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Innovation & Design

One Vision for the Future of Chrysler

How to save the automaker and the environment? Hold the paint, spice up interiors, and make roadsters to fit the boomer bulge

If you stand in the middle of the road, you might get run over.

For as long as Detroit has been turning sheet metal into station wagons, U.S. auto manufacturers have built cars with the goal of satisfying the largest number of consumers. But in the 1980's, Japanese carmakers such as Toyota started showing up Detroit in the satisfaction game. Chrysler, whose middle-of-the-road approach is to stress both spirit and strategy, has struggled to hold its ground ever since. It has tried to please everyone—and in the process, thrilled no one.

That's a legacy from which its new owner, Cerberus, and managers Robert Nardelli and James Press are eager to break. The news that Chrysler will cut production (BusinessWeek, 10/11/07) by 82,000 cars in the last three months of the year shows that the company is ready to take action. Here's a small serving of other innovative ways Chrysler can move from the middle of the road to the fast lane.

(Un)paint it green

Consumers are increasingly demanding that all things turn green—and pledging allegiance to those who lead the charge. But when you're at the middle of the green pack rather than out front, you have to make a bold move. Here's one that just might change the world: Stop painting your cars.

Huh? Yes. Make the paint shop the next green frontier. According to a report by President Clinton's Council on Sustainable Development, the paint shop accounts for as much as 50% of total energy consumption, and as much as 95% of environmental emissions, from automobile manufacturing. Think about those nasty volatile organic compounds that gave you a headache when you spray-painted that wicker chair last weekend. Then multiply that by hundreds of thousands of cars. Add to this the impact of making all that paint in the first place.

The environmental cost is staggering, and it can be reduced just by shifting from traditional paint-on-steel to a protective "clear coat." That would protect the car from rust, and at a cost of around $400 per car, could deliver cost savings on the $800 million Chrysler spent last year to paint 2.1 million cars. And even this ignores potential savings from reduced energy costs and assembly-line efficiencies. What's more, going unpainted could catalyze the industry's long-held ambition to shift from using steel to aluminum—a material that's stronger, lighter, safer, and more design malleable than raw steel.

Now the old-school guys down in design will squawk and say: "But people love shiny red metal!" So hand the task to some young visionaries who would get goose bumps just thinking about the chance to open a whole new automotive aesthetic that might save the planet, and look really cool in the process. Green consumers want their neighbors to know they've bought green—that's why the Prius was designed to look a bit odd—so run with it.

By the way, of the average $1.2 billion cost of new assembly line, a staggering one third goes into building that toxic bungalow of a paint shop. According to the same Clinton Administration report, the paint booth runs about $100,000 per square foot. That alone may excite Cerberus. There's a lot to like about a car that's better for the environment, cheaper to make and maintain, and irresistibly cool.

Fun From the Inside Out

All the macro trends point to a population that's over-stretched and over-stressed, and the hour and a half the average American spends behind the wheel each day is part of the problem. Yet road time could so easily be converted from a cause of stress to a great way to unwind. Mini's brilliant body design reminded us that driving can fill us with joy, and deliver blockbuster sales.

Car designers must think like hotel designers who understand that while the exterior may be a calling card, the interior is where the experience happens. Where's the color? The unexpected use of materials and textures? The surprise? The aromatherapy? The paisley? Designing a smile onto the face of the car is great, but let's design one onto the face of the driver. Send your design team to hang at a W Hotel. And design the whole thing from the inside out. Don't just design a car. Design an environment that makes people happy.

Small cars need to act big

No two ways about it. Americans delight in the stature, performance, and feeling of security a big car brings. That Arnold Schwarzenegger drives a Hummer and not a Ford Escort is no accident. Small in the U.S. means wimpy and weak. Chrysler can overturn that perception by creating a smaller car that acts big. Delivering that wonderful "I rule the world" feeling without compromising on fuel efficiency and handling is a worthy ambition and a great design brief.

This may also be the way to put big-car margins into the high-volume/low-margin end of the business. For inspiration, you may want to look at the world of wristwatches. The high-end stuff coming out of Switzerland these days looks seriously rough and ready, despite being small enough to fit on your wrist. Size need not dictate stature.

Develop sports cars for the gravitationally challenged

Of course, sometimes stature will dictate size, and I'm not speaking metaphorically. It's a sad reality that for many people, getting in and out of cars and driving comfortably are daily challenges. Car manufacturers have been good at adapting big passenger cars to accommodate the 60 million Americans who are overweight. But they've stopped short of creating a sports car that can comfortably accommodate a larger physique.

As a result, a whole category of cars is basically off-limits to a "growing" number of Americans. This includes boomers who have the money to spend, no need for baby seats in the back, and a desire to cling to any sporty vestige of youth. Only their girth stands in the way. Addressing this reality through innovative design might open up a new vector in passenger and driver comfort, one that would resonate with one fifth of the U.S. population.

After all, there's nothing more embarrassing than having to sell back that European roadster because you can barely swing your legs under the steering wheel.

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