SHANGHAI -- China's carmakers still lag behind their global competitors in product quality and brand recognition. But in one area -- vehicle design -- they are aiming to narrow the gap by recruiting foreign design experts.
Automobile engineering and manufacturing is still a young industry in China. Five years ago, local brands still relied mostly on foreign design firms to style cars and light trucks. But in recent years, more of them have hired design veterans away from global brands to steer styling.
BYD Co. is one of them. I had the opportunity last month to visit the company's new global design center at its headquarters in the south China city of Shenzhen (see a separate story in this newsletter).
The center is impressive not only for its size ¨C it occupies a ground area equal to nearly two full-size soccer fields, but for the advanced processing equipment and clay-cutting tools imported from Italy and Germany.
Shaped like a black crystal, the center was designed by Wolfgang Egger, who left Audi to join BYD in 2016. It is part of a systematic approach he has embrace to build up BYD's design capability as design chief of the largest Chinese electrified vehicle maker.
Design has many key elements, but it is foremost about people and the talent they bring, Egger said in a speech to open the center.
With that consideration, Egger has brought in two other veteran European designers -- JuanMa Lopez, and Michele Jauch-Paganetti to take charge of exterior design and interior design respectively at BYD.
Since joining BYD, Egger has helped the company upgrade the design of several main products. He also worked with Lopez and Jauch-Paganetti to design a concept car for the Shanghai auto show in April.
Egger expects the design center to serve as a training ground for young local and international designers. He also hopes it can attract more experienced foreign designers to work for BYD.
Other Chinese carmakers are accelerating the hiring of foreign designers with international experience to oversee design teams.
China FAW Group Corp., a state-owned company, last year appointed Giles Taylor, former design director of Rolls-Royce Motors, vice president for design and chief creative officer.
Earlier this year, Geely Automobile Holdings made Wayne Burgess head of a new design studio in Coventry in England. Burgess was previously the chief designer at Jaguar Land Rover.
Foreign design veterans today are working as design chiefs at more than half of China's major domestic automotive brands.
Most of them have embraced Chinese culture and have been drawn by abundant, high-paying job opportunities. Despite the sales downturn, far more new products are being developed in China than any other market.
Their rich experience and global perspectives are sorely needed by domestic automakers that anxiously seek to move upscale in the home market.