Electric cars are starting a style revolution. The future of intuitive design and premium materials is just as exciting as the technology. The advent of a driverless future has precipitated intriguing possibilities for changes in vehicle design. The challenge designers face is to marry the familiarity of what we collectively recognise as the archetypal car with an inspiring new look that reflects the impressive capabilities of electric vehicles – and Audi is ready.
The appearance of electric and driverless cars on our roads will be very satisfying to those interested in safeguarding a more efficient, sustainable future. In addition, these technological developments also present an enormously exciting opportunity for vehicle designers. At Audi the design team is harnessing visionary ingenuity to create vehicles that will have an emotive appeal for consumers.
Many factors influence a driver when it comes to deciding which model of car to invest in, from engine power to battery performance. But nothing has the same seductive sway as a vehicle’s design. Good design has the power to shape the visual identity of new products and technology.
“For us designers at Audi it was always important to show the technology behind our cars,” says the company’s head of Design Exterior Studio II, Philipp Römers. “Our claim is ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ – Advancement through Technology – and we want to visualise that.” For years Audi’s design team has strived to present a seamless blend of the potentials of the engineering within a car and the looks outside of it. In the case of electric cars, that principle rings even more true. All of the team’s design choices prioritise functionality as much as form. But when that function changes, form should also adapt. In the case of an electric vehicle, a new kind of engine, an efficient battery and the reduced dimensions of the car’s skeleton are different from a traditional fuel-engine car. Having more compact components to work with means designers can have more freedom. This ability to play with shapes and proportions can yield models that feature bold design statements such as short overhangs and low bonnets: an aesthetic translation of how sporty and thrilling the experience of driving an electric car can be.
Similarly, autonomous vehicles will afford designers the possibility to invent a completely new aesthetic code to reflect their transformative identity. Given that self-driving cars are doing away with some of the most traditional identifying characteristics of a car (namely its driver and the steering wheel), designing a driverless vehicle will also be an opportunity to decide how much of what we’ve come to associate with the archetype of a car can be maintained. “Regarding [Audi’s self-driving showcar] Aicon, we wanted to create a fully autonomous car suitable for long-distance drives,” explains Benjamin Nikol, Audi’s head of design exterior technics. “That means a revolution in the interior but it also had a strong impact to the exterior. To create a car like a container was never an option. That’s why we introduced a completely new car cabin architecture.” While the interiors of an autonomous vehicle can become a versatile space for meetings and conversation, exteriors need to tread the delicate line between maintaining faithfulness to a brand’s DNA and heritage and putting forth a satisfyingly innovative new identity. Interiors and exteriors need to work in lockstep: from Audi’s central offices in Ingolstadt, the whole design team – led by Marc Lichte – works to make sure each individual’s expertise combines in a harmonious whole. That includes the most minute details of a car, from dashboard design to seat upholstery.
Experimenting with material has another important consequence beyond creating a prestigious, fulfilling experience: employing lighter materials can have a huge impact in terms of enhancing a car’s performance (which, as Audi’s aerodynamic models prove, has always been a core design principle). Plus, a lightweight car can be a more economical one, as it needs less fuel or electricity to function. Audi’s fundamental components, from technology to design, are driving innovation in the same direction.
Professor Dale Harrow has been head of the Royal College of Art’s esteemed vehicle-design course for two decades, so he quickly realised that the revolutions happening in the world of mobility called for a rethinking of education too. The Intelligent Mobility Design Centre, which he now directs, teaches 40 students per year to push the boundaries of what our vehicles should look like.
Q How has the idea of autonomous driving revolutionised the way we design our cars?
A It’s a major change in terms of what it brings with it. If you no longer have a pilot you have a space that can be used for lots of different activities – so you can change interiors a lot. Also, in theory, if you’ve got autonomous cars you should have fewer accidents, which means we could have more lightweight vehicles and experiment with new materials.
Q Do you think new technological advancements also force us to rethink the archetype of a car? And what are a car’s defining characteristics? For example, does a vehicle need to have four wheels and a steering wheel to be considered a car?
A It’s interesting. You have an established language: if you have a driver in a cockpit, you have a car. We need to redefine what that means. In the future we’ll end up with personal vehicles that are almost one-seater vehicles – and then you could have multiples of those joined together.
Q Car design needs to reflect technological changes with an innovative appearance. But how do you maintain a link to the emotional experience and history of cars?
A There’s something about referencing the past that companies have got particular about. But things like the way an autonomous car gets to you, how the door opens and how you get into it will be very important – as will when and how the customer touches an autonomous car. The way we’ll make these products emotional may be different from pure aesthetics. There are opportunities with lighting, or the way they transport you – acceleration speed, for example.
This is the seventh instalment in an eight-part series that considers the car of the future. From urbanists to engineers, we speak to the experts who can decode the changes in the world of mobility.