I’m a classic car guy. It’s one of main the reasons I call myself a ‘former petrol head,’ not just because of my shift over to e-mobility, but also because I fell out of love with the modern automotive industry and its approach to design. Of course, there are still some beautiful vehicles on sale today, but, for the most part, they just don’t do it for me.
But could this all change with the arrival of future mobility? As we enter the 2020s, conventional approaches are becoming obsolete, as people fall out of love with vehicle ownership and look at shared mobility services and, perhaps further down the line, entertain the idea of self-driving vehicles. With this, comes a blank canvas for design, removing common and, dare I say, uninspiring staples of the car we have been so used to.
To find out more, I sat down with Richard Seale, Lead Automotive Designer at Seymourpowell.
“The answer to how design has changed over the years is massively complicated,” he tells me. “To simplify it, there are a few factors that were involved in the evolution of automotive design.”
Perhaps most importantly, the development of different design tools has affected the way that vehicles have been made. The best example of this is to look at earlier cars around the 1910s with limited tools and, coincidently, more boxy frames. This all changed in the following decades as different design processes, such as ‘single shell’ designs, became popular due to the development of tools and machinery.
“In car design, materials and tools affect the way things are created,” adds Seale. “For example, in the early ’90s, there was a revolution in aluminum bodywork that defined the look of vehicles then, which transformed from hard creased bodywork to softer lines and flowing vehicles.”
In the present day, with the introduction of such things as virtual reality, the possibilities in vehicle design are endless as styling is not limited to the physical tools of the past. But why hasn’t this translated into modern vehicle design? Well, says Seale, it’s down to the rules and regulations surrounding transport today.
“Car design may seem very boring at the moment for some, but there are many things that drive the shape of vehicles and a lot of this is to do with crash testing and pedestrian safety. This heavily influences production design, so it’s inevitable that vehicles look similar at the moment as the rules aren’t very flexible.”
Despite this, he believes that some designers and engineers may not be pushing the boundaries like they should be doing and innovating around the rules.
“Fundamentally, it’s about changing the way you interpret rules and not looking at others around you. Look forward.”
I remember attending a press event at Lexus’ design centre a few years back, where I was shown the design process which included a clay model. It was fascinating, but it didn’t make total sense to me, especially after I had been testing a VR system a few days before for the first time.
In an age where vehicle designers have all the technology at their disposal, traditional processes such as clay modeling seemingly don’t have a place. Modern technology today is more efficient, cheaper and altogether easier for the entire process, with digital design tools constantly improving.
However, Seale doesn’t believe that classic techniques like clay modelling will disappear entirely.
“There’s still something about the sculpting process of clay and having a hands-on approach that you don’t get with new processes, even virtual reality,” he says. “So, when people ask me if clay is dead, I often say that I believe it won’t die. It will exist alongside new technology that makes everything a bit easier, better and quicker.”
With many things, it is sometimes beneficial to look to more traditional processes, to give more character to a product. For me, the classic car is a much more creative and emotional product than some of the new cars being churned out of factories today.
With clay, it all goes back to the curvature of the vehicle. Rather than sitting behind a computer and producing something that, although almost life-like with the level of VR technology today, doesn’t allow you to feel the product and be physically in the room with it. “It’s really just another experiential visualisation tool. It’s not just about seeing it on a computer screen,” adds Seale. “However, there are limitations. VR allows you to do things you can’t do in real life, a bit like having super powers. You can fly, shrink and pick up vehicles how you please, but the visual and emotional connection just isn’t there. It might be in the future, but I think people will always crave that visceral physical touch and feel of things, and clay allows that.”
Both Seale and I attended leading future transport event MOVE 2020 in London earlier in the year – an event that would turn out to be one of our last shows for a while due to unforeseen circumstances.
If you attended, the first thing you would notice is the lack of vehicles. Not only this, but the few vehicles that were on display didn’t exactly follow your typical car-guidelines, including an autonomous vehicle concept without a steering wheel and electric scooters.
“In the new mobility space, rules are being changed constantly in the early stages,” says Seale. “This gives designers an opportunity to do something different. I think this is a good thing and we will see more of this in the coming years. But you’ve got to design these things to be appropriate for use.”
For example, you don’t need beautiful sculptural surfaces on the outside of a shared vehicle that doesn’t have an owner or driver. There no longer needs to be a strong emotional connection between the consumer and the vehicle’s exterior form. The considerations in designing for emotional connection will transform, given this transition of ownership dynamics. “If you’re designing something for a shared economy, then it is completely inappropriate to style it in the same way you would a privately owned vehicle,” says Seale. “For something like this, you should be focusing on the experience and how people want to use these vehicles.”
This doesn’t mean that the vehicle can’t still look cool, as people will have to choose it over other shared vehicles, but a lot of the traditional styling is only appropriate when you are trying to get someone to fall in love with a vehicle to buy it and own it.
But this doesn’t mean the end of automotive and transport design. In fact, quite the opposite. Despite the tone down in exterior design, Seale believes that designing the overall experience is more important than ever before.
“For me, the feeling of designing the exterior of super cars left me a long time ago. I’m obsessed with the whole vehicle and the experience of using it, whether that’s a bus, airplane, motorbike or car. I’ve probably worked on more interior and experience projects than I have on exterior projects in any of the transport work I’ve done.”
The industry is currently going through a revolution, disrupting traditional processes and ideologies. Now, even the OEMs have realised that the owned-car model is running out of time. This won’t change overnight, but it will have to adapt sooner rather than later. And when it does, expect to see a completely new approach to modern transport, focused on a heightened user experience and service that will bring with it a new age of design.
So no, automotive and transport design is not dead. It’s more alive than ever.