Mike Simcoe has me thinking about the future of design.
Coming up with appealing shapes and styles that separate one company’s vehicles from the next has never been easy. And now design is going to get far more challenging as technology upends everything.
Simcoe, General Motors’ new design chief, and his colleagues around the industry are going to be deeply involved in the most sweeping changes the automobile has ever experienced.
On one hand, designers still have to create vehicles that appeal to retro-geezers such as me who are slow to warm to the idea of an automobile being a connected, self-driving computer on wheels.
On the other, they have to appease younger generations of buyers who grew up in the electronics era and want nothing to do with old-school thinking -- buttons, knobs and levers -- to control functions, but want voice recognition, connectivity and apps and all of that.
Then, of course, the powertrain and most of the car’s internals are going to change as they become more electrified. Some items will need more space and some less. That will also change the shape of the car inside and out. I’ve seen a supplier’s future air conditioning system, for example. It places everything that is now behind the dash into the engine compartment. This allows designers to create a dash less than a third as wide as current dashboards. That opens up the interior and makes a small car seem big inside.
Battery powered and fuel cell vehicles are also going to force changes as tanks and battery packs are integrated into vehicles. While engineers are perfecting these technologies, designers will be involved in the packaging.
“As we talk about the propulsion system, moving from IC (internal combustion) perhaps to fuel cell, plug-in hybrid, we move into everything possible, it will change the form and the architecture of the vehicles, and therefore the proportion of the vehicles,” Simcoe told me. “That’ll be the biggest change.”
Another aspect of how design will change in the coming years, Simcoe says, is how automakers tailor the experience of driving -- or being driven -- for future customers.
“The change, along with the basic proportion, materials and propulsion, will ultimately be the experience. And we have to think about that more. As we do potentially think about autonomous vehicles, we are going to be providing a branded experience inside those because that will be more important to those customers,” he says.
The generation of vehicles on the market and those coming through around 2020 may be the last before huge changes begin to appear. I don’t buy into the assertion that steering wheels and pedals will go away in the time frame CEO Mark Fields laid out, but I can see that happening someday.
Whenever I drive one of my classic cars, I can’t help but notice how simple everything is. Two knobs control the radio. Three levers control the air conditioning system. Nothing is reconfigurable. The only things the car is connected to are my hands and feet. I am the captain of my own ship with no interference from electronics. I can’t say that I am safer, but I can say the driving experience is more enjoyable.
But I am not the future, and today’s designers can’t think about people like me when they do their jobs. They have to live in the future and anticipate what tomorrow’s drivers will expect out of the car’s electronics and human machine interface.
Says Simcoe: “Keeping up with all that means we will be doing a whirlwind of work in places we traditionally haven’t been.”