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.

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"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.

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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
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"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."

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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)

FAQs

Why did car design change? ›

New safety and emissions guidelines affected the way cars were built, and designers experimented with various ways to evolve the overall look of the American automobile. By the end of the 1980s, drivers were tired of wedge-shaped, boxy cars that focused more on fuel efficiency than on aesthetics.

How far ahead are cars designed? ›

"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.

What is the first step when it comes to designing a car? ›

1. Drawing and Rendering. The first step in manufacturing a car is car design drawings. It could be a single sketch or a series of sketches by one or multiple designers.

When did car design peak? ›

20th century. Steam-powered road vehicles, both cars and wagons, reached the peak of their development in the early 1930s with fast-steaming lightweight boilers and efficient engine designs. Internal combustion engines also developed considerably during World War I, becoming easier to operate and more reliable.

Why don t they make old looking cars? ›

As times evolve, so too does design. It's a big reason why automakers have model year vehicles – as the design, safety features, and other components are able to be updated and new models mass produced on an annual basis. Today's designs just don't match what automakers were doing 30, 40, 50 or more years ago.

Why did cars become less colorful? ›

This is due to popularity, resale value, human psychology, and manufacturing. The average age of a car has dramatically increased, and cars painted in colors that age well are more popular, especially in the resale market.

Are cars designed to go fast? ›

There are several reasons why cars are designed to go much faster than the law allows. First, drivers are given a safety margin for emergency situations which allows them to pass other vehicles safely or accelerate quickly when needed, like to avoid collisions or escape dangerous situations, MotorBiscuit explains.

Why are car years 1 year ahead? ›

Roosevelt signed an executive order to release vehicle model years in the fall of the preceding year in order to standardize employment in the automotive industry. The practice of beginning production of next year's model before the end of the year has become a long-standing tradition in America.

How long are engines designed to last? ›

To tell the truth, the life expectancy of automobiles is determined by how well-maintained they are. With proper maintenance vehicles can reach 200,000 miles. If we focus on engines, nowadays they are designed to last over 100,000 miles. Needless to say, proper servicing plays a decisive role in this case.

How many years does it take to design a car? ›

Probably 2 to 5 years. It could be faster, although, there are only a handful of cars to design and the new redesigns are scheduled every few years so there is no need to rush. They could downsize to a smaller team that rushes all the time, but that's probably not sustainable, and quality is lower, and less consistent.

What makes a car fast design? ›

Aerodynamic design that reduces wind resistance increases car speed.

Who made the first car design? ›

On January 29, 1886, Carl Benz applied for a patent for his “vehicle powered by a gas engine.” The patent – number 37435 – may be regarded as the birth certificate of the automobile.

How often do car designs change? ›

How often are new models of cars released by manufacturers? No, vehicles typically only get major upgrades every four to six years, and minor updates every three years. This time period is what's known as an “automotive model cycle,” and it corresponds to the generations of a vehicle.

What is the best era of car designs? ›

Thus, The Art Deco period allowed car designers to create more aerodynamic and streamlined shapes. Many of the iconic cars with art deco style from the 1920s and 1930s are still considered some of the most beautiful and innovative designs in automotive history.

How old is the oldest car brand? ›

Peugeot (UK: /ˈpɜːʒoʊ/, US: /p(j)uːˈʒoʊ/, French: [pøʒo]) is a French brand of automobiles owned by Stellantis. The family business that preceded the current Peugeot companies was founded in 1810, is regarded as the oldest car company in the world.

When did car design change? ›

Many post-war vehicles were built with new materials and technologies, such as fiberglass bodies, larger windows, and overhead valve engines. On the other hand, during the 1960s and 1970s, cars began to feature more futuristic designs and advanced technology.

Why have cars changed over the years? ›

In the modern age, computers have transformed cars. Safety features like anti-lock brakes, tire pressure sensors, and electronic stability control help drivers react faster and maintain control of their cars in difficult conditions. Backup cameras and lane-change assist also help eliminate blindspots for drivers.

Why did cars switch to LED? ›

LED lighting kits are much brighter than traditional car lights. As a result, they're much safer for drivers who frequently drive through hazardous conditions. For example, LED lighting kits can come in handy for people who live in areas with bad weather.

Why do old cars look so different? ›

Many car lovers bemoan the state of modern car design, where every model looks basically the same with a few subtle differences. In the 20th century, car designers had much more freedom, and regulations and laws regarding safety and fuel emissions didn't restrain them, leading to many unique designs.

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