Opinion: despite tweaks and refinements, car design has been restricted by mechanics for over 100 years. Now the development of driverless and electric technologies offers a bewildering array of possibilities, explains branding expert Dylan Stuart.
With driverless cars now being trialled in the real world, the automotive industry is set to face its biggest revolution in 100 years. Car design in the near future will not be bound by the constraints of the last century – like internal combustion engines, forward-facing seats, static dashboards and many other familiar elements. In fact, the automobile could be completely reimagined.
It's about time. Few devices in our lives have advanced so much technologically but remained so static in their overall design. Now, the driverless and electric revolution could radically change how the vehicle is packaged inside and out. The mechanical constraints that limit how the interior is configured – like gearboxes, engines and drive shafts – will be removed.
Suddenly, there is an opportunity to think about how cars can truly become living spaces. Do seats always need to face forward? Do windows always need to show what's going on outside? How should all the entertainment, communication and information possibilities be configured once the driver is freed from driving?
Car brands that already know how to create desirability through seductive sheet metal and driving pleasure will now need to consider how to provide a very different experience – from entertainment and communication right through to the mobility experience beyond the car. This will mean thinking much more broadly about where to create lasting emotional brand connections, even though the end consumer may neither drive or own the car anymore. In a nutshell, this means creating a completely different consumer experience.
Most car brands today are recognisable because they have a visual language grown out of constraints set by 20th-century technology – the "face" of the car created by intake grilles and lights; proportions usually dictated by having an engine in the front, external mirrors, etc. Will car manufacturers attempt to preserve the design cues that have historically defined their brands? Or will they evolve and change based on new parameters?
To give a very real example, electric cars don't have radiators so they don't require a front grill. However, the grill is one of the most distinctive design elements car brands use to create product recognition. The challenge will be creating something immediately recognisable, without the familiar cues.
California's Tesla brand has already made the conscious decision that the car of tomorrow should look very much like the car of today. Their products have not been conceived with a futuristic and paradigm-breaking design. If anything, they are rather conservative. There's still a front grill – but it's completely fake. This was done intentionally to enable more people to accept what is a very progressive product through its reassuringly familiar appearance.
If Tesla's success is an indication of things to come, there will be a significant period of time where car design remains broadly similar to today despite huge technological shifts, if only to promote consumer acceptance of new technology.
Skeuomorphism, the idea that led to Apple's original camera app looking like an old camera on screen, will play a major role. We take touchscreen technology for granted now but when gesture control first came into existence, skeuomorphism allowed something very new to feel familiar and intuitive.
The same will happen with the car. There will come a point when many of those familiar design cues will simply not be required. But because people typically need time to adjust, a lot of redundant design features will linger. The key unknown is how long it will take for consumers to accept and trust new technology without the need to hold on to the familiar, and subsequently how car brands will respond to a new freedom in design.
I believe that we'll see a faster change in the use of interior finishes and materials. Cars of today are often woefully traditional, largely sticking with wood, leather and plastic – and the plastic usually has a leather effect! The materials used in car interiors may differ in quality across different models and brands, but are surprisingly consistent in how they are applied.
As the car evolves, more high-function and high-tech materials will be allied to unique, proprietary finishes. Is leather really the most premium material for a car seat? Is wood really the cue that's most appropriate to connote luxury? If more surfaces become interactive, do finishes need to be completely rethought? Do they even need to be real? As the car becomes a platform for communication, transportation, work and entertainment, the possibilities for reimagining the car interior – the way it's laid out, constructed and finished – become almost infinite.
At a more fundamental level, the way a car looks on the outside will only remain something that matters as long as the car continues to be a means of self-expression – a road-going avatar. If people still want to self-actualise through the car, then the exterior styling will still be crucial: projected image and pride of ownership will still have value.
Perhaps the real differentiation will move inward, the exterior being irrelevant and the interior becoming the only thing that matters. Think of a first class seat on an aircraft that looks the same as every other.
Of course there will still be enthusiasts who love cars as they always have; for the beauty of the object and the visceral experience of driving. I'm going to be one of them. But this will become a narrow, expensive niche. Much like owning a horse.
The car industry is on the verge of its biggest design opportunity ever. Technology is allowing us to completely reinvent the aesthetics and experience of mobility. The transition will, of course, take time. But the shift has begun.
Dylan Stuart is a partner in charge of strategy at design and branding firm Lipincott. His previous clients have included American Express, BP, Four Seasons Hotels, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz and NBC. He was previously a brand strategist with Landor Associates, focusing on the automotive, entertainment and aviation sectors.