In the automotive biz, there’s a power struggle going on. The auto industry is changing and so is the emphasis in developing new models. Engineering and new technology is clearly leading the charge, with electrification and autonomous vehicles. But, it’s likely only a matter of a few years before automotive design supersedes all other facets in the industry.
Let me explain. EV components are being developed by various OEMs. However, suppliers, like Bosch, are concurrently making those parts available to virtually any car company. The same holds true with battery manufactures. And, it is becoming less of challenge to get an EV to cover 250+ miles between charges. Plus, power is readily on tap, as that’s the secret sauce built into nearly all electric motors.
In short, any car company looking to save development costs, including start-ups, will be buying off-the-shelf components for their EV programs. We are quickly closing in on the needs of 99% of consumers once the pricing becomes on par, or less than, the cost of a similar internal combustion engine machine. As we’ve seen with other technology, from digital wrist watches to computers, prices fall as the volume increases. It’s just a matter of time.
If speed and economy are now baked into all new battery-powered cars in the next few years, how will consumers identify which product is worthy of their hard-earned greenbacks? This will boil down to branding and automotive design.
Just like the entertainment industry, the auto industry leans heavily on marketing. The imaging and positioning of any product are important. This convinces you that this is the right product and car company. The branding will make you feel smarter, sexier, tougher, and appear wealthier, or at least that’s what the aim is. That will never change. Let’s face it, the Marlboro Man convinced millions that smoking is cool, in spite of the health issues associated with lighting up.
Automotive design, when done correctly, motivates and causes a reaction through form. It doesn’t require a sales pitch and any explanation on its virtues. It doesn’t require a master’s degree in art. A good-looking product can stand on its own. A sexy product will swivel heads and cause grown adults to undergo momentary bouts of dementia. Drooling is optional.
When a design is muddled, it’s obvious. The Ford Mustang Mach E comes to mind. Why was it necessary to slap a pony on this cross-over EV? Why leverage the history of the 55-year old Mustang on an EV? Well, did you get a good look at it? Don’t even get me started why EVs need to have faux radiator grilles, as emblazoned on the Audi e-tron. I’ll save that rant for a later date.
Be it the Mach E or anything else coming down the road, pure plug-in electric powertrains will level the playing field considerably between expensive and affordable products. However, the OEMs would much rather sell consumers expensive models with greater profit margins. It’ll be up to the automotive designers to sway consumers with style and functionality to crack open their piggy banks.
Think about it. In the near future, if a very affordable Prius or Tesla can scoot nearly as fast as a Lamborghini, and it costs just a fraction of the Italian job, where’s the incentive to buy a car that is going to cost significantly more? Now, let’s forget about the performance for a moment, and just focus on the styling. Which would you rather own, the Prius, Tesla, or the Lambo? I rest my case.
And, another phenomenon is taking place as we speak. Buyers are purchasing their rides without even driving them first. Buying cars online is commonplace, and it shows that the driving aspect of cars isn’t nearly as important as it used to be. However, the public is vastly influenced by what they see online, at traditional car shows, and the nearly ubiquitous cars and coffee gatherings across the country. Sure, in all of these cases it is possible to find out about all of the nuances of each model, like the specs on speed, braking, and handling. Yet, like a magnet, more often than not, it’s the visuals that draws one closer.
This could be the last gasp for engineers to rule to roost. GM’s Mark Reuss, President of General Motors, a standout and passionate executive, rose to power from his engineer roots. He might be the last. Once the transition to EVs is complete, over the course of the next five to ten years, engineering will fall in the pecking order. Similarly, suppliers will be offering all the tech an OEM could use.
Designers have not often held the top spot at any OEM. Certainly, there are those that perhaps should have, like Harley Earl. One could say, he was the father of the automotive design studio.
Up until very recently, this situation has been reminiscent of an Audi commercial from the early 80s that blatantly mocked designers – as narrated by an Audi engineer. But, look who’s laughing now. Currently, Peter Schreyer is the CEO at Hyundai / Kia after many years running the automotive design studios of German powerhouse, Audi.
With the digital tools that are at the fingertips of today’s designers, it is possible to accomplish much of what only an engineer was able to do a few years ago. Several of the software programs from companies, like Autodesk, really push the boundaries between these disciplines.
The question remains, will the automotive design talent seize the day and ascend to the top of the corporate ladder? Shouldn’t designers wear the crown at the OEMs? Will the artists triumph above the pencil pushing bean-counters, marketing mavens, and clever engineers? Possibly.
If they do, one thing is for certain, the future will be much more colorful.