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SPECIAL REPORT: VEHICLES FOR THE NEXT DECADE

What You'll Be Driving

Design: Artists of the auto industry discuss what blending passion, practicality, technology and identity means for the future of vehicles.

April 29, 1999|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The car of the future may have a hydrogen-fueled heart, a computerized brain and an exotic skeleton of alloy metal and composite plastic, but the auto industry remains convinced that design will still provide its soul.

Looks aren't everything, and consumers won't keep buying a well-styled vehicle if it isn't also reliable, well-equipped and built with quality. But without good looks, few quality vehicles can survive a market that still places passion above practicality.

"Every brand has to exude an emotion," says Susan Westfall, who heads the design team for Ford Motor Co.'s new Explorer Sport-Trac, a 2000 model that marries a short pickup truck bed to the passenger cabin of an Explorer sport-utility vehicle. "Design is important because it is what communicates that something special to the customer."

Indeed, a recent survey of young import-car owners involved in the performance and customizing scene found that 57% rated looks--the factory design that they intended to modify--as the principal reason they bought a particular model. Quality, at 51%, came in second in the survey, which allowed participants to vote for more than one factor.

Perhaps one sign of design's growing importance is the recent decision by struggling Nissan North America to turn its chief designer, Jerry Hirshberg, into its chief pitchman. Hirshberg, widely respected in design circles, is now becoming a familiar face in many consumers' households because of his appearances in Nissan television ads--the first time a designer has been so featured.

He says design is critical not only to the success of an auto company, but also to the consumer's ability to use and enjoy a product. Good design, Hirshberg said in a recent interview, "means we're putting people back" into the picture.

With the auto industry poised for major changes, The Times asked a group of designers to sit down and talk about their business and its future in a Highway 1 Automotive Round Table. (See accompanying box for list of panelists.)

They agree there's a huge move into niche marketing and away from the theory that success means having one mass-market car that will appeal to a million buyers. Now auto makers want 10 specialty vehicles, each of which will appeal to 100,000 people.

They say there's a need in the industry to change the visual aspects of automobiles more quickly than ever before. With greater use of exotic materials, they add, designers now have to deal with what can and can't be done with aluminum alloys, carbon fiber composites and plastics.

And there's the globalization of the industry, which opens the whole arena of shared or universal platforms and the challenge for designers to use the same basic underpinnings to get a tall, skinny car in Europe or Asia and a low, wide car in the U.S.

There are mandates for lighter cars, for more fuel-efficient cars, for cleaner cars. We're looking at cars with electric motors and hydrogen storage tanks.

We asked how all these changes will affect the visual envelope of future vehicles and just how important design has become.

Susan Westfall: Design certainly plays a more important role in the auto industry than it did 15 or 20 years ago. We have a new design boss [at Ford, former Audi design chief J Mays], and, coming from Europe, he certainly has made us much more conscious of that importance. We're very focused on design. But design and quality and craftsmanship are all interrelated things, and we're trying to blend them together. Good design is a part of those other items, and we're trying to get our manufacturing people to understand that. It's a team effort because if everybody isn't on board with it, you're not going to achieve the type of vehicle that you want.

Felix Nagelin: [The car of the future] should look different. It should look fresh, and I'm just waiting for which car company is going to make the race.

George Peterson: One thing that we're seeing in the research we've been doing is that the battle in the future might not necessarily be about design but about the package. It's about how to better use that shadow that's on the road in order to better seat the people and carry the things they want to carry. That's exactly what has made the truck so [popular]. The truck today really appeals to people in terms of how you sit in it, how you see out of it, how you get into it, how you get out of it. We're finding that cars have swayed so far away from what appeals that they may be irrelevant now.

Times: So the car disappears?

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