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Futuristic Car Design Is Already In the Works At The Detroit Automakers

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A General Motors designer took a sketch drawn on a napkin by a local child and turned it into this futuristic looking car.
A General Motors designer took a sketch drawn on a napkin by a local child and turned it into this futuristic looking car.

Clay Dean spends his days imagining the future. You might soon be driving what he dreams.

As executive director of General Motors' advanced global design department, he is currently envisioning the roads of 2040, and what he sees is very different from today.

We are on the verge, he says, of a renaissance, an era in which car design will change the look of our roads, the way we commute to work, how much stress we endure throughout the day, even our impact on the planet.

"Today, it is all possible," says Dean, who sees Walt Disney’s vision of futurism as a model. "It is an exciting time to be a designer."

This month marks 85 years since GM became the first automaker to create a department devoted entirely to body design. That department now finds itself at a crossroads: as GM, the world’s biggest automaker, and other major American manufacturers seek to regain the country's confidence and engage younger buyers - and even expand their business to more distant, untapped markets - innovating at a pace beyond what most car companies are used to will be key.

GM hopes its history will be instructive. The company's first design chief, Hollywood coachbuilder Harley Earl, added colors beyond the then-standard black and is credited with the idea of the "concept car" - as in, a sexy, wild-looking design (albeit one that people may not actually be able to drive). By the time Earl retired in 1958, he had some truly progressive designs to his name, too, from the 1938 Buick Y-Job, with its hidden headlamps and electric windows, to the 1956 Firebird II, which included a guidance system that GM said would soon be integrated with the "highway of the future," enabling the car to drive itself.

This hasn’t quite come to pass.

Even if automakers push through innovative new products, it's unclear if people will buy them. The most popular cars today aren't known for their radical styling. The Toyota Camry has been the best-selling car in the U.S. for every year since 1997 except one.

Nor is it certain the automakers will manufacture anything too out of the box. Take the Chevy Volt, the advanced hybrid battery-powered car that has won accolades and awards for its design, but almost didn't happen. It took the persistence of one top executive to convince the company's board that the idea made financial sense.

These are the kinds of challenges the Big Three U.S. automakers have struggled to meet for decades. The flying cars promised more than half a century ago remain far from dealers' lots, but with their companies' futures anything but certain, designers at GM, Ford and Chrysler now seem to feel a new urgency as they grapple with new material compositions, shifting transportation needs and, not least, the legacies of their predecessors, which loom large around them as they work to make Americans fall back in love with the automobile.

Meanwhile, GM designers are still working out of a once-futuristic Eero Saarinen building that was completed during Earl's tenure. Even if Dean never makes it to Disney World, the suspended staircase and jet-aerated pond in the lobby lend the design compound a distinct whiff of Tomorrowland, or maybe the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

The design center's retro flavor belies its high-tech work systems. An attached wind tunnel helps designers ensure that their clay models remain not just dynamic, but aerodynamic. GM's head of global design, Ed Welburn, runs conference calls with staffers beamed onto giant screens from eight countries.

Still, observers say, the auto industry's present doesn't look much like the future promised in buildings like this back when Eisenhower was president. While the industry has always had striking, exciting "statement cars," mass-market models have essentially remained incrementally-modified boxes balanced atop four wheels.

That's in large part because of how much its costs to develop a new car: Jim Hall, a consultant with 2953 Analytics in Birmingham, Mich., says automakers spend about $1 billion to $1.5 billion for each new model they introduce.

"When you've got that much money on the line, you are very, very cautious about doing anything that might be considered frivolous," he says.

Now, however, designers at GM and elsewhere say technology is catching up with their imaginations, which should make for much broader, more dynamic changes faster. Their goals are ambitious: Create radical new vehicle designs that can adapt to a more crowded, more resource-strained and rapidly-changing world.

"I will be really disappointed if we're not doing some of these things in 2030," Dean says. "We need to create the solutions that will make society better."

CHISELED HOODS

Safety and fuel economy regulations drive a lot of design demands. Designers have to take into consideration airbags, crumple zones (the area of that crunches together in a car accident), roof strength, pedestrian safety concerns and a host of other issues.

Combine those issues with fuel economy concerns, and the fact that steel is quite hard to bend, and you can see why it's challenging to pursue avant garde designs in mass-market cars.

The drive for improved fuel economy is also forcing automakers to be more inventive, and could mean we'll see some more quirky designs on the road. Automakers are now using carbon fiber, an expensive blend of carbon and plastic which has been most commonly used in spacecraft, airplanes and race cars. It is highly moldable and light, which would make it more popular in cars if it weren't so expensive.

Chrysler's Dodge brand is using carbon fiber in the new Viper, which hits the market later this year and will be priced around $95,000. Carbon fiber is in the hood and roof, and the automaker used high-strength aluminum in the doors to help make it lighter.

The result is a chiseled hood with seven air vents, and doors that look like something out of Minority Report.

Traditionally, car doors and other steel parts are made on stamping machines. The piece of steel that makes a door might be stamped five or six times to get the right shape. But there's no amount of stamping that would make the Viper's door. The company had to "superform" the door piece, by heating up the aluminum and pressing it into shape.

"We're trying to get back to what I call a washable surface," says Mark Trostle, head of motorsport design for Chrysler. "That's when a customer wants to go out and touch and wash the car, to touch those hard edges."

Although the new shapes will make cars more modern, Trostle says he think they'll also be more timeless and classic. "A little more beautiful," he says.

Before 1980 or so, carmakers rarely took aerodynamics into account when looking at car design. When new fuel efficiency standards hit after the oil crisis in the mid 1970s, the companies had to start thinking of ways to cut fuel consumption. About 25% of a car's fuel consumption comes from pushing itself through the air.

Over the past decade, designers have learned to spend more time in the wind tunnel, a practice that won't go away anytime soon. Designers bring clay models, about one-quarter the size of a real car, into an air tunnel. A giant fan blows air over the model car, and computers determine how easily the air slips over, under and around the car. Designers bring their carving tools with them, and go in and trim off clay here and mold it on there, trying to figure out the best aerodynamics, experimenting as they go along. Trostle said the challenge in the next few years will be how to make cars that cut through the air but don't all look the same.

TOMORROW'S DESIGNERS

Beyond the push to create less generic-looking cars, manufacturers also are struggling in their pursuit of an apathetic youth market, and one with less discretionary income.

That’s where Ed Welburn comes in. To most of America, he isn't much of a celebrity, despite his global influence. But around Detroit, General Motors' head of car design is a rock star. Even though the attention makes this soft-spoken man a little uncomfortable, he always tries to be polite and engaging. Especially to the kids.

A few months ago, he says was eating dinner with a colleague at a restaurant in Brighton, Mich., when a boy around 8 or 9 years old came up to the table. He told Welburn he wanted to draw a car for him.

"He just slightly taller than the table, and he stood there thinking, looking up at the ceiling, taking it very seriously," Welburn said. The young designer was very focused on the stripes, making sure they looked just right. Welburn took the drawing, done on a napkin, back with him to the office.

Welburn remembers his own brush with GM's design department as a child. When he was 10, he wrote a letter to GM, telling them he wanted to be a designer. What classes should he take, he asked. What did he need to do?

Someone at GM wrote back, laying out a detailed course of action that Welburn followed. He's now just the sixth lead designer GM has had in its 85-year history, and the first African-American to head up design.

Connecting with tomorrow's designers is something Welburn takes seriously.

Kids these days don't have the same love affair with cars that their parents had: The number of young drivers is on the decline, with just 46.3 percent of them getting their licenses in 2008, compared with 64.4 percent in 1998, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Gartner, a research firm, says 46 percent of people aged 19 to 24 would opt to have Internet access over having a car.

The car isn't the key to freedom and independence anymore, Welburn said, so younger generations aren't as excited about getting their own vehicles.

Welburn said he knows that in order to keep GM's cars vibrant, the department needs an influx of younger designers coming in to make sure its car designers connect with tomorrow's buyers. So when he got back from meeting that young boy at the restaurant, he took the boy's napkin to one of his most creative designers and asked him to turn it into an official car sketch. He then sent it back to the boy, whose parents told him he fell in love with it and hung it on his bedroom wall.

If you can relate your brand to people at an early age, it's a tremendous thing, Welburn said.

The industry also needs to look at new ways of connecting with younger drivers, Dean said. Maybe that means making motorized Chevy bikes that would assist riders up hills, but mostly act like a bike. Or come up with entirely new cars, radical designs that seat just two people but can get you to work and are cheap to own and operate.

REWRITING THE BOOK

Two years ago, GM showed off a concept car in Shanghai called the En-V, a two-wheeler that is shaped like a Russian nesting doll. Its meant to drive no faster than 35 mph, designed to make commuting through overcrowded cities much easier. The automaker is also looking at other kinds of transportation: Bikes, trains, commuter trucks that could carry pint-sized one- or two-seater cars. They're trying to solve future transportation problems that are sure to develop as the world grows increasingly more crowded, Dean said.

Growing urban populations are a challenge for carmakers, because those cities lack the infrastructure to handle the millions of cars on the road. That results in huge traffic jams, like a 12-day traffic jam that happened in China in 2010. More often, though, people end up spending an inordinate amount of time in their cars, driving no faster than 30 mph.

About 3 billion people live in cities today; by 2040, that figure is expected to grow to 6 billion.

Automated cars will play a large role in moving all those people around, and they will radically change car design. Cars that drive themselves will alleviate traffic. They'll be more evenly spaced on the highway, and get into fewer crashes. They'll also change the way people think about driving and what a car should even look like.

"You basically rewrite the whole book for what the car is," Hall says. "Do you need windows in an autonomous vehicle? No, you don't. It changes everything."

Automated driving seems like the exact opposite of what would inspire passion for cars, but it could it could open up huge opportunities in design, Welburn says, and it could help people fall in love with cars again. Automated driving seems like the exact opposite of what would inspire passion for cars. First, there'd be no real driving. Second, they don't give the driver a sense of freedom - the car does all the work.

Still, Welburn thinks drivers who enjoy their commutes more will enjoy being in their vehicles. They could check email, work on their computers, watch a movie, maybe even nap. It also could give older drivers who are losing their reflexes the ability to stay mobile even if they weren't driving. Maybe society could lower the driving age, if the car was doing most of the work.

"I think people fall in love with a car for many reasons," Welburn says. "Some love to drive, some love the fashion. And with autonomous vehicles, some people might just love the time they get to be in their car."

Population trends will also make car sharing more popular. In the U.S., growth is expected in Western cities, the Sunbelt states and along the I-85 corridor between Raleigh, N.C. and Atlanta, where there is often a lack of a mass transit. This will lead to commuters seeking alternatives such as the Zipcar, a rental-car company that offers hourly and day rates to its customers.

Welburn says car sharing also will inevitably result in sleek, minimalistic cars. The interiors would become more like a blank movie screen that lights up when drivers bring in their own iPod or other handheld device. That would light up customized dashboards, radio station presets and maps personalized to the driver. They'd also be easier to clean in between drivers.

Automakers would design shared cars with the idea that the interior was a blank slate that would be customized later by the user. A study done by PWC showed that younger car buyers are very interested in customizing their vehicles - and this kind of idea could answer that desire.

While a lot of car design discussions focus on the car's exterior, automakers have realized that customers really prioritize comfortable, easy-to-use, quality interiors. So interior design has become equally important to the industry. "I like to say it's very similar to dating," says Michael Arbaugh, chief designer of interiors for Ford. "You might lust after the exterior of a car, but like a relationship with a person, it's the inside that counts."

Ford has already spent time making their interiors very high-tech, using the Sync system to connect with smartphones and iPods, and allowing drivers to talk to their cars. They're also working on making seats more comfortable, dashboards and other parts feel more expensive to the touch, and making the technology systems less distracting.

Mood lighting helps, too. Chrysler, Ford and GM are all working on ways to light up little nooks and crannies in the car, because it makes the inside feel more like a living room than a car. The colors are changeable, so drivers who get bored of blue accent lights can change it to pink or white or red.

THE EMOTIONAL SIDE

Welburn is sitting in the back of Nicola Bulgari's 1932 Cadillac Fleetwood limousine, showing off the spacious interior. The car is on loan from Bulgari, the scion of the Bulgari luxury goods company, who recently awarded Welburn the inaugural Bulgari award for people who have made a contribution to automotive heritage.

The car feels like it's as big as a modern day minivan. The seats feel like a wide, soft couch. On the outside, the running boards rise up over the wheels, making the car look like a piece of art.

He's raving about the proportions of the car -- proportions are something automotive designers like to talk about, but few people really understand.

"It's how the car works together, the relationship of the body of the vehicle to the curve of the bumpers to the placement of the wheels," he says. "Sometimes it all works together just right, and the proportions just sing. When you don't have great proportions, you can tell."

Yet over the past century or so, what appears in retrospect to be elegant or daring design was either standard procedure at the time the car was built or was something that got adopted and assimilated so rapidly that it became commonplace.

In the 1930s, when Bulgari's limousine was built, the proportions may have been exquisite but it looked a lot like other cars on the road. The bumper curving up over the front tire was standard practice. The shiny black paint and chrome bumpers seemed somewhat conventional, too. In the 50s, once tailfins and multi-colored cars became popular, that style became the norm. Muscle cars of the 60s at some point became less surprising, too.

"To a lot of people, the cars of the current time always seem boring," Hall says. "It's the horror of the now. Now is the place where you live, and because you have to live here, it's less interesting than the future and not as romantic as the past."

Hall predicts that 10 years from now, when we look back on the design of today, we'll agree that it was pretty good. But he believes it’s going to get even better.

"That's the hook, right? That's how you differentiate yourself from the other automakers," Hall says. "It's the most subjective part of the car, and the most interesting."

In the end, it’s seductive styling, the automakers hope, that will keep people passionate about their cars.

"You don't want customers to justify a car based on logic; you want them to justify the purchase based on emotion," says J. Mays, head of global design for Ford. "It’s a bit like falling in love. You don’t fall in love for practical reasons. You fall in love for emotional reasons. The practical things have to be there – but that’s just establishing trust, the price of entry. Ultimately, you need the emotional side to come through, just as it does in a relationship."

This story originally ran in Huffington, the Huffington Post's magazine for the iPad. Check out the magazine at iTunes.

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