One of the more interesting concepts at the Paris Auto Show which opened yesterday is Nissan's TownPod. Instead of being specifically tailored to the needs of a clearly defined target audience, the Townpod is essentially a blank canvas designed to be adapted to suit the needs of all those individuals who are so individual they are hard to categorize. It's flexible interior is very clever, and being a plug-in electric vehicle, it will have zero local emissions and be cheap to run should it ever see a showroom.
For all the Townpod's cleverness, the very first thing that struck me at the press conference was the boldness of the design. Since Henry Ford worked out how to manufacture automobiles much cheaper on production lines, auto manufacturers have made their profits selling mass produced cars that are all the same.
As manufacturing flexibility has grown from the development of more intelligent production lines, we've had a little more choice of specification, but that choice will grow immeasurably over the coming decades to cater for the seemingly base human need for individual expression.
Once upon a time, only the richest people had the opportunity to have their vehicles "bespoke" but computers and mass one-on-one communication will inevitably create an era of production-line personalized vehicles. The Townpod philosophy feels like a key step in that evolution and Nissan's willingness to cater to individualization is a promising sign the company is not laboring under a legacy mindset.
The boldness of the move extends to the name too – normally Apple Computer gets its legal bovver boys to warn off any company which might wish to "misappropriate" the word "pod" which it feels is too close to its trademarked “iPod”, and might "cause confusion in the marketplace", even if the companies it is intimidating are not even nearly in the same business as Apple.
Most companies faced with economic survival against such a daunting foe decide discretion is the better part of valor and cave in. With its unique combination of French and Japanese characteristics, Nissan isn't nearly as likely to back down when faced with an unreasonable demand from the biggest kid on the block.
Now I think the Townpod is an excellent concept, perfectly described by its name, and I'd like to see it go into production. It's a base vehicle that offers utility without looking and feeling like a commercial vehicle – the profile of Gizmag's 1.5 million-a-month readership suggests a lot of our readers will agree.
In the same way that ereaders were never going to fly for technophiles because they are a "one trick pony," the automobile represents a massive, fast-depreciating personal investment and greater flexibility and return for that investment will become more essential in the future.
I must confess too, of harboring an intrigue of wanting to see the playground bully pick on someone who can look after themselves. I want to see the Townpod produced almost as much to see if Apple really has the balls to go after a battle hardened company of similar size for using a commonly used descriptive word that no more belongs to Apple than it does to the pea.
Indeed, there’s a David-Goliath court case about to proceed over exactly this subject in the next month and if equitable, fair behavior by the companies upon which you bestow your patronage is important to you, make sure you check it out and tell your friends.
What's that? Oh yes, the car. Sorry, I was just about to tell you that I’m still pissed about the theft of the word “gay” but this is a car story.
The adaptable nature of the Townpod’s design is based around a vehicle with a relatively small footprint but with voluminous personal space.
Research suggests that the fundamental psychology behind “road rage” is the human being’s primeval response to an invasion of our personal space – a territorial defensiveness that was handy when we were Neanderthal which has no place in a civilized society. The most interesting takeout from the psychologists’ analysis is just how strongly we perceive the automobile to be our personal space – enough to regularly generate a physically aggressive response to defend a minor transgression in shared territory as if it was an invasion of our cave in prehistory.
Adding all of the above together is an indication that Nissan may well be on the right path in making a large, portable, “cave” with a stylish, funky veneer.
One of the benefits of the Townpod’s electric drive train is that it does not require a large, centrally located lump where the petrol engine lives. Hence the internal space is flat and the rear seats fold down and into the back of the front seats yielding a long, useful flat cargo space.
There are eight doors to the cabin for access, including a set of double doors in the roof through which big things you might be carrying can protrude. As it’s a concept, and Nissan is no doubt seeking feedback, my two cents worth regarding the doors is that double doors on both sides of the cabin are unnecessary and might prevent the installation of something inside – it’d be far easier to affix a desk or a bed to a solid wall than the inside of two doors.
Regardless, the Townpod offers the practicality and load carrying space of a commercial vehicle without the sameness.
The concept vehicle is believed to be powered by the same front-wheel-drive power train as Nissan’s 2011 Leaf, and so could be expected to offer the same 87 mph top speed and 100 mile range after six to seven hours at a household power socket – good for people with houses with driveways, but not so good for people in flats where a powerpoint might not be accessible.
The Nissan Townpod is quite close to the base vehicle I have been envisioning as ideal for my own multi-facted work/play purposes, but the 100 mile range is still too short for it to be considered as a practical alternative to a commercial vehicle.
I pride myself on not being a slave to fashion. George Bernard Shaw's quote that fashion is no more than an induced epidemic really highlighted to me how the most fashionable people are actually those with least imagination. Hence I was surprised at its appeal despite its current range limitations. Nissan had located and actuated the bypass valve to my ego – a strong indication they're onto something.
There are many appealing aspects of the design, such as the connectivity to mobile devices and cleverness of the puck system (see below) which Nissan says is "open source" and can be used by anyone. Nissan is encouraging entrepreneurial designers and manufacturers to expand upon the system and develop accessories which use the system which Nissan clearly has high hopes for.
From the press release: "The Puck is a rubber ball, about the size of a squash ball, with a wide groove cut into it. This groove can accommodate drink holders, cell-phone rests, hand-bag hooks or other items Nissan or third-party manufacturers think will be useful as the tools we use in our daily lives evolve."
Most press releases are poorly written and indicate just how out-of-touch the average public relations writer is with their target audience of niche media editors. This one from Nissan is an exception in that it explains the philosophy of the design well. It explains the thinking behind the Townpod thus:
At a glance
- An unprecedented tool for today's entrepreneurs
Simple platform, which users can tailor to their own needs
Combines benefits of a passenger car with practicality of a light commercial vehicle
Compact external dimensions belie generous interior space
Low, flat-floor features long sliding rear seat
Rear hinged rear doors and split trunk doors ease access in tight spots
Touch-screen display cooperates with user's PDA
Zero-emission propulsion matches modern professionals' core values
As our working and living situations evolve with the opportunities afforded by the digital age, our cars must adapt to the way we conduct our lives. Throughout the world, a new breed of entrepreneur has emerged. Preferring to work for themselves from their own homes or small offices, these new professionals do not work fixed hours, or have regimented schedules. The lines between their business and social lives are blurred, even non-existent, so their means of personal transportation must be equally multifaceted. Just as a white tee-shirt is usually worn casually, but can be combined with a suit to look sharp, this genre-busting vehicle mixes the comfort and style of a passenger car with the businesslike utility of a commercial vehicle. Like the tee-shirt, Nissan Townpod can be used for business or pleasure or, as is increasingly popular, by those for whom business is pleasure.
Not so many years ago the car's basic remit might have been to take a single occupant to work five days a week, have sufficient trunk space for a weekly trip to the supermarket and enough seats to transport a nuclear family to the coast for a long weekend. More recently, classic sedans and estates have evolved into hatchbacks, MPVs, SUVs and now crossovers, all designed for particular segments of the population, but none tailored to the specific needs of individuals who cannot be, and indeed strive to not be, so easily pigeon-holed. Nissan Townpod provides a simple platform, which each user can individually tune to their own peculiar needs. Be they a musician transporting their kit between gigs, a delicatessen proprietor distributing their wares or an architect carrying drawings to a client, each can adapt the interior of their Nissan Townpod using proprietary as well as third-party sourced accessories. François Bancon, general manager of Nissan's Exploratory and Advance Planning Department, elaborates, "Only they know what is essential for their lives, so it is logical that they should be the ones who determine the ultimate specification of their cars. For them an off-the-shelf solution is not enough and the best-equipped people to tailor-make their cars are themselves. What is more revealing is that Nissan Townpod users do not appreciate stereotypes or status symbols. For them, the ultimate status is to have no status." Which brings us back to the functional, yet chic, but in no way pretentious tee-shirt. Just like the Nissan Townpod. Exterior design
Externally Nissan Townpod consist of many familiar elements, yet it is different. It employs the same zero-emission technology found within Nissan LEAF. Charging points can be found in the nose behind an automatically retracting cover, which appears to be backlit thanks to its electric blue painted surrounds reflecting subtly off the car's "Stratosphere White" body paint. Similar electric blue hints are visible behind the door handles, number plate, the spokes of the alloy wheels and within the headlamp pods. The car does not need to shout that it is an EV. It more subtly suggests its ecological and economical credentials. The headlights reflect Nissan Townpod's philosophy of stylish utility by serving as position markers when the blue "petals" are closed and headlights when open, while the external location of the pods eases basic maintenance. Similarly, the semi-silvered coating over the indicators is not just for effect. The mirror-like finish turns them into modern reflectors when the turn signals are not in use. The innovative position of the headlights also allows a coupe-esque bonnet line, not dissimilar to Nissan Z, which feeds in to a visor-like wraparound, blue tinted glass house, reminiscent of Nissan Cube, while the galls to body proportions hark back to the rat-rods of the fifties. The car is decidedly more van-like with its split rear doors. The rear features back lights on the right, a number plate on the left, and a rear-door handle set into a concave surface . Viewed from above the car's space-maximising rectangular footprint flows into an elliptical roof, offering more graceful lines as well as increased aerodynamic efficiency. The rear lights are designed to reflect light like cut jewels when not in use, and to sparkle rather than simply glow when illuminated. Innovative hinges allow the rear doors to slide, then open in confined spaces and then fold to the side of the car so as not to obstruct passing traffic or pedestrians. As the rear lights are positioned in the all encompassing rear doors a second set of position and indicator lights is located in the bottom sill of the doorway. A hatch-like sun roof, directly above the cargo area, allows Nissan Townpod to carry taller objects. Interior design
The idea of simple form following function continues within Nissan Townpod. The cargo area, passenger space and dashboard are remarkably uncluttered yet do not feel spartan. Just because the interior is utilitarian by design does not mean that it cannot be stylish.
The driver is faced with an uncomplicated yet futuristic steering wheel and two familiar stalks to operate the lights and wipers, but other than these controls - which are beautifully simple in their own light - the flowing dashboard is devoid of mechanical switches. Forward or rearward drive is selected using an uncomplicated joystick set into the right-hand side of the driver's seat base. Dual Screen Display
All controls for ancillaries such as climate control and media playback are accessed through two centrally mounted digital screens. The upper monitor serves as an instrument panel, displaying car speed, battery status and remaining range as well as a satellite navigation system. This system is also equipped with Bluetooth wireless technology, allowing it to communicate with the driver's Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). Masato Inoue, Product Chief designer of Nissan, explains, "Today, the first thing many people do when they climb aboard their car is program the navigation unit with a phone number, address or other details. This step will be unnecessary in Nissan Townpod as the car will communicate with your PDA's scheduling function to find out where you are due to be and at what time.
Accordingly, the navigation system will not only plot a route to your next meeting, but will map out a plan for all your appointments that day. If, due to unexpected traffic delays for example, one appointment appears likely to clash with another, the car will let you know so you can take appropriate action. It will also be able to suggest the most convenient time and place for you to recharge its lithium-ion batteries." The lower touchscreen provides all controls for the navigation system, allows users to perform system checks on the whole car and operates Nissan Townpod's audio system. "Who knows how we will store music in 2020?" says Bancon. "Not so long ago cars were fitted with cassette players, then CD players and now we must be iPodTM compatible. This will not remain the same for long, so Nissan Townpod must be forwards compatible with whatever must-have device sits in our future." Just as Nissan Townpod can connect wirelessly with the driver's PDA, so it will also be able to access occupants personal music collections, or what ever device they use to receive Internet radio. "These devices may remain in passengers' pockets, but it is also beneficial to keep them in within view, in some kind of bracket. But we do not know what these devices of the future will look like, let alone where passengers will want to keep them. So, we have developed The Puck", Bancon concluded. Easy Access Access to the cargo area from the rear is unobstructed, thanks to the ingeniously hinged back doors, while gaping apertures on either side mean that cumbersome loads, or wriggling toddlers, can be placed in the car with ease at the curbside. These ultra wide doorways are possible because there is no "B-pillar" set between the traditionally hinged front doors and the sliding doors at the rear, with the locking mechanism of the former set into the leading edge of the latter. Disappearing Long Sliding Rear Seat
The rear seat itself has an interesting trick incorporated into its design. While it is not uncommon to find rear seats that slide or fold, enabling passengers to either prioritize leg room or luggage space, the ultra-slim design of the seats means that the rear bench can fold and slide right into the back of the front seats, freeing the entire, flat-bottomed space behind to carry bulky cargo.
The dichotomy of having a stylish, professional cabin coupled with utilitarian cargo capabilities is accented by the use of soft artificial suede in front, but super-light, yet hard-wearing blue weave in the rear. The blue reflects Nissan Townpod's professional, businesslike capabilities, while the yellow reminds the user that the car can be used for fun, too.
The Puck is a rubber ball, about the size of a squash ball, with a wide groove cut into it. This groove can accommodate drink holders, cell-phone rests, hand-bag hooks or other items Nissan or third-party manufacturers think will be useful as the tools we use in our daily lives evolve. The Pucks themselves slot into rounded troughs set into the car's dashboard, doors and center console. Their position and orientation are ultimately decided by the user, not the car's designers. "In this way, owners can easily customize the interior of Nissan Townpod to suit their particular needs. The system is completely open source - we encourage individuals or other organizations to come up with accessories to complement this platform, " Inoue said. We have only begun to scratch the surface of the possibilities for the system."
While Nissan Townpod has been created with the world's entrepreneurs in mind, its appeal is likely to go beyond this expanding demographic to new families building their first home or retirees turning a hobby into a business. In other words, anybody who appreciates the customizable utility of its van-like abilities coupled with a chic and stylish cockpit designed with the future and not just today, in mind.
"The self employed tend to have very high expectations. They need to make the most of every investment. They will be early adopters of the possibilities made available through the convergence of electric-vehicle innovations and information and technology." Bancon said. "At its core, a car is a means to transport people or goods from one place to another as simply and easily as possible. Nissan Townpod's design supports the essence of its function. It is a smart car for people who demand more."ENDS
The Townpod is a concept, so Nissan has been vague about the details of the electric drivetrain, probably because it's waiting to see if people like the idea. I definitely do like it and perhaps the only change I'd make would be to make it a bit bigger and to have a back-up power supply – perhaps a small generator that I could throw in the back when I'm going off the beaten track so that I don't get stranded without electrons a long way from mains supplies.
So if you think it's as worthy a concept as I do, go and tell them at your local dealership ... and don't forget to tell them how much you like the name.