When ill-informed marketing drives bad design decisions

secret engineerEngineers have a responsibility to improve processes and decrease our ecological impact, yet time and again – writes the secret engineer – we are forced by the Smoke and Mirrors Department into reinforcing illogical practices. 

I recently got into an argument with a friend on a certain social network site. Mind you I get into so many arguments on it that I’m convinced that’s the whole reason for its existence – or perhaps it’s just me?

ill-informed marketing
Power steering: we’re all used to it, but is it really required on all cars?

Anyway, we were talking about the ecological impact of cars and the best way forward. Tesla was lionised, as one would expect, and there were various discussions about the true environmental cost of electric cars. However, what caused absolute apoplexy was my suggestion that it would be more beneficial if we just simplified all vehicles.

My point was that if you consider the powered gizmos (with their sensors) that are standard on all cars these days – and then the wiring to connect them – and then the power needed to make them work; it all adds up to something quite significant.

Volkswagen made about 11 million vehicles last year and even if you only saved 1 gram of carbon (as a vague indicator of greenness) in each vehicle that’s 11000 kilograms in total. From one manufacturer alone, in one year. My friend though could not even cope with the concept of any new car finding a buyer if it’s not “fully loaded”.

We spent god knows how long going around in circles with regard to the idea of omitting the power steering. A significant proportion of this time was spent with him arguing about the efficiency of hydraulic and electric systems because he simply could not fundamentally grasp the concept of not fitting it at all. For context, with regard to this particular aspect, I was on about small town cars only.

Now, he’s a successful jet-setting businessman and hardly a dullard, so although I could accept a disagreement I was genuinely shocked that it was based purely in such a deeply entrenched paradigm.

I was reminded of an associated situation when I was designing widgets a few years ago. We were only allowed to claim a certain power for our widget if the draw from the mains supply could be demonstrated, so we would make it work in a particularly inefficient way to get a bigger number on the packaging.

The paradigm then was that the buyer would be mesmerised only by the number without any consideration that this actually meant it performed its function whilst consuming more electricity than a competitor’s machine in a box with a smaller number. Utter lunacy!

Once the expectations and wants of the consumer change we can stop compromising and be let loose to show what we can really do

As an engineer this wanton and unthinking waste of resources is anathema. We have a responsibility to improve processes and designs so that we decrease our ecological impact in this increasingly environmentally-aware age, and yet we are forced by the Smoke and Mirrors Department (or “Sales” as they’re otherwise known) – backed by those lacking in vision – into reinforcing these illogical practices.

It’s not surprising that we have reached this position after over a century of flagrant consumerism, just that so many remain so brainwashed that they are oblivious to it.

So what can we do about it? There has to be education for a start. When all is said and done why should power steering on a small city car be seen as being so essential? It doesn’t have to be hair-trigger responsive around corners and it doesn’t have to be steered through the medium of a tiny wheel. There is no reason why the thoughtful application of mechanical advantage alone cannot result in acceptable forces being applied by the driver whilst navigating around a generic supermarket car park.

Equally, there is no reason why the vast majority of people cannot understand that they will be better off with a Widget that takes 700 Watts to perform a given function than one that takes 900 Watts. Once the expectations and wants of the consumer change we can stop compromising by investigating ever more sophisticated ways to chip away at protecting our planet and be let loose to show what we can really do instead.