Thursday, March 15, 2012

Car design

About a year ago the Daily Mail profiled Jonathan Ive in a long article here. It was written prior to the death of Steve Jobs and before he was dubbed Sir Jonathan.

"Ive went to London’s Central St Martins Art School with an initial passion to design cars, but switched  to an industrial design course at what was then Newcastle Polytechnic."

One of the photos illustrating the article shows Jon Ives driving his Bentley Brooklands. Is this, perhaps, close to the automobile he might have created if he had remained a designer of cars?

All this is motivated by thoughts I have been mulling over with regard to automotive design. In the course of my daily translation work for a car-themed website I encounter so many new concept vehicles which I find so ill-judged. Indeed Bentley is showing at the current Salon de l'Auto in Geneva the study for a hulking SUV model of which they should be thoroughly ashamed.

I suppose the car makers are as enslaved to the notion of differentiation as are the major marques in the fashion business... Chanel can hardly be confused with Versace.

And yet... what if the task was to come up with the ultimate essential car... the best possible combination of styling, technology and functionality. Is that not the definition of the iPad?

For a start... and I think Ive would agree... the end product needs to look exactly like what it is. A motor car should look like a motor car. We all have our own idea of what a car should look like, it is our own acquired cultural memory slightly influenced by our recall of the cars driven by our parents.

I would start, then, by listing perhaps twenty automobile models which have over the past half century been perceived as practical, popular and evocative of positive emotional response. They would be, I think, sedans and estates and the list would exclude sports cars (no Jaguar E-Type here) and luxury models out of reach for normal citizens (no Roller, either).

Yes, the Mini would be included, along with the Beetle and the old BMW 3-Series...

The next step would be to morph the wire-frames of all the cars listed in the same way that computer analysis has crunched image data in an attempt to define beauty. The result would be an averaged automotive phenotype... a certain length, a specific wheel-base, an optimal track width, a defined profile... not bad for a start!

Next step... take the phenotype data and optimize it for aerodynamics in order to favor energy efficiency but retaining as much as possible of the look which immediately announces "this is a motor car"! 

Ultra light-weight construction can be taken as a given. And the internal combustion engine on board would probably be diesel fuelled. But in my opinion the traction would be in fact electric, with a hub motor in each of the four wheels and the diesel only serving to generate energy.

Performance? Maximum efficiency at about 130 kilometres an hour but with enough torque on hand to quickly get a further burst of speed to about 160 for overtaking. No, this would not by any means satisfy the boy racers on the German autobahn... but for almost everyone else on the planet it could be an ideal personal transportation solution and one which would truly resemble not a spaceship, not a quirky wheel-chair, not an exo-skeleton... but a motor car.


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Mr.Wilson said...

Not sure about that.
Chances are that the result of such a process would be rather dull. Combining the wheelbase of the original Mini with the stance of a beetle can only lead to a kind of automotive humunculus...
Apart from that, the ever increasing framework of security issues will strangle every attempt to design a perfect "motor car" right from the outset. I think this is the reason why even traditional designers like Pininfarina, Giugiaro and the likes have produced some truly horrible cars overs the last decades - the age of the free-thinking Carrozzeria-artist has long gone.

"A camel is a horse designed by committee." (Alec Issigonis) So are todays cars.