Sunday, January 26, 2014

Editorial: Has automotive design become stagnant?

With the first auto show of 2014 now over, the automotive press dispersed back to their respective caves to stew over the latest reveals and what that means for the industry, and the automakers all patting themselves on the back for a job well done, it has been a rousing start to what should be an exciting auto show season. However, one thing continues to bother me, which is that, aside from a handful radical concept cars, that ultimately fail to ever make it into production in any form, most of the cars are increasingly starting to look alike.

Jaguar's F-Type convertible, an example of a car I personally
think has a great deal of design innovation, especially from
the front and rear three-quarter angles.
What am I smoking, right? But let's take a minute and look at this closely. Since automakers are increasingly looking to capitalize on whatever is driving demand at the time, nearly all of them have a few very specific goals in mind, which include better aerodynamics to improve fuel economy, bigger grilles to accommodate increased cooling demand for forced induction motors, and the "four-door coupe" look that is all the rage these days with consumers. As a result, many cars are starting to share similar profiles, wheel designs are starting to share common themes, and even the "me too" LED daytime running lights are starting to all blend together.

Some of this is attributable to the distinct style of a few top level designers who have hopped around from automaker to automaker, taking their specific design aesthetic with them as they migrated employers. Ian Callum, who was the chief designer at Aston Martin, carried his signature look onto Jaguar when he landed there. Peter Schreyer, who previously was employed at Audi, has moved onto working for Korean upstart Kia and brought his design influence to both Kia's and Hyundai's latest vehicles. However, even outside of these specific cases, design language continues to converge across the automotive marketplace as consumers have voted on their design preferences with their wallets. Those who dare to stray too far from the desires of the market have been hit with much negative critique from journalists and consumers alike.

Back in August of 2013, Chris Bangle, noted head of design at BMW who penned the controversial BMW 7-series that earned the moniker of "Bangle-butt" for its slightly odd-looking rear decklid, called for the industry to shake things up a bit and try to be more innovative in their designs. However, at the end of the day, manufacturers are in the business of selling cars. As much as they want to be innovative and distinct, they also want to maintain a brand identity and to offer cars that buyers are willing to pay for. Sometimes, it is possible to be too radical, as Acura found out when it introduced the "beak" that adorned the 2009 TL and subsequently alienated a sizable portion of its loyal customers. Other times, it pays to be different, as Hyundai discovered with swift sales of its funky Veloster hatchback. The trick is finding ways to create subtly distinct cues that allow for differentiation while maintaining the right balance of making sure that a new design is fresh and innovative, but does not offend the sensibilities of the buying public. Getting to that point, however, can mean great financial risk.

Tags:  automotive, design, editorial