Spies in the Desert

The vast desert of the Middle East. Cars drive across the sands. Among the locals at the wheel there is one Japanese engineer. But he's not on vacation. He's on a mission.

"When I went to the Middle East I spent my time in desert because there I could get to know the real way people live in the region," explains Shoichi Seto, engineer with the Nissan Market Requirement Investigation Group.

From 1999 to the present the team has performed market surveys for Nissan in a round-the-world trip taking in some eighty countries. Their mission: To look at how automobiles are used in each country, to talk with and listen to the people, and experience the conditions of each environment. This is what you cannot learn from Japan, the precise needs and expectations on a car due to the lifestyles of people living in a certain locale.

Surveying the local people, the researchers learn how cars are used in desert regions like the Middle East.

For example, in parts of Russia where roads are not well maintained, drivers use their wipers as much to remove splashes of mud as they do to wash away rain.
Local stores sell windscreen washer fluid in large five-liter bottles to meet the needs of drivers and the roads. Cars also then need a storage tank that can hold this amount of washer fluid.

In India you'll notice that many cars drive around with their wing mirrors folded in, since otherwise vehicles would clip each other in the narrow streets. For Indian drivers, keeping an eye on the car behind is not as important as navigating through traffic around you.

Meanwhile in Indonesia, a standard family car is actually a six-seater. A married couple will likely have four children, in addition to a babysitter and driver, so three rows of seats are a must for any family vehicle.

The way a car is used is defined by regional and national traits. Any vehicle being sold in a market must reflect the local identity and needs if it wants to be embraced by drivers.

In Russia windshield wiper washer fluid is sold in 5-liter bottles as drivers there get through a lot.

But just asking locals "What kind of car do you want?" may not give you the best answers.
It can be surprisingly hard to answer questions about the special characteristics of your lifestyle or car needs.
So the Market Requirements Investigation Group has to behave like a team of spies, gathering information from carefully watching the actions and habits of locals, and then gleaning the hidden driving secrets out of this reconnaissance.

Engineer Hidekatsu Yanai says, "If you perform a market survey you notice that often what people say and what they do are not the same. That's why it is important to actually go to the area and observe first-hand."

Before they can go off on their expedition, though, the researchers need to study the historical and cultural background of each "target" place. If you don't do your homework, you're going to be all at sea when you arrive. Sometimes it's practicalities like left-hand drive or right-hand drive, or it might be religion or politics; these "spies" must also be scholars, putting real secret agents to shame.

Hidekatsu Yanai researches watermelon farmers in Tunisia, who use the beds of pickup trucks for transporting their crops.

This kind of field research by engineers is very Nissan-esque. By turning engineers into the researchers they can gain a bird's eye view of how cars are used on the ground, allowing them to then create better vehicles for the market.

Yet, Masako Kuwahara explains, "just because there is a certain condition and people want a certain kind of car does not mean we manufacture it."

Does the demand for a "wider" backseat mean that overall size is important or that it would be better if people's knees just had more space? Making these judgments in the field, the team presents ways to overcome technical hurdles and then take back home to Japan a feasible recommendation. Good survey data is one thing, but it has to be helpful for actually building a car.

To wrap up their trip, the team holds an internal debriefing session, making presentations while wearing the ethnic clothes that they bought at each of the places they visited.

This isn't just dressing up for fun; it's proof that the spies really inserted themselves into the daily lives of the locals

All around the world these research spies are now deep undercover in exotic lands. If you spot an unfamiliar face next to you, don't be alarmed. It's probably just a Nissan engineer on a mission.