China is now the largest car market. But many Western companies are discovering that simply transferring cars designed for Western users do not always appeal to Asian users. Point in case GM’s Cadillac, a car built for American consumers fails to connect to Chinese consumers.
Zach Hyman, an ethnographer based in China, has been researching the creative practices of vehicular design among resource-constrained users. His observations on low-tech vehicles are incredibly relevant for the current global shifts in automative production. In Zach’s latest fieldwork update on Ethnography Matters, he shares with us some of his observations.
He notices that people combine naturally found objects, like bamboos, with trucks to navigate the hilly city and narrow alleyways of Chongqing.
One way Chongqing stands out from most other major Chinese cities is geographically – the city’s notorious hills lead to the near non-existence of cyclists and, as a friend here says, “forces one to navigate in three dimensions”. The bang bang jun (棒棒军lit. “stick soldiers”) make their living using a length of bamboo with an attached rope to carry everything from groceries to refrigerators up and down the city’s steep streets for families and businesses alike. In conjunction with 3-wheeled vehicles, prized for their ability to enter narrow alleys where conventional delivery trucks wouldn’t fit, stick soldiers form a formidable duo for local logistics. Oftentimes, one can spy a stick soldier’s trademark bamboo shoulder-pole resting upon the pile of whatever goods fill the rear bed of a 3-wheeled vehicle.
While Zach’s observations may seem very disconnected from car design, but it’s important to keep in mind that a deep understanding of people’s current vehicle practices can reveal new insights for developing future vehicles. And maybe those vehicles can challenge the current domination of resource-intensive cars. One entrepreneur, Joel Jackson, created Mobius One in Kenya with local welders to overcome transport challenges. The result? A $6,000 low-tech car made for Africa. Like Joel, Zach’s research contributes to a growing group of designers and entrepreneurs who will create a new class of vehicles.