Ten hypotheses on automobile design
by Thomas Wagner | 11 settembre 2011
Automobile design today depends on engineering achievements, technological innovation and marketing far more than is the case in other fields of product or industrial design. Bowing down to the diktat of the feasible has robbed it of its courage and autonomy. The result is a glaring lack of originality. Even when new engines are introduced, the models still look pretty much the same. Where new technologies such as electric drives would enable completely new vehicle concepts, the designers lack the will or persuasive ideas to dare to do something surprising. Likewise automobile design needs more liberties and greater self-confidence. All graphics: Dimitrios Tsatsas, Stylepark
IAA – 64th International Motor Show
From September 15-25, 2011
Frankfurt Trade Fair Grounds
Concept cars today almost all look as though they had originated in computer games or trivial sci-fi movies. There are two reasons for this: Firstly, manufacturers want in this way to woo young clients who have grown up with such an aesthetic, especially as cars are no longer absolutely top of young people's shopping lists. Secondly, the design opts for fashionable accessories and looks cool and youthful specifically to cover over the fact that the vision of a future driven primarily by technology, mobility and resource use seems increasingly remote. The results are as obvious as they are successful: A "Mini" gets a kind of baseball cap, back to front of course, and the designers think this is leading edge stuff.
To keep their product attractive until new drive technologies are available for mass production and other forms of individual mobility have been developed for metropolises and megacities carmakers are playing for time. And mainly plumb three options: They differentiate the product line and offer countless car body and accessories versions for a single model series; they go for retro-design and proven shapes to keep the myth of the automobile alive; and they immunize their models aesthetically with a trivial shot of future - against the suspicion that the automobile is dying out. Seen from the angle of process-oriented design, we are experiencing a type of design that replaces innovation by cosmetics and nurtures the myth of personal mobility instead of developing new mobility concepts across the systems.
Rejuvenating the myth, the diktat of fashion and fear all ensure that car design today is either "retro" or "future", or whatever the respective team of designers understands these to be. BMW showed the route to take with the "Mini", Fiat followed suit with the "500", and Volkswagen is now for the second time taking the "beetle" silhouette out of the top drawer and launching another attempt with the "Beetle". If retro design marks the one end of the scale, then future design is at the other. The fact is, however that both notions are based on ancient patterns of vehicles and mobility.
All you need do is put the original Mini and its big re-design brother next to each other, to the "Fiat 500" next to the cloned version, and what you see is that recent design successes follow the principle of air pumps. The way this functions is simple: you take an iconic car from auto history and inflate it to such a point that the latest technology fits in it. Bingo! Since vehicles in general are furnished with an ever greater number of security and assistance systems (the meaning and purpose of which is not always convincing), all the models have been growing larger as the years go by. The result: they are too large, too heavy, and too immobile. So it's time to let the superfluous air out of the car bodies again - deflate.
Automobile design is a complex matter. The auto industry design teams are at present not busy creating alternative concepts but in optimizing the tried and the true. The focus is far less on design than is often suggested. Since a change of model constitutes a major risk for the entire industry (for all the boom in Asia), today what counts first and foremost is the "package".
When VW recently launched a third variant on its one-liter car, a trade journal wrote: "The shape was fine-tuned in a wind tunnel to maximize efficiency, it tapers to the back, reminiscent of a dolphin." And thus it continues to be the case that automobile designers file away with two things: the one is the wind, the other the computer. This explains why current models do not have organic shapes, but artificially-corporeal bodies. A shape is not striking and beautiful simply because it proves to be efficient in a wind tunnel. Designers should liberate themselves from the mania of technological efficiency. Only then will they rediscover the eroticism of form.
The futurist paradigm has run its course. Neither melding man and machine or the buzz of speed will define the future of mobility. What rules the roost today: grid locks, consumption, emission figures, and any number of hybrid shapes and concepts. The paradigm shift has not yet trickled down to auto design, it would seem, where the designers simply dip into their modules box and combine bits that do not really go together. Meaning that design continues to be shaped by hybrid forms and eclectic concepts.
Chris Bangle, who was Head of Design at BMW from 1992 to 2009, divides the history of automobile design into three important epochs. In the beginning, Bangle says, the motorized vehicles resembled traveling houses. In the 1920s the focus shifted to sculpted shapes, incorporating aerodynamic insights. Bangle suggests the third epoch started in 1974 with Giorgetto Giugiaro's design for "Golf I". This shape was as simple and straightforward as a refrigerator. Since then, not much has happened. Remixes and evergreens have ruled the roost. A streamlined "box" with a respectively different marque radiator and metal muscles over the wheels will not suffice in the long term. Possibly, alternative vehicles for conurbations will offer the greatest opportunity for a new type of thinking to be tried out, turning carmakers into mobility corporations. This can only succeed if the design is not to subservient to what the marketing buffs want and radical ideas that question the principle of personal mobility are not simply ignored. Is it not more probable that we have long since entered a post-historical age in which we no longer see innovations but simply variations on existing themes. Through to the automation of driving and the blending of individual movement and collective mobility.
Instead of styling and hybrid shapes what we need are car designers who have emancipated themselves from technology and its optimization. Auto design must expand its horizons and take social and collective aspects as seriously as personal wishes. Sweetly clad technology alone will not cut the mustard for long. Must a car that I share with others differ from the one I own? Must a vehicle isolate its driver from the experience of driving by automation and providing thousands of little electronic helpers? Or do these additional accessories simply serve to secure carmakers' profits? Another energy shock is no doubt round the corner, and the next financial crisis already upon us. So what will "premium" be in the future, and what will "luxury" be? It's time that auto designers found answers to these sorts of questions.