The automotive industry is going through a seismic change. From electric cars to MaaS, the traditional business model is evolving, so too is the public’s perception of the automobile as a machine to carry society away from its problems and provide freedom to the end-user. Arguably, much of what is transpiring around the world is the result of regulation and legislation, all of which is taking place outside of automotive companies themselves and thus beyond their control. But are there ways that automakers can prevent a continued decline in the interest of the automobile? Prof. Paolo Tumminelli shares his views.
The car is one of the products that has always carried an emotional connection with customers. What is its position today?
Throughout the last century, car ownership has been a very positive emotion. Experience, speed, style or social status. The connection was very strong because the cars expressed freedom. In the century in which we live today, we are experiencing another transformation of this paradigm. It is not caused by the cars themselves, but by politics and public opinion. The first argument that strikes today is that cars are bad because they invade space and pollute the environment. We see them everywhere, and people affected by the massive presence of cars around us have ceased to perceive them as a positive example of economic and social progress and begun to consider them a threat.
The second argument is fear. The introduction of speed limits has lost cars to one of the main criteria for assessing their capabilities, and instead, people in the automotive industry are beginning to declare their quality through the way cars behave when they crash. The approach to cars thus began to change from a manifesto of the joy of movement and driving to accident prevention. The scale of how we look at cars is no longer how much freedom they provide users, but how well the car will protect the user from injury and death. Much in the same way, car users are made to feel guilty for their polluting the environment by using cars. This is basically dangerous because it works with negative emotions. The emotional connection is still there but in a negative sense.
Is there any way to change this perception?
The question is whether the automotive industry wants to change it and what they can change. The European and American carmakers have generally left behind their responsibility to society. Responsibility doesn’t entail selling cars and profiting from it. Responsibility is to ease the conditions for the use of cars. Let me give you an example: companies like Google or Apple are making fantastic products with fascinating capabilities, but they also provide the infrastructure that allow data exchange and free internet access. To have a super-powerful computer without connection doesn’t make a sense.
The automotive industry has lost the responsibility to promote mobility, freedom, joy, and pleasure as the core value of the car. Today, carmakers sell cars and pass the responsibility on to politicians and organizations who do not care much for it. We have the best cars we’ve ever had, great technology, detailed design and other things we’ve never dreamed of in cars, but we have nowhere to go with them. We are stuck in congestion facing usage limitations due to all possible reasons. We have cars that can drive 300 km/h, but we drive 30 km/h! The automotive industry doesn’t consider this dimension and tunes only the design. It does not understand that people are not concerned with the looks of cars, but that they’re not attracted by the whole system. When I buy a car, I want to use it and feel happy.
What could be the key to get out of it?
There is no one solution but, for example, I would ask if we really need such big and heavy cars. If you look at the growth in the size of cars in relation to people, the average height of human beings has hardly changed in the last 20 years. However, the size of cars has increased by 15%, which means Heidi Klum, would measure 2.07 m.
Sure, cars also grow following safety requirements, but we may soon be able to revise the whole safety concept thanks to assisted driving. It is one thing to return to human dimensions in cars, another option concerns human-centered design. In the last 20 years, cars have been visually evolving into very aggressive objects. Carmakers should consider returning to more friendly expressions. All this could change the general perception of the car from an enemy of society, as is happening in abundance today, to a positive entity – because it has always been so, we just forgot about it.
But I guess the carmakers’ response would be: we make the kind of cars people want.
I think that’s their very misconception. In the ‘80s, cars were very user-centered in design. Then, in the 1990s, we experienced the phenomenon of self-fulfilling design, where each brand worked hard to highlight the values that were important to itself. Mostly it was performance, progressiveness, efficiency, dynamics… No one said usability, sympathy, relaxation. Everyone wanted to be a road champion.
Another factor – for which there is academic research – is the fact that if you ask a man or a woman what kind of expression they would like their car to have, everyone will say a strong and fearless car. It’s a matter of self-perception, everyone wants to be seen as a winner, which of course doesn’t happen in the real world. Directing car design towards this, the industry created a trend and two things happened. First of all, the people are left with no alternative, because in fact every car – small or big – bears the same aggressive design. Worse though, the industry also facilitated a negative public perception of cars.
Let’s consider for example the sports cars of the 1960s, such as the Lamborghini Miura. It was the fastest car on the road, but its expression was very peaceful. Its face smiled and everyone adored that. Today, one of the few examples of charming and likable design is the Fiat 500. The retro design has been on the market since 2007 and is still selling successfully. The Mini is further proof that people crave non-aggressive designs. Fortunately, most of the upcoming electric cars also have a much more accommodating look – at least so far.
For electric cars, I had this impression mainly at the beginning, but over time it seems to me that the difference in the expression of a car with an electric and a conventional motor is blurred again.
I would say that it was more of a very cold-blooded strategy from traditional manufacturers. They knew that, in the beginning, they would not be able to produce or sell so many, so they could afford to create vehicle designs that were shocking.
Tesla’s success changed that. Musk needed to sell a car to people who would otherwise buy a Porsche Panamera, Maserati Quattroporte, or Audi A7. That is why the first Model S had a fake grille and did not differ in shape from conventional cars. Going into a lower segment with the Model 3, they showed others that it is possible to successfully sell an electric car with the appearance of ordinary cars. So now, even BMW is going back to doing ordinary-looking E-vehicles. In my opinion, this is a great missed chance to redefine the automobile. When the engine’s gone, it’s simply stupid when an electric car looks like a normal car.
Related to this are fake grilles, which have become a purely decorative element.
Grilles have only grown larger for the last 20 years. Audi started with that and today their face is more grille than car. In the process, the rationale of cooling has gone lost. The radiator grille has become a decorative piece, like a tattoo or a mask that is worn for self-expression. In a way, it is ridiculous that companies have wasted so much time, energy and money designing an element a car doesn’t need, except perhaps for brand recognition. This is even more true for electric cars. I guess, the carmakers cling to it because they are afraid that they would become a copy of Tesla without it.
We are experiencing a situation where the number of car fans is constantly decreasing, but at the same time, they demand more and more. With fake grilles and fake exhausts, the car has become a caricature of itself. Its scope is to captivate and amaze a small population of car freaks. In projecting a superfluous and ostentatious image, the industry exposes the automobile to social critique. The public demands objects that make sense. I would appreciate it if the automotive industry tried to go more into the essence of design and define new priorities.
The automotive industry is an industry with great inertia, and anything in it is extremely difficult to change. How difficult is it to leave one of the main pillars of design that they have been building for years?
This is a disadvantage for the European car industry in particular – it is the oldest and least competitive. In a deregulated market, the car industry has to defend itself and the only defense they have is heritage, i.e. the grille. Today, a premium German brand can only say: do you see the star? It’s me, I was there first, I shine brighter, therefore I am more expensive!
Until the 1970s, Italian design had a sovereign position, but today design standards are global. Asian companies have reached the same design quality. Chinese carmakers own the largest studios in Turin. No one has to refer to cooperation with good old Pininfarina anymore… The other problem for European carmakers is that, since they extensively introduced modular platforms and they started cross-brand sharing, they keep reproducing the same car over and over again. Like America in the 1960s, their design power is often limited to cosmetic changes, and often the only thing that sets them apart is styling: the make-up and hair cuts.
On the other hand, this can be a pretty good opportunity for others. Do you think that a newcomer with a strong vision could bring a significant change?
Today, I see great potential in South Korean carmakers like Kia or Hyundai, which are just starting to strive for a minimalist and meaningful design language. And there are newcomers such as Lucid, who is not tied to tradition and can define design from scratch.
Obviously, European brands could do it too. But the problem is human. Who will take on such a responsibility? Would you like to be in the position of the head of the VW or BMW concern, who will order the fundament of a brand’s design DNA (including the grille) removed and then maybe face criticism? A European manager would better hope for a miracle that the status quo will continue to work.
Today’s CEOs also have great power and responsibility, but they do not want to explain to shareholders and people in the company that sales have fallen last quarter because customers are slowly getting used to a new design. Thus we have the EQs, the iXs, and the Polestars: good old-looking new cars with good old grilles.
One more aspect: the European industry used to be creative and progressive, advancing in design from model to model, but since the 1990s it has put on a tight branding corset. It has become conservative. They think, when you do something really new, you also immediately have another dozen of your own models that suddenly look old. If you change one grille, you have to change another 40 and it will take you years. It’s a lot of money and a big risk that no one will take today. The last of those who were willing to take on responsibilities was Ferdinand Piëch, I wonder, what would he do if he were 50 and CEO of VW today?
What is the position of design for today’s car manufacturers?
The role of Design is still limited within car manufacturers. Both in digital businesses and fashion companies, the function of design is holistic and inclusive. Design connects the evolution and development of the entire system of contents. In the car industry, design is still taken as an “art & color” department that only cares about the shape of the product itself. Design work has grown much in scope to include soft and digital skills and has gained recognition and power. It can shape a lot, but it wouldn’t be allowed to transform anything.
At the same time, the world’s large design consultancies are no longer the ones who would provide nice shapes, but they consult governments and corporations in change and evolution, they apply design thinking to social innovation, they speculate on possible futures. At Google and Apple, at Samsung and Xiaomi design is understood more thoroughly. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the automotive industry.
And what about companies like Tesla?
Tesla certainly did EV better and earlier than the others, but not much more. In my opinion, Elon Musk has a very conservative approach to cars, and for me, Tesla is not the one who would be seen moving the concept of the car significantly further. Tesla made a car with an electric motor, applied digital connectivity, and redefined the after-sales experience, but they did not significantly change or improve the usage of the automobile.
When I talk about design, I never mean just the product itself. Steve Jobs not only made attractively shaped products, but he also implemented new forms of fruition that transformed the entire industry – think of the music business. The one thing Tesla changed was that they got rid of dealers they didn’t have. Instead, they implemented supercharging. It’s a great innovation for a carmaker, but for customers, it’s just a condition they accept when buying a car. Tesla made the EV sexy and profited enormously from public financial support in the process. But the car they’re offering is not the car that will change our lives for the better and save our planet.
What could be the key to the success of new producers and emerging start-ups?
The monopoly of traditional manufacturers has been the development of internal combustion engines, but it is much easier to produce an electric motor, and this opens up chances for others. When we think of the car in terms of resources, the first thing is space. With a footprint of 2×4 meters, it’s almost like a tiny house, and if you combine that with a new safety concept and a significant reduction of all mechanical parts, you can create a very nice environment that provides more return on investment than mere commuting convenience. Most of the time, a car occupies public space. An immobile automobile can become an additional space where people can work, children can watch a movie, you can listen to music, meditate.
Basically, it’s about the ability to add value to a car. You have a physical and digital user interface in the car, you have a source of energy, quality design… The car can become a completely different object and now that we are going farther in this direction, it is a better position for new players – people that don’t need to come from Le Mans or the Mille Miglia… Today, therefore, there is talk of an Apple car, a Google car, a Facebook car, a Xiaomi car – everyone who has money could make a car – this also is the lesson of Tesla.
What kind of society-wide approach to the topic of the car do you see?
I am an architect, and my understanding of the car is based on knowledge of how cities and society work. It is clear that we need the car in our lives. But we must re-socialize it. The question is: In which direction we should further develop it? We have opportunities, experience, resources, technology and the market. The only problem is who will help us with that.
In the last century, automakers relied on major automotive magazines that arose from the huge interest in cars. Growing up in Italy, the car monthly Quattroruote was the second-largest Italian magazine after Famiglia Cristiana, which was published by the Church. The publication had social and political relevance. But nowadays, the audience for specialized car media is shrinking. Young people today do not prefer cars and are less interested in driving. General interest media hardly discuss automobility and yet, every household has at least one car. We are a car-based society and economy, but Germans politicians support bicycles!
So who is left to promote discourse? When carmakers themselves talk about cars, you can feel the advertisement from 100 yards. We need someone to talk about and explain why cars are good and remind us of their value. Freedom of movement was and still is one of the most important values for a mobile society. The car was created to foster private individual mobility. But no one seems to like it, no one wants to support it and no one feels responsible for it. Changing the automobile means changing our society, means redesigning our lives. It is an important matter. So why not talk about it?
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