need to stop showing us just the answers. To prove they're asking the right questions, car companies need to start showing us their work.