The automotive industry in Australia has been in operation for nearly 100 years. However, things are changing. The Shifting gear exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria marks the end of an era. General Motors, Toyota and Ford Motor Company have all announced that they will close Australian manufacturing plants. The exhibition is a celebration of the inventive genius of past eras but the future of the automobile industry is uncertain.
Despite the imminent end to car production, it is worth acknowledging and celebrating the achievements of the Australian car industry. It’s a remarkable feat to make cars. They are one of our most complex and nuanced products, and have shaped our urban environment as well as our socio-cultural psyche.
Locally-grown, highly skilled workers who create creative content, choreograph complex production systems, manage large infrastructures, direct information flows, and attempt to understand a multifaceted financial system have demonstrated innovation at the highest levels. It is unclear if this innovation is still being directed in the right direction.
Making Industry Do
Our innovation is rooted in the need to do what’s necessary. The Australian market is smaller than the global market. Our manufacturers are part-owners of larger companies. However, domestic vehicle production has had to survive. Our products have been able to sit comfortably alongside international vehicles, which have greater market reach, production volumes, and more resources. Despite our limitations, we have managed to compete on price, quality, and vehicle attributes.
Australian car designers have had the opportunity to compete on the international stage from their first hand experience as automotive designers. However, they did so with less resources, time and money. This has led to iconic cars like the 1934 Ford Coupe Utility, FJ Holden, and Chrysler R/T E49 Charger as shown in Shifting Gear. Local automotive design studios have a large number of highly-trained designers to their credit.
The international increase in the number of automobile manufacturers has led to dedicated degrees in automotive engineering. Australian universities, however, do not have enough students to support specialized automotive design courses. Instead, they offer elective streams in general industrial design degrees. This means that styling skills are often limited in Australia as compared to overseas competitors.
Our designers are now all-rounders. This has worked in our favor. This new workforce brings international perspectives and experience to the table and is highly valued when designing production-ready vehicles.
Transport Landscape Changing Industry
Henry Ford was the first to achieve the dedemocratization of products by standardization, labour division and economies of scale. It is interesting to note that today’s automotive manufacturers claim they are being victim to this economy 100 years later. This may be a reflection of a shift in consumer attitudes and global competitiveness towards vehicle design.
To make matters worse, economies of scale are becoming more attractive. New technologies and cultures like 3D printing, generative programming, and Maker culture combine divisions in labour to achieve the dedemocratization of manufacturing through open, mutable design. Anyone can make unique artifacts and sell them if they have a good idea.
Chris Anderson’s concept of the long tail, which is a collection of millions of small, user-generated creative outputs, is pertinent here. This could be, for example, products purchased directly through artists, designers, and makers via Etsy, rather than large production runs or mass-produced products controlled by large companies. Technology that aims to democratize production such as domestic 3D printers and CNC machines, laser cutters and laser cutters is helping to accelerate this shift. This is allowing for greater diversity and a greater choice for consumers.
Wealth, Knowledge, Skills and Infrastructure
Although a shift in economies of scale from scope will result in a loss of wealth, knowledge, skills, and infrastructure in mass production it also opens up the possibility for new innovation. The car was a vehicle that provided personal freedom and mobility in the Second Industrial Revolution. It was 100 years ago. Changing social paradigms have made individualism more attractive in an increasingly connected society. The knowledge economy and production innovation allow consumers to control the content of the products that they purchase.
This is why we are seeing a new breed of transport providers emerge from outside the industry. Local Motors is one example of such a project. It allows anyone to contribute vehicle designs and 3D print them in microfactories.
Tesla motors, an electric vehicle manufacturer, has recently announced that it will release a battery system to provide home energy. There’s Google Car, which is an autonomous vehicle created by Google and operates in a digitally mediated transportation network. The Future People are an artist couple who create human-powered vehicles in low volumes, as demonstrated at the 2015 Detroit Motor Show.
This is only the beginning of a new transportation landscape that promises to be diverse, innovative and rich. It is possible that vehicle design and manufacturing will change in Australia in the near future. Let’s hope that our Aussie doing less with more approach to vehicle design and manufacturing will allow us to create unique and sustainable solutions.