HONG KONG (Dec. 7, 2:40 p.m. ET) — For Olivier Boulay, the head of Mercedes-Benz's new design center in China, the ever-present electric scooters on Chinese streets are both a source of inspiration and an indicator of the country's potential as an innovator in electric vehicles.
It's not that the scooters are high-tech or solve the problems standing in the way of electric cars.
But they show a public acceptance of electric-powered transport, and combined with a government push on electrics to achieve more energy independence, gives China a chance to be a major innovator, said Boulay, vice president and head of the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Center of China.
Mercedes opened the Beijing design center in July, its first in China, and one of Boulay's main responsibilities is designing the electric car that the company is jointly developing with Chinese auto maker BYD, and which they plan to introduce in 2013.
Boulay spoke Dec. 2 at the Business of Design Week conference in Hong Kong, one of Asia's larger design-themed events, and said the Chinese electric scooters were an example of how designers need to be even more global in their search for inspiration.
The Chinese scooters and Boulay's experiences weaving his own 300 Euro e-scooter around Beijing's streets inspired the design of an electric-powered concept scooter for Mercedes' Smart brand, he said.
“[The Chinese] learn a lot of things running the current electric cars and e-scooters,” said Boulay, a longtime Mercedes designer who opened the company's Tokyo design studio in 1993 and is also a professor at Japan's Keio University. “That is how I came up with the idea to do this Smart scooter last year, which we presented at the Paris Motor Show. I think there is a market in Europe waiting for it as well. Hopefully Smart will make this e-scooter.”
“Here you can see a perfect example where Europeans say ‘China is behind, China is behind,' but here, China is ahead,” said Boulay, speaking to journalists before a Dec. 2 speech he gave at the Business of Design Week in Hong Kong.
In his speech, he discussed how environmental pressures are a big driver for Mercedes designers as they plan the company's next generation of cars.
“We have tremendous pressures today with climate change and limited resources,” he told a crowd of several hundred at the Hong Kong event. “This is the world of Mercedes Benz right now,”
“Now we have to realize that the world has to share its resources with other countries,” Boulay said. “Before it was Japan, Europe and America. Now you have Russia, China, India, Brazil and many other countries coming up. So we have to reconsider everything.”
“All this negative aspects of our life now are also boosting the creativity and innovation,” he said. “It is what our designers and engineers are working on every day.”
As part of that, he said the company's new Beijing design center will grow quickly to work on both Mercedes models and its China joint venture cars, from about a dozen designers now to 20 next year, which will make it about the same size as the Tokyo center.
He said China has particular challenges, because its car industry is young and its engineers less experienced, so they need to catch up quickly, at the same time as they're working on the next-generation technology.
“It's a tremendous challenge to learn on one side how to build a car and on the top to learn the new part of cars, which is electric [technology],” he said. “That's why they need the help of foreign knowledge. Even for foreigners it is also a challenge. It's a very difficult task.”
“On the other hand, China owns 90 percent of the rare earth materials, you know, so it helps,” said Boulay. “There are a lot of positive issues. “
The environmental issues reinforce the need for new, lighter materials, he told the journalists.
“It doesn't matter if you do the car electric or gasoline or whatever, the weight is always an issue,” he said. “You can go with plastic, you can go with aluminum, carbon fiber, whatever. We need every day to go with lighter and lighter but also strong and resistant materials.”
For the new electric vehicle with BYD, which is part-owned by American investor Warren Buffett, Boulay said he could not share many details, except to say a concept version will be introduced at next year's Beijing Auto Show to help position the brand.
The design will want to show it's an electric car but Boulay said he also wanted to emphasize that the vehicle is not too radical a departure from existing cars. The company met its design targets in December and the vehicle is now in engineering and production planning, he said.
“We are not trying to make a car where the design is kind of ‘flashy electric,' because we think the public wants to have a smooth transition between today's car and tomorrow,” said Boulay. “I'm not talking about doing a Star Wars machine.”
It's tough to change the car industry, with its massive investments toward current technologies, he said, but over time different designs for electric cars will emerge to better deal with the heavy batteries or take advantage of future technology like in-wheel motors.
“It will be normal that the electric cars will have a strong relationship to cars today but in 10 or 20 years they will definitely drift away,” he said.
Electrics fit China's transportation patterns today, Boulay said, where drivers there use their cars on average less than 100 kilometers62 miles a day getting around densely packed cities. The Chinese government sees them as a natural fit, and as a way to help China reduce its dependence on foreign oil, he said.
“I think for them the most important issue is to get the independence in energy resources,” he said.
China also has an opportunity to develop infrastructure better suited to electric cars. City planners and politicians and the car industry need to spend more time talking together about designing cities to take better advantage, Boulay said.
“In China, which is a country which is reinventing itself, I call it a chance for China to go in a more innovative direction when it comes to infrastructure,” he said. “Right now they just reproduce exactly what we did in Europe and Japan and the U.S., and it's wrong.”