When it comes to automotive styling numerous design trends are popular today, but future vehicles are guaranteed to look very different. Functional styling elements will likely play a bigger role in exterior design, things like integrated air vents and spoilers. Naturally vehicle interiors will receive major updates as well, but arguably government regulations are the most important things driving change. Ever-increasing safety and fuel-economy standards are impacting automotive design in major ways.
GRISTLE OFF THE HAUNCHES
With increasing demand for more features from customers, paired with greater government safety demands, cars have gained pounds for decades. Only in the past few years has that trend reversed, and it’s likely to continue on this new path.
According to Arvind Ramkrishna, a design educator with the website DrivenMavens.com mandatory requirements like Corporate Average Fuel Economy laws (CAFE) breed innovation. He said this challenge “presents a host of opportunities for automakers.” Going forward “It’s all about mass reduction for the interior and maximizing functionality for the exterior,” he said.
One area automakers can potentially save a lot of weight is in seating. Ramkrishna said they’re the second heaviest part of a vehicle’s interior. Optimizing their design can cut a lot of mass, but it has to be done carefully. “Lighter weight cannot compromise the safety of the occupants,” he said.
SLIPPERY WHEN DRY
Of course mass isn’t the only factor to consider; aerodynamics is every bit as important, and in some cases more. Creating vehicles that slice through the air with minimum drag and are attractive at the same time is challenging. A design that performs well in a wind tunnel may not be very pretty.
Nina Tortosa, an aerodynamicist at General Motors and one of the people responsible for the Chevrolet Volt said, “From an engineering perspective we all have to play by the same laws of physics,” but, “There are still parts of the vehicle that are less sensitive to the flow.”
She said the rear ends and sides of a car or truck are pretty much fair game for designers. “Back there they still have a lot of freedom to do things,” she said, adding, “The area where the rear license plate is located is not sensitive [to airflow].”
Whether you like it or not the Volt is a tremendous technological achievement. Bringing a car like that to market was challenging; aerodynamics played an important role. “For the Volt the change in weight had a smaller impact than a change in drag,” Tortosa said. Aero was a top priority, in fact she said it was the number two most important factor after powertrain efficiency.
In the future engineering and design have to work together. Cooperation is the only way to satisfy both customer and regulatory demand. While reducing drag is always a priority, “There’s enough leeway for a studio to get creative,” Tortosa said.
Like design, there are several trends blowing through wind tunnels today. “We’re constantly trying to integrate progressive aero with customer satisfaction,” Tortosa said. One feature that’s gaining momentum is the active shutter. These electronically controlled parts block off airflow to cut drag. For instance, if a car is driving on a flat road at a constant speed it probably isn’t working very hard, therefore it doesn’t need a lot of airflow through the radiator to keep the engine cool. If it’s towing a trailer through the mountains it’s a very different story. Active aerodynamic shutters allow for minimum drag under light loads and sufficient cooling when called for.
PEDESTRIANS “IMPACTING” DESIGN
In Europe safety standards are directly impacting vehicle design. Pedestrian-crash requirements are resulting in vehicles with bigger front ends that are designed to absorb impacts and save lives.
Jim Hall, Managing Director of 2953 Analytics said, “You use the hood as a catcher’s mitt.” Automakers are adding space between the bonnet and the top of the engine so there’s crush space when a person impacts the car. They’re also implementing pop-up hoods to help absorb energy during crashes.
As a result of these changes, “The cowl height on cars has slowly crept up,” Hall said. Among other things this has caused the front seats to rise a little bit so the driver can see out over the elevated dashboard, but that’s not all. According to Hall, “One of the things you’re seeing from a design standpoint is that the window area is getting squished because the beltline is rising.”
Honda is one company that’s bucking this trend. Hall said, “With the  Accord they made a conscientious effort to keep the beltline level, horizontal, to increase the glass area in the rear side doors for a better view.” This makes it easier for shorter riders like children to see out of the vehicle.
Will pedestrian-protection laws ever cross the Atlantic to North America? Hall said, “If we can’t agree on standardized lighting for a car between Europe and the U.S. this is a lot tougher to agree on.”
BLOCK BY BLOCK, DESIGNING THE FUTURE
“I think these next 10 years… things are going to get really interesting,” said Dalibor Dimovski, Editor-in-Chief of CarDesignFetish.com. According to him, “Cars aren’t going to look like bricks anymore.” He predicts drivers in the future can look forward to more expressive designs that are sportier than today.
Dimovski also said radical sketch-like styling and biometric shapes will start to take hold and they’ll “break the mold of what it means to be a car.” However, these seemingly busy themes will not dominate the entire industry. According to him, “The sport-luxury look will also become popular, which “[doesn’t have] a lot of crazy shapes.” Recent Cadillacs are a good example of this, particularly the compact ATS, which has stretched-out forms that make it look like it’s moving fast.
FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION
Mirroring some of these predictions Ramkrishna said, “One of the things I’ve loved about Audi is not using a lot of cosmetic elements like chrome appliqués… Everything is very, very clean.” He also said this lack of visual distraction allows a viewer to focus on the sculptural form of a vehicle.
BMW also earns kudos from Ramkrishna. He likes their sharp creases and “tightness.” He said designers were “able to style with a sense of purpose.”
A prime example of functional styling is the 2014 Corvette. Ramkrishna said, “I think they’ve done a bang-up job with that. And I think they’ve done the same on the Viper.” Air vents on the C7 help expel heat from under the car’s hood and reduce front-end lift at speed. Outlets positioned near the tail lamps aid in cooling the differential and transmission fluid.
While Audi and BMW as well as the new Corvette and Viper are doing it right, Ramkrishna is not a big fan of Japanese design. He said their styling is too conservative. He is, however, a big fan of the new Mazda6 and its KODO design language.
HOLD THE HEADLAMPS
One trend that’s popular today but could be on the way out is oversized headlamps. Jason White, a Contract Car Designer at Lincoln and Design Educator and the University of Michigan calls this the “‘Madison Avenue look” because it makes a car’s front end appear stretched, as if it had a facelift.
One vehicle that took this styling element too far is the Chevrolet Spark. Its front lights are actually longer than its hood! White also said many Asian automakers are doing this; the Hyundai Sonata is prime example of a car with elongated headlights.
According to White this trick is implemented to decrease the perceived mass and overhang of a car’s front. Basically it’s an optical illusion that makes a vehicle’s face seem smaller.
“My personal feeling is that this trend is going to get so over the top and out of proportion with the actual mass of the vehicle,” said White, relating oversized lamps to giant tailfins of the past. He also said “There are probably a lot of engineers that wish it would go away.”
“When this design trick is done in a subtle way it can be quite effective, but if it’s overdone it gets really silly, really fast,” said White. He pointed to the Kia Soul, which is funky looking but doesn’t have oversized lamps.
LIGHTING THE WAY
Another possible design trend of the future could be the creative use of lighting, whether they’re LEDs, incandescent bulbs or something else entirely. Beyond head and tail lamps “I think there’s going to be lighting on other aspects of the vehicle,” said Dimovski. Illumination could be incorporated along the side of a car or in the mirrors to highlight surface detailing. And who knows, maybe the Mercury Sable’s light-up grille will make a comeback.
In today’s world it can be challenging for automakers to differentiate themselves with exterior styling. Increasingly wind tunnels are dictating the shape of vehicles, which is increasing the importance of interior design.
In the future White said, “One thing that I would think there would be a lot of is asymmetrical instrument panels.” Audi is one of the brands embracing this idea. “It affords more chances to develop a unique look,” he said, but this strategy is not without its own challenges.
According to White, “It’s more surface work if you do an asymmetric design,” which can increase the cost of developing a vehicle. Additionally he said, “Many designers find the idea of an asymmetrical instrument panel unbalanced or disorderly,” because it, “runs against their sense of order.”
THE FUTURE STARTS TODAY
For automakers the future is today. Their studios are hard at work on vehicles that will arrive in showrooms years from now. One key to a successful vehicle launch is faith. “You have to have trust in your designer and your design department,” Dimovski said. They are mission-critical to delivering exciting products that meet government regulations people want to own.