BMW i8 interior and carbon material (2015)

Material Authenticity: Challenging the Shiny Silver Box Approach

In this second article challenging long-held assumptions about car design, Nir Kahn looks at letting material authenticity.

Early cars were truly horseless carriages, and these carriages were made using the same materials and processes that traditional coachbuilders had been using for generations. For this simple reason, early cars also shared the aesthetic of the horse-drawn carriage and, for the first few decades of automobile manufacture, no one really questioned this.

Imagine the development meeting a century ago when a bright young engineer first suggested making cars out of pressed welded steel rather than from wood. What if the response he was given was “but how will we give it that beautiful wood texture?” and “welds are ugly”? What if he was told to come back when he had developed the ability to press steel to look like wood and could assemble the body using wood screws and dowel joints?

Shiny metal boxes - Nir Kahn

Clearly, this would have been a ridiculous attitude but, in many ways, this is the way that the automotive industry relates to alternative materials like composites today. We are told to come back when we can press it, give it a metallic glossy finish, paint it in standard high-temperature processes, and sometimes even weld it.

The automotive industry wants new materials to look and behave like painted steel. But pressed metals are naturally smooth and shiny. They have to be painted because they’d rust if they weren’t. Composites are not naturally smooth and shiny and don’t need to be painted, so why should they be expected to look like traditional materials?

2018 Bentley Continental GT rear haunch

Cars look the way that they do because they are made of pressed steel

The truth that even designers often forget is that cars look the way that they do because they are made of pressed steel. They don’t necessarily look this way because it’s the way that we want them to look. We vehicle designers naturally start drawing swooping shapes with smooth painted surfaces without questioning this century-old aesthetic assumption. But we all should be.

Few other design disciplines get away with such dishonesty in design. Gold-painted plastic watches and fake brick cladding on buildings are rightly derided as being kitsch. Architects are expected to let materials be what they are. Wood is left to be wood, brick is brick, steel is steel, and glass is glass. They design with the broad and varied palette that their materials offer. So why are car designers so intent on faking it?

Wood door mirror kitsch

Our external surfaces are now a mix of plastics, metals and composites. These are then painted a homogeneous shiny silver color. We paint composites to look like aluminum, we wrap plastics to look like carbon fiber, we lacquer a wafer-thin layer of walnut to pretend that the dashboard is made of wood. We even mold leather surface patterns into polyurethane. When pressed, car designers blame their customers. “This is what they expect,” we are told. But isn’t it the role of designers to push boundaries and change expectations?

The ultimate luxury is authenticity. The reason that a gold watch has class and a gold-painted plastic watch doesn’t is due to authenticity. We respect it. We desire it. We expect it. It’s not the gold color that we like, it’s the fact that gold is uncommon and therefore expensive. If it’s not real gold then we’re not interested and generally speaking, anything painted gold looks tacky. It is, in the real sense of the word, kitsch.

iPhone carbon fiber case

Like gold, carbon fiber is perceived as being expensive and therefore desirable. When it comes to advanced composites like carbon fiber though, part of the problem is the general public’s lack of understanding about what the real thing actually looks like. You know that nice, neat, glossy, exposed-weave phone cover that you saw on eBay? Well, it doesn’t usually look like that. It can of course, but this takes effort and expense that isn’t strictly necessary to benefit from the immense structural and weight advantages of carbon fiber.

If the object that you’re looking at has a beautiful, even, glossy carbon fiber weave then there is a good chance that it’s a vinyl wrap rather than genuine structural carbon fiber. Absurdly, we have more respect for the appearance of fake carbon fiber than we do for the real thing. Used efficiently, composites are often layers of different unidirectional fibers, sometimes there is even a random matte in there like the inside surface of a canoe. There will often be visible epoxy bonds and the surface itself is far from mirror smooth. There are small pits and bubbles; it’s a naturally unpolished finish.

BMW i8 interior and carbon material (2015)

On the BMW i3 and i8, the carbon fiber passenger cell is left exposed in this natural state, visible only when you open the doors. But if you’d only ever seen carbon fiber in its glossy dashboard trim form then you may be shocked by how rough it looks. BMW could get away with this in a way that lesser marques wouldn’t have dared. On a lowly mainstream car, it would have been accused of looking cheap. But BMW was sending a clear message to their discerning customers: This is what carbon fiber actually looks like; get used to it because we are going to be using more of it and we don’t want to have to polish and paint it just to satisfy your expectations born of a century of steel.

 BMW i3 interior and carbon material (2014)

But BMW did apply the carbon fiber to forms that were designed as if they were pressed metals. They developed and industrialized new processes to let them make carbon fiber parts that were shaped like a pressed and welded steel body would have been. What they didn’t do is to design the cars for the materials and processes that were the most weight/cost-effective to use. They too, although less than other manufacturers, we’re still stuck in a material-replacement mindset even with these most advanced and revolutionary BMWi cars. This is why the bond-lines are exposed. If the designers and engineers had considered these details earlier then they could have been hidden, just the same as ugly welds are hidden from view.

Plasan sketch board

This is why there needs to be closer cooperation between designers and engineers to integrate alternative materials into the very design of the car. There needs to be closer cooperation between car manufacturers and material solution providers like Plasan. The old unquestioned solutions for everything from door seals and flanges to load paths and crumple zones need to be revisited with an open mind as we move away from metallic structures.

These are very exciting times for car designers. Perhaps more than ever the ground is moving under our feet. Electrification, autonomy, and alternative materials are forcing us to question many of our historical assumptions. I believe that we have a duty not to hide behind the excuse that the customer isn’t ready. We should be embracing this new palette of materials, start painting in textures and unpainted surfaces and offering the public the luxury of authenticity. The age of the shiny metal car is coming to an end.

Nir Kahn is the Design Director of Plasan, working on new composite architectures for the cost-effective mass-production of lightweight cars


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