$4.19 gas, or why Apple will design your next car


$4.19 a gallon. Today, in central Connecticut. We actually turned our SUV around, pulled over, snapped this photo — and realized, like that little corn we ignored on a foot until it struck a deep nerve, man, we have a problem.

You see, we Americans are an insular lot. Most of us couldn’t name four countries in Africa if you paid us (Egypt is in Africa, true or false?), yet the news rumblings are starting to get through. Costco is rationing rice; James Kunstler predicts peak oil will end suburban sprawl; The Economist says another 100 million people will tip into absolute poverty due to food shortages this year. When the price of bread and milk and, yes, gasoline goes through the roof, we get it.

And that means design will change.

Not design in a trivial sense; not layouts or brands or women’s clothing. We mean the design of how people live. Kunstler explains better than us that as oil supplies are tapped out, all the cheap habits based on petroleum will be squeezed away — long commutes, big-box stores filled with oranges from California, even the plastics that create the keypad on the computer in front of you.

Which means people will need new designs to structure how they live. Some marketers are ahead of the curve on this. BP rebranded beautifully a few years back as “Beyond Petroleum.” Honda has launched a hydrogen-powered car prototype that could be fueled from a home power station, circumventing the need for hydrogen gas stations on every city corner.

If your business isn’t thinking 10 years out on the designs that people will clamor for in a world of diminished energy, you are going to miss the boat.

It all reminds us of a trip to Italy years ago. We, as Americans, couldn’t believe how small the cars seemed, how elegant the shoes and phones and food; heck, ice cream had less sugar and pasta less salt. We eventually acclimated to the lean culture only to return to the States and be stunned again by the apparent bloat of American consumers — walking around in sweat pants and sneakers, drinking from oversized coffee sippy cups. For two days it was like being at recess.

But American habits are changing. The iPhone is an elegant handheld computer. The Mini Cooper has won raves for its sporty handling. People are investing in home theaters instead of going out, learning how to cook again in remodeled kitchens. McDonald’s and cinemas have responded by adding wood paneling, to say, look, we can be streamlined, too.

When gasoline hits $5 and then $6, lean will be the aesthetic of choice. The designers, like Honda, who have proven they can think ahead in new markets will be the first to capture emerging demand.

So look at new markets. Start designing lean things. Watch out for outsiders with brains who are evaluating your own industry. Because our bet is Apple will not only do music and video; soon they will be rethinking your car.

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