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Creeping forward en route for the future: Design truths at the IAA
von Thomas Wagner | 9/24/2009

Let's not beat about the bush: The 63rd International Automobile Show IAA does not live up to expectations. Or, put differently: It promises a lot but delivers very little. Even though they might continue to celebrate themselves and constantly talk about efficiency there is not much concrete evidence of a new wave among the automakers. Evidently, the irritations in the sector run deeper than we thought and the corporations are not particularly flexible given their rigid hierarchies when it comes to developing good mobility concepts that are innovative in more than just words, let alone new business models. But one thing is certain: In the long term you are not going to progress very far with "Keep on" and "The Auto's Everything". The range of a strategy that primarily relies on revamping technology is just as limited as the radius of an electric car and the availability of the resource lithium. And the auto industry is aware of all this. But it does not act accordingly.

This applies not least of all to auto design. It may long since be a commonplace that totally new options open up for automobile design in light of the technical concept of an electrically driven car, but sadly there is precious little evidence of the fact in Frankfurt. Which is why the future is expressed at the IAA largely in the realm of the symbolic: as a technical promise, efficiency stickers and suggestive accessories. It can be read, say, in the fact that not only the Volkswagen booth is immersed in pure white. White as the color of innocence also graces many cars and lends the product a general sense of cleanliness and pureness. The ideological color coding is complemented by all manner of green and blue.

But while marketing has long since arrived in the clean, efficient and green future, technology and design are definitely dragging their feet. For all the lithe long-legged girls and a veritable army of cleaning troopers at hand to make sure that white remains white, all of this can easily be overlooked if you choose to overlook it. As such, the efficiency sported on every single vehicle's door is at best a play for time.

Design as marketing

In recent months, one resounding mantra recited everywhere has been that the electric auto (be it with or without a range extender) enabled a totally new design idiom. There are compact electric motors possibly even housed in the wheels, compact radiators and smaller openings in the nose, and not least of all the answer to the question of how the ecological prestige of such vehicles can be expressed. Now all this comes up against the weighty issue of voluminous battery units. Sadly, design ideas in the guise of truly surprising solutions are just as much a rarity in Frankfurt as are truly intelligent concepts for replacing battery units or even alternative mobility concepts. Take the design of the Opel Ampera: it is barely more than continuation of a boring, family car whose front has been given the face of a saber-toothed tiger. The Ampera will come, and it will doubtless be successful for a while, but it does not provide an answer to the question of what mobility will look like in future.

Whenever design departments do venture to leave their comfort zone you are either horrified at how conventional and inspired by the familiar is the guise used to present the new; or you are surprised by how it all gets lost in an aesthetics that seems to be inspired solely by comics, computer games and dubious science fiction movies. Essentially, design forfeits its independence and earnestness and ultimately becomes nothing more than a marketing tool, whose purpose it is to suggest a future mobility, which is actually nothing other than its newly packed past. Rather than being fired by imaginative and audacious designs, all you see and get is the old familiar love of technology and the same evidence yet again that you can flit around dynamically in a car with an electric or hybrid motor. Seen historically that means: As regards the concepts we have not moved past the stage we reached one hundred years ago.

Design as a styling and lifestyle tool

For all the reductions that have been made, the enticements of an unlimited supply of energy and the intoxicating nature of speed remain the industry's defining values. Audi has gone to the greatest lengths with the e-tron modeled on its R8 to lend the electric motor an individual aesthetic appearance using smoothed surfaces -albeit in the guise of a super sports car. However, in its "holistic approach" to energy and thermal management, the e-tron also adheres to the concept of defining the future of the car by and large in technical terms. The fact that the emphasis is on the tried-and-tested (and the R8 is merely re-hashed) is also evident in the e-tron's "beefy" appearance and the monolithic styling of the body. The rest is just fun and games: headlights designed to resemble molars that alter their appearance depending on the car's speed, and metallic shiny, closed wheel rims and trim.

Numerous manufacturers are excessively geared towards technical efficiency, and seem to have as good as forgotten social or aesthetic efficiency. With its "Vision Efficient Dynamics", BMW adopts a similar strategy to Audi but emphasizes transparency and lightness as the visual expression of dynamism. Yet as the name already says: The major objective in this design study is the combination of (technical) efficiency and (symbolic) dynamism, in other words it is about rewording the oh-so-familiar BMW marque values to suit the prevailing conditions of an ecological crisis - in the hope that this will save them. And now everything goes together: Average consumption (3.8 liters), speed (250 km/h), transparency and ecology. What counts are performance and consumption. And in such a context, design not only creates a suitable packaging but also symbolically delivers the ideological superstructure. And it is accepted that generally speaking the result is nothing more than styling, and the designer merely allowed to make a more or less dynamic mantle to suit the specifications of engineers and marketing specialists.

The only possible explanation why the dynamic and efficient machine (like the Citroën GT) has to look like a Batmobile sprayed white that seems to emerge from the smoke used in wind tunnels to make the current of air visible (a current that has now mutated to colored glowing lines) is the fact that precisely this is the designers' vision for the future as previously showcased in the media. Since autos can be designed on a computer screen using complicated CAD programs too many models look as if they were not made for the road but for a video game. And in a commercial by Citroën, which shows the GT in the streets of London, this is precisely the message: Designed for a video game. As such, the alleged realism of the engineers is confronted by the designers' imagination, which has muted into the virtual and fantastic. The result are hybrid visions with hybrid motors.

Design as camouflage

For example, if you consider the current Renault show cars from the perspective of design becoming a virtual reality, it is striking that here, too, the design (guess what, thanks to the color white!) is pushed into the background and eclipsed by all manner of accessories. In principle, design as design has become obsolete and design only camouflages its own impotence. And using blue discs, green LED-lines and headlights that change color and look like a lighting console or shower heads every weakness of the sheet-metal body can be ironed out. The resulting creations are not automobiles but flashing islands of attention, which occupy the eye such that it forgets the rest.

Not only the aesthetic similarity with the last-but-one generation of Apple computers but also the fact that design here is defined by a cosmetic camouflage of its weaknesses means that these show cars resemble ‘future visions' - at least superficially. The peculiarities of the Z.E. panel truck are perpetuated in the inconsistency of the Twizy C.E. concept. The small compact car may run on narrow tires but their fairings simulate broad wheel rims rather than looking for a design solution as would be fitting for a new vehicle type. All the same, at Renault they even have green pencils. And indeed, the electric socket is the new idol of the auto industry, while the fetish is CO2 emission.

Design as hybrid

The Peugeot BB1 is the best example for demonstrating how hybrid (in other words, indecisive) and at a loss auto design is at present. It may admittedly come as a surprise that it would not have been possible to distinguish back from front if not for the red rear lights. However, the fact that the Bébé car has swapped the kiddy design for the likeness of a Pekinese and the back-hinged doors are probably a hindrance in the city only go to show that here the love of deconstructionism simply gives the impression that some of the parts must surely have been incorrectly assembled. This is also a typical attempt to cover up the current uncertainty in design - at worst quite literally.

Let us remain silent about the design in lilac shades as practiced by Citroën with the Révolte (!) - what a slap in the face for the 2CV's brilliant simplicity in every detail - or the youthful self-celebration in which the Mini with a flattened coupé plus baseball cap worn back to front. Once again a case of marketing and a target-group focus take priority to the design. And Mercedes? Well, what is presented (over and above the SLS AMG) in the guise of E-Cell and E-Cell Plus, may albeit be closer to mass production than many others at the IAA. However, here again, drenched in highly elaborate golden bronze and fishy green, the problem is tackled in a purely technical manner with the design merely jazzing things up and given the car a futuristic look.

Design with a future?

In the end, the VW E-Up offers the only truly pioneering design. Which is strange, as even though the small car boasts the one or other successful detail aesthetically speaking it is nothing other than a warmed-up version of the Lupo with somewhat modest muscles and an affable, childish bumper grin. But amongst the new, small electric cars it is the only example of clear, consistent design and one can assume that it will continue to win customers in a few years time. On the whole, there are simply too many lozenges, whose muscles were pumped up in a body-building studio -or merely pimped. And just too much styling. Which if you look at details such as door trim, lamps, baggage space covers and the like - ultimately means there is a spreading of the non-designed.

The ugly is what is genuine

What a genuine, raw vehicle looks like where the design comes across as elemental is demonstrated by the Hartung Sparta Nature, a three-seater mid-engine off-road sportscar with a central driver position and air suspension system, and which looks as if it were hand-made using a chisel and file from an aluminum block. With a torque of up to 1,500 Newton meters, the 6.6 liter V8 turbo diesel is not only strong as an ox but can even be run in a surprisingly eco-friendly manner on jatropha oil or algae-derived biofuel. For those who might find such a monster too expensive, too powerful and above all too spartan, they can nip around town on an electric scooter such as Tante Paula. So you see, anyone who strives to make everything look like a virtual future, which comes from the past, could very soon be overtaken by the future and exiled to the past.

Mercedes Benz booth
Lamborghini
Lamborghini
BMW Vision EfficientDynamics Concept Car
BMW Vision EfficientDynamics Concept Car
BMW Vision EfficientDynamics Concept Car
Renault Twizy Z.E. Concept
Renault Twizy Z.E. Concept
Renault Kangoo Z.E. Concept
VW booth
BMW Group
Saab booth
Audi R8
Peugeot BB1
Peugeot BB1
Peugeot BB1
VW L1
Mini Coupé
VW e-up
VW booth
Opel Ampera
Audi e-tron
Audi e-tron
Audi e-tron
Citroën GT
Citroën GT
Citroën GT
Volvo booth
Fiat booth
BMW booth
BMW booth
Audi booth
Citroën Revolte
Citroën Revolte
Citroën Revolte
Mercedes Benz E-Cell Plus
Mercedes Benz E-Cell Plus
Hartung Sparta Nature