Car design is rapidly transforming right before our eyes (2024)

There are more than 2 million electric vehicles (EVs) on the road today, which is enough to make them a regular feature in traffic whether a familiar-looking Tesla Model 3 or the wildly styled Toyota bZ4x. One of the things those two models, and the 100 or so other EVs on sale share is a break from traditional design.

That's a big job for designers who are given the freedom to part with the past and try something new. It's also a responsibility, but it allows automakers to get creative, especially when coining a new brand name or division. There's never been a better opportunity to create a new design that becomes the next big thing.

It all starts with the face of the vehicle. Traditionally that has meant eyes as the headlights and the grille as a wide smile. But as engines have advanced and transformed into electric motors they need less cooling, hence less grille.

Lighting also plays a key role in the new era of design transformation. With new LED options almost any shape can be created, even a nod to a previous era with something like Hyundai's pixel lights that look retro but are thoroughly modern.

"So often the face of the car defines its character, its expression, its attitude - many traditional manufacturers have built their identities over many decades based upon a particular shape of grille. In many cases it has been one of the most recognizable design elements, making them instantly distinguishable from their competitors," Frank Stephenson, former McLaren, BMW, Alfa Romeo designer and current head of Frank Stephenson Design told Newsweek.

Car design is rapidly transforming right before our eyes (1)

"We have seen a trend in legacy automakers towards adapting their existing grille shape in other ways, in order to maintain or evolve the face of their brand, in some cases adopting a faux grille or graphic in its place."

Stephenson notes that grille sizes are increasing despite the need for less cooling, and thinks it makes vehicles look too aggressive sometimes. He also said that it's easier for new brands who don't have an existing language or brand identity to come up with something radically new.

Aldo Schurmann, design director for One One Labs, a transportation, automotive and product design headquartered in Lodz, Poland, explained that vehicle appearance today is influenced by our perception and general idea of technology.

"New technologies should be different from the old ones, which is why they often choose a controversial appearance. This is a good trend because it allows companies with traditions to move away from established solutions in terms of aesthetics and gives room for experimentation," Schurmann told Newsweek.

"In turn, new or unpopular producers have a chance to build a completely new relationship with customers, based on completely new values. The effect varies, but the process itself lets a lot of fresh air into the musty canon."

Car design is rapidly transforming right before our eyes (2)

Schurmann says there's not as much freedom as one might think. A vehicle still has the same layout as it always did with four wheels, windows and doors on the sides, lights at the front and rear. However, he agrees that consumers have become more open to new products, which gives designers more space to act.

"And that's great, although sometimes it takes us to quite strange places. A good example would be the center console of a car. Almost every vehicle has a huge display in this place. Hence, a lot of time is spent on designing what will appear in the very limited, flat space of the display and not around it, as was the case a few years ago. We don't judge whether it's bad, it's just a sign of the times," Schurmann said.

"Part of good design is not only about beauty, but also how easy and intuitive the product is to use. To come out with a completely different 'car' could also mean reeducating consumers, and pioneering can lead to major success or major failure. This is a risk that not many want to take."

One One Labs, a company that mainly works with startups, does sometimes hear "do something new" or even "design a car." He says even though that might sound like a dream come true, it comes with a specific set of obstacles.

Car design is rapidly transforming right before our eyes (3)

"When you realize that you have no point of reference, the ground starts to slip away from under your feet. You have to create something completely new, something that will probably become the basis for creating subsequent models and, preferably, iconic. You must do a lot of work to find this starting point and spend a lot of time to develop it into a form that resembles a vehicle in general," said Schurmann.

Former GM designer Ed Wellburn, at this year's Detroit Concours d'Elegance, explained the challenges of the modern designer including how far they must be looking down the road.

"It's hard to predict the future, and although designers are thinking about a car that's introduced today, they started work on it probably four or five years ago. So they have to sit there thinking five years in advance, plus the car will be in production for another five years. They've got to think about a car ten years in advance," said Wellburn.

He also said that the architecture of electric vehicles give designers freedom to do new and interesting things. Whether those things will stand the test of time is another question.

Car design is rapidly transforming right before our eyes (4)

Stephenson says that the principles of good design don't change over time. Things like strong proportions and clean surfaces are timeless. He doesn't think people should have to "get used to" new designs.

"A good design should always aim to have instant appeal. There are many designs that are new or shocking, but once that initial shock is gone, the design has little value. For many brands, electrification creates an opportunity to evolve their design language in a more drastic way. In some instances, we have seen the introduction of solely electric sub-brands, such as Polestar or Cupra, which allow traditional automakers to experiment in new segments, without affecting the parent brand," said Stephenson.

He points to Polestar and Lucid as two brands using the new proportions of EVs to create exciting designs. He thinks we're going through a little bit of an identity crisis, styling cars like they still have engines and need exhaust pipes.

Schurmann says a lot of the electric models like the Hyundai Ioniqs, Mercedes EQs and Polestars are interesting, but not quite unique. They still could be combustion engine vehicles.

Read more from Newsweek

  • Mercedes designer admits 'a mistake' was made in 2023
  • Porsche's most popular SUV is now an EV (and we've been in it)
  • Cadillac struggling with young buyers, new SUV may help, experts say

"The Cybertruck is unique. It's nasty but it breaks all conventions. A brilliant electric car that came out a couple of years ago is the Citroen Ami, a tiny city car so brilliant, with incredible solutions for both the consumer and the producer, however what makes this car great is not necessarily the fact that it is electric," Stepheson said.

But it goes deeper than that.

"Often, along with the car, we buy an image of ourselves and this is crucial. We buy with our hearts and emotions. If we add a bit of 'wise choice' to this, we will have a recipe for success. Otherwise, any vehicle fulfilling basic functions could have the form of the simplest cube."

Uncommon Knowledge

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

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Car design is rapidly transforming right before our eyes (2024)


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