Designing for 2016: It's all about aerodynamics
Four years from now, vehicles emerging from the world's design studios will be more aerodynamic -- and more sculpted.
Extreme design will be out of favor. You'll see fewer bumps and bulges and asymmetrical shapes, the kinds of things that kept popping up in the past decade.
Glitzy, blinged-out headlights may disappear, too, but in general front ends will be more distinctive and more expressive of the brand. Wheels could be smaller, and downsized engines may allow for shorter overhangs and longer wheelbases.
But above all, designers toiling away today are driven by the need to smooth the progress of air flow over the body surface. Yes, aerodynamics is once again dictating design, though not in the way it did 30 years ago, in the era of jelly bean cars.
We're not guessing here; that's the view of several designers who discussed styling elements that will be prominent on vehicles in 2016 and beyond.
Of course, each brand will take its own approach, but general themes will emerge. They always do.
"First of all, we reverse the wedge," says Gorden Wagener, Mercedes-Benz's design chief. "We are coming out of a generation that is very wedge-shaped and developed in the late '90s."
Also, he says, today's soft curves will be replaced with sculpted lines that have a defined surge or crest.
At Mercedes, Wagener says: "We will go more into a drop shape, with the dropping line on the side of the car. That becomes more of our signature."
Take a look at the teaser shot Mercedes has released for next year's redesigned S class. An accent line that begins high on the silhouette, in front of the driver-side door, lowers as it runs through the rear door.
Indeed, brands are trying out more interesting lines and curves.
"Everybody's looking for their version of more sculpted, contoured body surfaces," says Derek Jenkins, Mazda's North American design boss. "That's an area where we're really focused -- trying to break away from some of the traditional body creases and lines that every car has had for the last whatever number of years."
Jenkins says Mazda's new design philosophy, called kodo (Japanese for "soul of motion"), is "breaking away from the traditional body construction, typical fender lines, hood lines.
"You're going to see a lot more adventurous explorations of how companies are going to do the shoulder of the car, the fenders, the sculpting of the car."
The "twist and transition" on the new Mazda6 provide an example.
"You see the body lines are broken up on the car, the prominent front fender and the subtle feature line that comes after that and the main shoulder line in the rear," he says.
The previous generation mid-sized sedans, including the Mazda6, "still have the typical shoulder line running through the front fender, very traditional construction," Jenkins says.
Karim Habib, head of BMW design, says the German brand's body design philosophy is changing.
"We try to break out a surface by pulling lines in and out and by puffing up the volume or flattening it to sculpt it," he says.
The goal: To create a shape that looks lightweight.
The effort to improve fuel economy will be visible on the cars and trucks of 2016. Look for changes to front ends in the quest for better aerodynamics, says J Mays, Ford's global design chief.
"You're going to see the introduction of movable grille apertures that close, but you're also going to eventually see slightly smaller grille openings," he says.
Front ends will become "more identifiable with the brand," but not necessarily as large as those on Audis, Mays says.
But, says Tom Kearns, chief designer of Kia Motors America, don't expect superslick shapes created for the sake of aerodynamics alone.
He says designing for aero largely consists of trial and error in the wind tunnel, tweaking the position of, say, the side mirrors, or the height of a rear deck lid, to shave a little off a car's drag coefficient.
"The whole aero thing, it's kind of like a black art," he says. "There are a few fundamentals we know that will help aerodynamics, but once you get past those things, you have to experiment."
General Motors design chief Ed Welburn says all vehicles won't have that homogenous shape last seen in the 1980s.
He says fuel economy will have a "huge influence" on design but a positive one.
"How design can affect that is in the efficiency of the design, in its size and in the aerodynamics of the vehicle," Welburn says.
For instance, he says, the hard edges on the front of Cadillacs haven't hurt vehicle aerodynamics.
"We've been able to do very low-drag designs and retain the hard edges on Cadillacs," Welburn says. "The hard edges on the rear are a huge advantage.
"The proportions may change a bit. The tails may get longer. I think we'd look at the overall height of the vehicle. If you can bring it down, reducing the overall frontal area, that would help."
Of course, those elements would require big changes in vehicle architectures.
"You've got to get the hood down lower -- if you can do that, you can bring the occupant down," Welburn says. "Then the roof can come down, but it all has to work in harmony. It takes great collaboration between design and engineering."
BMW's Habib says aerodynamics is changing the brand's entire approach to styling new vehicles.
"We are embracing certain things we ignored in the past," he says. "Like how do you treat an arrow edge in the rear of the car or the spoiler? The surface in front of the front wheel has to be at an angle to flow along the body."
Habib says some of the solutions will be seen on show cars debuting at the Paris auto show, which opens this week.
"The way we design the rear of the car has changed a lot," he says. "For instance, we used to use an aerodynamic edge just on the taillamp. Now we are experimenting with taking them out of the tail and putting them on the body below."
Kia's Kearns says, "Wheel design is one of the first things manufacturers go after to save weight," reversing the trend of wheels getting larger and larger.
"We have to find a way to give a certain look to a vehicle that looks modern and fresh but also doesn't fly in the face of functionality and the weight," he says. "We're going to find a way to make wheels of a large diameter, but the thickness may change. Or maybe there will have to be lightweight materials or lightweight tires that don't add weight."
New powertrain technology will have an influence. Mazda's Jenkins says downsized engines and transmissions may let designers create vehicles with smaller front and rear overhangs with longer wheelbases.
He says the Tesla Model S is an example.
"The batteries are all in the floor. The car has a very small front overhang; its hood is low to the ground because of the small engine, so they're getting a very, very contemporary expression for a sedan and very dynamic overall proportions because of those technologies."
Christopher Weil, director of BMW's DesignworksUSA studio in Newbury Park, Calif., says the choice of exterior materials will begin to have a strong influence. For instance, BMW's new i subbrand vehicles with their carbon fiber bodies would look totally different if they were done in aluminum and metal. Sheet metal isn't as strong or thick, and "it has a different criteria the designer has to play with," he says.
Mark West, chairman of transportation design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, expects more glass and new materials -- including inside where translucent and mesh fabric could be used -- as cars become more lightweight.
Geoff Wardle, director of advanced mobility research at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., predicts there will be fewer "gratuitous and overstyled cars" than have debuted in the past three to four years.
Toyota's Scion cars, the Nissan Juke and even some General Motors SUVs and crossovers were designed with stretched lamps, bulges and other exaggerated features in an effort to differentiate them, Wardle says.
"I think the pendulum will swing the other way," he says.
He cites Volkswagen and Audi as two brands that resisted the trend.
"Audi is handsome and quite restrained," he says. "The VWs that are on the market are almost very plain in their appearance, but a lot of attention has gone into the detail and they are fairly refined. We will see some more of that."
J Mays says Ford won't follow the trend of so-called jewelry -- LED patterns and unique shapes -- in headlamps and taillamps but rather will make "lamps that reflect the technical object of what they're there for."
He says: "There are some excellent examples of high-tech headlamps. And there are some that are simply jewelry. Headlamps aren't jewelry. They're headlamps. They are supposed to shine light down the road. If you overstyle a headlamp, nothing gets older faster."
Mazda's Jenkins says automakers will be more expressive in designing front ends. He says grilles will be more three-dimensional, with trim and brightwork becoming more central to an overall look rather than just accenting a design.
Lighting will be a major enabler.
"As headlight technologies improve and become smaller, the headlight assembly can be broken up," Jenkins says. "You can have a much more slim and precise headlight graphic for example, whereas today, the basic headlight scale and size is still quite large."
Smaller lights mean extra space, giving designers greater creative flexibility in how they choose to integrate headlights into designs.
"You've seen this trend on concept cars for several years now, but we're on the verge of being able to realize that," he says.
Still, some independent designers aren't so optimistic about the overall trend in vehicle styling. Roberto Piatti, CEO of Italy's Torino Design, doesn't see a design revolution in the next four years or even further out.
"We are living in a strange time," says Piatti, who has worked on concepts and production cars for many European carmakers and Chinese brands.
"Carmakers don't want to create a strong break with the past," he says.
Piatti says carmakers "are scared of shocking the customer, and this means cars are going to remain pretty much the same."
A big factor, he says, is the growth of new markets around the world that have yet to develop sophisticated national style appreciation.
"New markets do not have independent taste, and they follow what is established and this moves everything in the same direction."
Of course, design is ever the moving target. What will we see on the new cars debuting in the fall of 2016? Inside the studios, that's already old news. What they are really thinking about is 2020.
Bradford Wernle contributed to this report
You can reach Diana T. Kurylko at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Diana on