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The automotive world is under assault from two storms that will lead to a watershed in its century-old history.

The convergence of global warming and consumers’ aspirations for a more responsible world extends beyond the call to save the planet. In the motoring industry, this now translates into stricter CO2 emission laws imposed by the United States, along the lines of those in Europe.

With laws and tax penalties brought into play, the “forced” consciousness they foster is a far more effective weapon to bring about change than the idealistic green consciousness that preaches abstinence and conservation. While we see this proactive participation by lawmakers in Europe, the emerging giants of China, India and Asia are not far behind — with the benefit of hindsight, these countries are able to avoid repeating the errors of the developed nations.

The rise of green consciousness is in tandem with national-security concerns about an over-dependence on imported oil, thus resurrecting the ode to electricity in Raoul Dufy’s epic mural “The Fairy Electricity” in the early 20th century. Today, the new “fairy electricity” is clean energy, which explains the revived popularity of nuclear plants. Times are indeed changing . . .

The financial crisis, an invisible yet omnipresent villain, has taken hold of the world. Fear is prevalent and consumers are spending less or delaying purchases, leading to a shrinking auto market. Where credit is scarce and fewer cars are sold, the auto industry is strapped for the cash it needs to reinvent itself in the face of the green revolution.

Consumers, growing more and more astute, are shifting “back to meaning,” demanding more “essential” products, beyond the aesthetics of design alone. This is a sign of maturity as consumers seek products that deliver function, purpose and value — and also contribute to their vision for a better life or world. There is growing distaste of design for design’s own sake when the world can no longer afford meaningless excess.

The convergence of these forces will exert its toll on the auto industry, and only the few who dare to be visionary will survive.

The vision to go zero-emission and the electric push was not initiated yesterday, but more than a decade ago by futurist planners. However, it was only belatedly adopted by corporate strategists two or three years back. The green race has begun, with GM’s plug-in hybrid Volt set to take to U.S. roads in 2010, when Nissan’s first mass-market electric vehicle will also debut, along with Mitsubishi’s MIEV in Japan. Before them there will be BMW’s eMINI and Bollore’s Pininfarina in 2009 — with more models sure to be added to the list. These vehicles are still considered niche models, aimed at business fleets.

The auto industry is at the dawn of its first revolution since Ford’s Model T rolled off production lines.

The electric future heralds an end to “old ways” as a new business model is ushered in. It is no longer sufficient to design a good product, at the right price and with a brilliant marketing campaign to succeed. Automakers must now consider ways to collaborate with local municipalities, federal governments, infrastructure builders and energy providers to offer a green solution that works.

Electric-powered cars will redefine the entire concept of mobility and influence the way houses and cities are built. However, the auto revolution alone will not make the world fully green. It remains to be seen whether the huge quantity of energy that is needed can be cleanly sourced, instead of being generated by coal-power plants. But since the automobile accounts for almost 30 percent of global CO2 emissions, it seems the obvious place to start in the fight against pollutive energy.

And what about the credit crisis? Is it an epilogue or prologue in the automotive industry’s history?

An automotive project costs $400-$600 million to develop, and about 80 percent of consumers require financing to purchase a car. With the credit crunch, sliding consumer confidence and economic slowdown, the price of fuel itself becomes a domestic anecdote.

The advanced world is entering a recession, and even previously fast-growing economies such as China, India and Brazil are redefining their ambitions. This crisis could become an unexpected accomplice of sustainability, forcing consumers to become more demanding, mature and frugal, and the automakers to revise what they have to offer.

Does the crisis suffocate the ability to dream? No, but it might impose limits on waste and over-powered, over-designed models.

Thus it could well be a prologue: one that heralds a new era in the auto industry.

Like in any revolution, there are many challenges to overcome. The industry needs to convince customers to trade in their old habits for new ones, to venture beyond their comfort zones and reshape their dreams for the future. It needs to build a new architecture for mobility, establish new partnerships and invite new actors to join the play, where they are not used to listening to each other or exchanging ideas.

The first mass-produced electric cars should be available by 2010. Will these be convincing enough, credible enough break out from the niche and seduce the crowds? This remains to be seen.

The automotive world has in common with fashion the fact that the differentiators are all about appearance. yet even the motor shows, longtime “dream factories” and crowning stages for designers, are becoming deeper, more conceptual. There, we can even see essential subjects — social, political or aesthetic — being addressed.

Consequently, a new generation is empowered: the concept designers, as they are called in the U.S. This breed is a bit like the art directors of the advertising agencies in the 1980s. Their mission as concept designers is to make the product convincing, preferred in all aspects, functional, emotive and aesthetic. To convince presumes a perfect knowledge of the “internal motors” and the desires of the identified client, even if unexpressed. This requires the skills to interpret the endless flow of information into a credible, creative and coherent concept that will structure the development, the design and the storytelling.

The crisis is an opportunity for change, to move forward. People will still need cars, but they will be very different: more agile, lighter, respecting the environment and the human being. They will probably also be more focused on real usage. Why own a large limo to move alone in the city or an SUV to go to the Sunday market? They will demonstrate a redefined aesthetic and will tell a different story to consumers. It will be less about muscle, status, power and size and more about intelligence, integration, flexibility and virtue. The pleasure of mobility will not be forgotten but renewed.

In a short time ahead, the gas station and its familiar smell will be but a memory. The same goes for the indulgently macho engine noise that gets the adrenalin going. The car is finally entering the plug-in era, and in doing so will reinvent its fortunes.

I dream of a city where the seamless flow of traffic amplifies the bird song on the balconies with their deafening silence.

Phoebe Royce is an art/design expert working with several automakers, and has been researching socio-contemporary attitudes and the car for the last 30 years.

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