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What the Future Holds, Nobody Knows

Tue, 22 Dec 2009 00:00:00 -0800

It's a testament to the talent, charisma and relative celebrity of Ian Callum, Derek Jenkins and Franz von Holzhausen - heads of Jaguar, Mazda and Tesla design, respectively - that they managed to captivate a crowd of industry insiders at the tail end of the Los Angeles Auto Show's second press-preview day. This despite being given a nebulous topic to discuss with a moderator who knew little about the subject.

Dan Lyons, a technology columnist at Newsweek, oversaw the panel discussion that was to focus on "Tomorrow's Cars...Practical Transportation or Groundbreaking Design?" He asked only one question on that topic before digressing into a more general discourse on the design strategies of Jaguar, Mazda and Tesla. The question was: Will the inevitable march toward alternative fuels suck the passion out of car design altogether?

The answer from all three designers was a resounding and predictable "No."

"There will still be passion, absolutely," said Jaguar's Callum. "You might go electric, but you can't take the gasoline out of the blood - it's still there."

Tesla's Von Holzhausen offered up the Roadster as an example to illustrate Callum's point. Despite having an all-electric powertrain, the lightweight two-seater rivals conventional sports cars in terms of performance, and its design conveys the excitement of that proposition, which would've been laughable five years ago. "I think you just have to look at what we design and you'll see that the passion is there and the scope and the realm of possibilities is huge," he said.

The deeper question then is, what will cars look like when future generations of designers, who may not have gasoline in their blood, start designing them. "I saw some of the stuff these kids have been doing [for the Design Challenge], these young designers, and you can tell that different powertrains are going to manifest themselves as different cars altogether, and it's exciting; it's fascinating," Callum said.

In a brief interview with Car Design News following the panel discussion, Callum confided that he isn't overly concerned about what Jaguars will look like in 30 years. "I won't be designing them. In fact, even some of the people who work for me won't be designing them," he said. "There'll be a whole new generation of younger designers, and it's how the technology evolves that will drive a lot of that stuff."

Mazda's Jenkins said in a separate impromptu interview that it's precisely the advances in technology that should drive new design; introducing radical changes in car design simply for their own sake would be a difficult proposition. "I guess we're all kind of hungry for some kind of breakthrough, some way that allows us to really change something. Maybe it's something like these airless tire technologies that are going to create an aesthetic breakthrough that would be shocking to people," Jenkens said, pointing to a poster of the Souga design study Mazda submitted for the 2009 LA Design Challenge. "And whatever brand or segment gets to those technologies first really has the opportunity for a breakthrough aesthetic that really catches people."

But the proposition of drastic changes in technology stemming from government mandates is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Jenkins finds it exciting: "It forces the industry to change the game." On the other hand, if new legislation mandating higher fuel-efficiency and emissions standards comes too swiftly, the future for cars could look bleak.

"It's like, how quickly are they going to implement it and will we be able to get ahead of the curve with technology and our development to create an attractive product at the end," Jenkins said. "I just don't want to see what happened in the late ‘70s, where car companies retrofitted to comply with new emissions standards and got super conservative and clammed up. And then we had six, seven, eight years of a bad period for cars and car design."

What's certain is that if and when radical new designs come to market, it's because the world is ready for them, Callum said. Even so, he doesn't see old paradigms being completely discarded. "I think to myself, well, we've got a four-wheel-drive, electric-motor-in-each-wheel Jag, what would it look like? Will it still be beautiful lines - sleek, long, instinctively beautiful to look at? I don't see any excuse for why it should be any other way."

This gets to a cornerstone philosophy that all three designers championed during the discussion: Good design will prevail, no matter the circumstances, so long as the fundamentals are sound. "It's not easy," Jenkins said, "but we as designers have a responsibility to keep the passion, and keep the creativity, and keep being focused to make sure the industry puts out products that people want to buy."


By Matthew DePaula