Where Are the Designers?

Every day there seems to be a new article released on the future of shared mobility (e.g., Uber), autonomous cars, or the larger future of transportation. It seems everybody is writing about this future, except—surprisingly—the professionals who have usually been the ones who, for the past several decades, have been showing us the future of mobility. I’m talking about the car designers.

Major media outlets are covering the future of transportation like never before. All kinds of Silicon Valley technologists and VCs are blogging about it. Wall Street and automotive analysts are now talking about it a lot. Even mayors of our largest cities are discussing a big, new future of urban transportation. But the car designers, the talented few that bring art and motion together like no other discipline in the world, have for some reason not been publishing articles on this future. 

The car designers don’t just shape automotive products, they think about the users and how their company’s customers can have an awesome experience owning an automobile they’ve designed. I find most car designers care deeply about the users’ experiences. Steve Jobs would often talk about the need to focus on the user and new applications, before looking upstream to new technologies to make it all possible. Car designers have pretty much always done this.

When I was a car designer at General Motors, package drawings would show up from engineering for a planned new car model. These drawings would always make me feel like I had a big pile of metal parts in my studio that no consumer would ever want. So we in the design studio would do our magic and create a vehicle (from these many parts) that the consumer would want to own. We knew that styling could make all the difference between someone deciding to buy one car over another—we were told that the advantage could be as high as 50 percent. It was not just about making an entirely new car that a customer would fall in love with. Even the smallest improvement in a car’s interior—like coming up with a better solution for something as mundane as the cup holder—were things we focused on. We always wanted to make the lives of our customers the greatest. Designers have empathy, and have been able to see the future out of that ugly bin of parts.

Today I am surprised we are not hearing from the car designers more often. Why not? Have the large automakers been too slow to address the smart mobility future? Are the car designers too focused on existing cars and not as comfortable with the new emerging smart mobility landscape? I am certain these designers can extend their skill from shaping an automobile to imagining a larger mobility experience or even a bouquet of mobility services and supporting products.

One of the few car designers publicly speaking about this future is BMW’s former chief designer, Chris Bangle. Chris has always been one of the smartest design leaders in the profession. I have enjoyed hearing him define personal transportation vehicles into three categories. One for light and little things like electric-bikes and skateboards (Chris calls these “Flivers”). The second is elevators. “Elevators” might be high-speed trains, new kinds of horizontal automated movement systems (e.g., Hyperloop), and vertical elevators. In the future, you might be able to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just 30 minutes, but Chris considers these modes lacking emotion. The third is the automobile, which Chris calls an “avatar”.

Chris is correct, a car is an avatar. It’s an “expansion” of yourself. You might be able to see your friend’s familiar car turn the corner two blocks away, but you can’t actually see their actual body from so far away. But you can see their car from that distance, so you recognize them. That’s what an avatar is. 

The upcoming discussion on future mobility will be intense for many years ahead about the future of our private cars or moving to a new shared mobility paradigm. Autonomous technology will make shared mobility extremely easy to use and far less expensive. It will be interesting to see if the consumer will still seek a mode of transportation that is an avatar when more of us discontinue the actual act of driving. At least Chris is a part of the larger discussion.

But what about the rest of the car designer community? I eagerly await to hear their ideas about the smart mobility future, and to see them apply their amazing talents toward how we move and live in an all new way. I believe this is the group that will really advance this future, even though the many technologists and analysts mean well and are contributing good ideas today. 

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Dan Sturges is mobility design consultant for team red and has been supporting “transformative” transportation projects for nearly 30 years. He trained as a car designer and worked as an entrepreneur to bring to market a new intermediate vehicle category. He supports a wide range of vehicle design and mobility planning efforts for both government and corporate entities.