The automotive industry is going through an evolutionary adjustment as we see the emergence of an industry-wide transition from investment in gasoline internal combustion engine (ICE) power to battery electric power and autonomous vehicles. The recent unveiling of the Renault 5 electric vehicle (EV) prototype, the rebranding of General Motors and the UK government’s plan to ban new diesel and gasoline-powered cars by 2030 are clear examples that a shift is happening. EVs are no longer niche futuristic visions held by avant-garde industry outsiders like Tesla or outlier sub-brands such as the BMW i brand. Autonomous technologies, meanwhile, are slowly but surely progressing to some form of realization. As we enter this new automotive age, what will the future car look and feel like? How will automotive design evolve?
I’m not a car designer but I started my design education studying Transport Design in Coventry, UK. I remember one of the first exercises we did was to sculpt a transitional form out of clay. Transitional forms are important in automotive design because you read and interprets a car’s form by physically moving from its front to side to rear.
One-off Aston Martin Victor (left) and the Ferrari Roma
A satisfying form is one whereby individual elevations seem to connect – communicate or talk – to one another via lines, shapes and surfaces rather than abrupt breaks and adverse changes in direction. The Ferrari Roma the Aston Martin Victor are stylistically very different but they are both great examples of transitional forms that can be coherently read from front to rear via their intertwining, unique but consistent design language.
Aside from design, my knowledge and expertise lies in innovation management. Innovation is fundamentally about change. It is the shifting of ideas, behaviors and norms. Innovation doesn’t happen all of a sudden but gradually over time by connecting and aligning the dots from the past, the present and tomorrow (the future).
The Mini automotive brand is an ideal example of a manufacturer that understands innovation. It respects the past, delivers for today but is always looking to the future. Mini’s Vision Next 100 and more recent Vision Urbanaut concept projects brilliantly demonstrate the marque is more than retro styling and embraces new and emerging norms in automotive culture – such as electrification and a future where the passenger experience takes greater significance over the driver experience.
Mini Vision Next 100 and the Vision Urbanaut
So-called ‘disruptive innovators’ – such as Tesla and ride-sharing app Uber – have challenged the incumbent idea of the car and our relationship with it. It’s brought us to question the car as an object – what it is, its component parts and layout – as well as its role in society; what it does, how we interact and value it. Tesla didn’t invent EVs. The company merely advanced the technology and packaged it in a familiar-looking luxury sedan. Similarly, Uber didn’t invent the taxi, it just digitalized ride-hailing in the age of the smartphone.
By connecting seemingly unrelated dots, Tesla and Uber have changed the perception of the car, dragged the rest of the industry into a transition and inspired tech giants such as Google, Amazon and Sony to tinker with the car archetype. The automotive industry is having its ‘iPhone moment’, as the mobile phone industry did a decade ago.
Tesla Model S and Apple iPhone 11 Pro
Just as the internet-connected iPhone showed the world that a phone is more than a device for making calls, the car is going through a similar redefining of the product paradigm. A car is not just for driving or transporting. The role, look and feel of the future car is only limited by imagination, and the playing field is being changed by newcomer players who are metaphorically ‘grabbing the clay tool’ to shape the next twist in the story of automotive design.
Function Dictates Form
Form is such an important factor of car culture and design. Different forms distinguish different vehicle types, groups, models, brands and eras, as well as projecting different automotive narratives and emotions. Put simply, a sleeker form may convey a sense of speed while a stockier form will give an impression of robustness and security.
My passion for cars and design started in the pre-internet, pre-digital, late 80s/90s by plastering my bedroom walls with images of the Ferrari Testarossa and the Lamborghini Countach. The exotic shapes and glossy surfaces were so awe-inspiring, radical and futuristic compared to my parent’s dull and shapeless Austin Allegro. They were superficial dream cars that affected my young designer mind and, admittedly, until this day I judge a vehicle by its form and looks before anything else.
Marcello Gandini’s Lamborghini Countach and the Ferrari Testarossa by Pininfarina
Beauty and style are undeniably subjective and interpreted differently from person to person, yet the production of a design aesthetic is a disciplined and considered process. A particular design and the successful delivery of that design is more than a designer’s sketch or render. It is about understanding the packaging of components, technical and usage requirements, feasibility of production, material science, the availability of manufacturing processes, budget, legislations, regulations, consumer expectations…etc. In short, aesthetic achievement is a complex accumulation of contributions and decisions.
Take for example three soon-to-be-launched prototype EV pickup trucks: the Bollinger B2, Rivian R1T and the Tesla Cybertruck. These are three similar vehicle types using similar EV platforms from new and non-traditional automotive manufacturers. Beyond that, they are totally different in their aesthetic and form. The R1T looks most like a contemporary ‘standard’ pickup, the B2 has a modernized Series Land Rover vibe going on, and the Cybertruck throws out all the rules of what a truck should be. What is interesting and exciting is they are three very different-looking and feeling vehicles because of how they have been considered, resolved and manufactured.
Clockwise from left: Tesla Cybertruck, Rivian RT1 and the Bollinger B2
The B2, RT1 and Cybertruck example is somewhat similar to comparing an Alienware gaming laptop against a MacBook Pro. The former has a highly stylized external plastic casing while the latter is a machined piece of aluminum designed from the inside-out. Two very different laptop designs as a result of design process, manufacturing know-how and aesthetic philosophy.
The idea of designing from inside-out or from the ground up is something often heard from startup EV and autonomous vehicle developers such as Canoo, Zoox and Arrival who are certainly bringing a new aesthetic to automotive and transport design. An aesthetic that feels more product and far less superficial than the Testarossa and Countach that fueled my passion for car design.
Clockwise from left: Canoo, Priestman Goode and Zoox robotaxis
Two automotive examples from the last year stand out to me as examples of The Shape of Things to Come. They are not EVs. They are not from silicon-valley startups. They are not immediately innovative, different or obvious. They are polar opposites in terms of automotive archetype, design language, execution and target consumer. And they are both petrol head icons in their own rights. The vehicles I’m alluding to are the new Rolls-Royce Ghost sedan and 2021 Ford F-150 pickup truck.
The new Rolls-Royce Ghost is a package of ultra-refined luxury technology and engineering. It strives for perfection in delivering the ultimate vehicle for it discerning customers. It is also restrained and focused on practical usability – every detail has a function and role. The Ghost feels like it could have come out of the design studios of luxury consumer electronics brand Apple or technical outdoor-wear luxury lifestyle brand Veilance. Studios where luxury and function go hand-in-hand and aesthetic is more of a byproduct of the design development process.
Rolls-Royce Ghost (2021)
The 2021 F-150 is, like its predecessors, a big, brute, macho truck. But the latest iteration has really raised the bar in attention to user experience design and defining the role of the vehicle beyond its primary function as transportation. It is a pickup truck but it is also a mobile workshop, mobile office, mobile lounge – with its fully reclining seats – mobile power station and more. The truck is very indirectly asking the bigger question about the role of cars in a driverless future and has amazingly foreseen the COVID-19 age of work-from-home by bringing the world the option of work-from-vehicle.
Both the Ghost and F-150 have familiar automotive archetype forms but they feel modern and forward-thinking in their design reasoning. They are the shape of things to come – even though they are not currently EVs or loaded with autonomous technologies – because they both represent a shift in thinking towards purposeful, considered and intentional design. They are more than just an exterior shell. In a world where a myriad of mobility options are and will become ever accessible via the click of a smartphone app, cars will increasingly need to do more. Cars will need to sell their space, purpose and usability. The Ghost and F-150 are starting that transition.
Ford F-150 (P702) sketch by Tom Liu, workspace and reclining seats
The future of mobility will inherently be dictated by the functions each vehicle is asked to perform. Vehicles will need to become more specific to use-cases but also respond to cultural, social and market demands. Developing cars will need to move away from simply communicating brand value – as many vehicle designs currently do – and evolve to become representative of wider solutions based on the above criteria.
To do this, synergies between the automotive industry and the service industry, urban and rural planning and architecture will need to take place. This evolutionary adjustment will have to become more revolutionary to serve the needs of users – both private and public – in an increasingly complex mobility world. Designers are well placed to provide the creative solutions to respond to these needs.