Toyota Launches a Faster Horse

The new Prius hybrid car has been launched. It has a more powerful engine, rooftop solar panels and an even better fuel economy.

It may serve to fend of the stiff competition from the Honda Insight for the hearts, minds and wallets of the eco-consumers. Particularly since the older model will continue to be sold with pricing that directly competes with the cheaper Insight.

It is a good thing that stiff competition is opening up on hybrids, and that such competition is driving prices down.

More people will opt for lower-impact cars if such cars are affordable.

But we're still in the realm of faster horses here.

Henry Ford once said that if he'd asked his customers what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse. Because before the days of the motor car, nobody could imagine such a contraption and what it would do for them.

So they focused instead on slightly improved variants on what they'd already got.

That is where we are at the moment. We want our cars to be the same, look the same, perform the same - or better. We just want them to be greener.

What will be the equivalent leap in progress still to come that we can't currently envisage as the alternative to the car?

Will it be more and more ways to gain the benefits of travel, without actually travelling?

Will it be new types of vehicle which match the economy of group travel with the privacy and isolation of private car use?

Will it be the car as we recognise it, but with radically new types of propulsion that make the hybrids look just as wasteful as the cars they replace? The turbo-charged horse solution.

Or will it be something that I can't describe here because, not having seen it yet, I couldn't possibly imagine it because it is that different?

It all depends what the question is that we're trying to answer.

Is it 'how do we improve the fuel efficiency of the motor car to the next level'? Which is a difficult, ambitious task for sure.

Or is it 'how do we create new solutions to people's desire for the benefits of travel' within a radically different, carbon counting world?

Difficult, ambitious and altogether a different question. Because suddently, in order to answer it, you have to understand first why people travel. What is it they really want when they go from A to B? Sometimes it will genuinely be mobility. Often it won't be.

Interestingly, if you look for information on why people actually travel, it is not easy to come by. However, certain travel sites that deal predominantly with non-business travel identify factors involving friends and family as top reasons for travel, alongside the desire to go somewhere with guaranteed good weather.

A poll by Site59 found that of 1500 travellers who chose a last minute web travel service, 22 percent wanted to visit family or friends, 9 percent were stressed and needed a vacation, 11 percent made a spontaneous decision to attend an event, 5 percent wanted to surprise someone, and 2 percent were searching for better weather.

The results might be slightly different for travellers who planned in advance to travel. But many would be the same. And these are benefits you could seek to create without the need for travel.

For instance I still think that Starbucks should be installing Telepresence tables in all of their major outlets, so that you can pay $20 or so to have an hour's cup of coffee with your brother who is living and working half way round the world.

The same goes for conference venues. The recent Prince of Wales summit on climate change had splinter events all over the UK, and even in Canada. These patched in with a video feed into the main event - with ongoing conference facilities more two-way technology would be highly feasible.

What about the reasons why people buy new cars? According to Road and Travel, the top reasons are because the old one had high mileage, the old car was not performing, always in for repairs, didn't have such good fuel efficiency or it had just died.

One wonders if many of those reasons could be more cheaply met by some sort of maintenance and retrofit service, rather than encouraging people to buy whole new cars and scrap old ones. Like the Leica M8 camera where you take the unit back to the shop to have the latest upgrade fitted, rather than buying a whole new camera.

Who knows? It wouldn't be for everybody. But when energy prices go back up, as they surely will, perhaps it will be for considerably more people than one might think.

Bear in mind, it's not really about the amount of material involved in replacing the car. The impact of the car is largely in the gas it uses through its life rather than its manufacture.

But if you could make it easy to take your car into the garage and get the latest fuel efficiency upgrade fitted into your existing car. Why wouldn't you? If that's impossible to envisage at the moment, it may only be because we haven't yet seen how it could be done, and therefore can't quite imagine it.

Maybe we don't need it. Maybe a faster horse will do.

The fuss over the Tata Nano car in India (currently boasting better fuel efficiency than the Prius, mind) reminds us that the faster horse solution has to be good enough to bear the ambition of billions of people across the world who currently do not enjoy the benefits of mobility to do just that.

The new Prius will do for now. But bigger change is surely on the way.

Mallen Baker is a leading commentator, speaker and strategic consultant on corporate social responsibility. He is the founding director of Business Respect, the home of the longest running CSR email newsletter.

You can see his blog and other articles at http://www.mallenbaker.net and the Business Respect newsletter at http://www.businessrespect.net


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