11/21/2011 04:10 pm ET | Updated Jan 20, 2012

Design Strategy for Alternative Fuel Vehicles

Once a year, automotive designers from all over the world make the pilgrimage to the Los Angeles Auto Show. It is not the biggest car show, however it is the perfect place to see the introduction of AFVs, (Alternative Fuel Vehicles) because of the many Los Angelinos who have embraced "green thinking." When foreign trend-scouts visit, they are amazed by how many hybrid vehicles they see on the streets. It is one thing to read the statistics for California and it is quite another thing to come across so many of these hybrids in everyday life and the AFV has become a calling for progressives.

AFV's are nothing new; they have been commercially available since the popular, all-electric GM EV-1 burst on the scene in 1996. Fueled by legislative threats, every automotive manufacturer then rushed to develop AFVs. Transportation designers dreamt of AFVs and most automotive companies showed AFV concept cars. However, when the proposed law was taken off the table, the concept quickly died off quickly. Not until the 2nd generation Toyota Prius was launched in 2004 did the phenomenon take off in real time.

Automotive companies have applied different strategies for aligning their electrical cars with their sales channels and brand image. GM created a unique two-seater design language for their EV-1 and offered it as a separate branded lease car though their newly launched Saturn division. Honda also created a new two-passenger language for their hybrid, while Toyota opted for a hybrid as an alternative package of an existing four-passenger vehicle, with both of them sold under their main brand.

None of these vehicles really took off until Toyota created a completely different hybrid design language for their Prius that accelerated sales. Whether it was environmental consciousness, the unusual design, the spike in gas prices, the ability to drive in the car-pool-lane or a combination of the above is the big question. Current thinking leans toward the growing environmental consciousness along with users signaling their awareness of this consciousness as the most important success factor of the AFV. Those manufacturers, whose AFV's resemble their gas driven cars, exhibit low sales numbers while the AFV's that succeed in gaining market share, express their special AFV-ness in their interior and exterior styling.

BMW is one of the automotive companies that have retrofitted existing models with natural gas, hydrogen, electric and then hybrid technologies. Now they are moving into design language differentiation and introduction of the sub-brand, the BMWi. By introducing the BMWi brand, alongside their Rolls Royce, MINI and BMW M sub-brand, they now seek to target the socially conscious ultimate drivers. At the L.A Auto Show, they introduced their BMW 3i and 8i concept cars, which will be in production in 2013 and 2014.

BMW did their homework and has been working on this transition for decades. By the year 2000, their plants were already Sustainable Management System certified and their advanced concept center, BMW Group DesignworksUSA, was the first sustainable certified design office in the world. For the past seven years, BMW has topped the DOW Jones Sustainability Index. However, it remains to be seen if this strategy will succeed long term.

Today's AFV's are not more energy efficient than their optimized internal combustion part counterparts and AFV's still make no short-term sense when looked at from a Life Cycle Analysis point of view, which looks at a vehicle's life from inception to end including the cost of the raw materials to their final disassembly and recycling. However, by changing the public's behavior and attitudes and consistently improving the AFV technologies, the scale will eventually tip to the ATV's advantage.