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“New technologies will lead to

a radically new car design

How will trends like electric mobility, automated driving and car sharing affect automobile design? If you’d like to know, read on – Professor Paolo Tumminelli, a recognized design critic, has some answers for you. This much is certain: the changes will not please everyone.

Interview: Carsten Paulun  April 2018

Professor Tumminelli, digitalization is now also massively driving the automotive industry. A blessing or a curse?

It’s neither a blessing nor a curse, but the natural evolution of a product that continues to be the backbone of our society – a digitally connected society needs a digitally connected automobile, plus modern forms of mobility. This goes hand in hand with a philosophical paradigm shift. In the 20th century, the automobile made physical speed possible and a tangible experience. The digital world of the 21st century cancels this sensation – speed evaporates in the millisecond between a click and a download.  Thus, digitalization, for instance via smart traffic control, is going to lead to a paradox: The car of the future will be traveling at lower speed yet we’re going to get from A to B in it in less time. Following a necessary transformation stage, the consequence can only be a radically new automobile design concept.


How much will automated driving affect vehicle design?

There’s no general answer to this question because we have no knowledge whatsoever of how automated driving can be experienced in the first place. Basically speaking, the specifications for the design engineers used to be pretty clear. Cars were designed from the driver’s perspective. But if we no longer drive our cars in the future, but are allowed to sleep or work or even just communicate in them, this results in a wide range of possibilities that need to be explored first. Anyone who has already experienced automated driving knows that just sitting in the front seat and looking out of the windows can’t be the solution. We need something that replaces the steering wheel. Without a steering wheel new hierarchies and new lifestyles will emerge in cars. At the moment, research is merely focused on what’s technically feasible. But it should also investigate how the time we spend in a car can be shaped from the human perspective, for instance in terms of the occupants’ privacy or sociality. If you imagine a sleeping-car that would take you from Cologne to Berlin on a slow, relaxing ride, the self-driving vehicle might be a windowless cocoon. Or there might be completely open, transparent architectures that requalify cars including their occupants as social beings – like communities on wheels. Both imply all-new horizons for our lives.

Will electric mobility determine the design of our vehicles more than other technologies? If so, in what areas and with what effects?

We shouldn’t forget that electric mobility is as old as the automobile itself. Yet automotive development has been decisively shaped by the internal combustion engine. In retrospect, we’d have to agree with the great Fritz B.Busch [a notable German motor journalist, editor’s note] when, somewhat ironically, he postulated that in automotive engineering there wasn’t a lot that had happened since the Ford A from 1931. In fact, systematic focusing on electric powertrains will have to lead to a radically new design concept of the automobile. Looking at today’s Tesla & company, we can see that we’re still in the infancy of this development – somewhat like we were with the automobile in 1899.



Will we be able to recognize electric vehicles just by their exterior design in the future?

Nothing speaks against retrofitting a 1965 Rolls Royce with an electric powertrain and transforming it into a fantastic vehicle. But everything speaks in favor of the electric car assuming a multiple identity – which would also be very contemporary. Especially because the electric powertrain opens up all-new possibilities various directions will initially be pursued. On the other hand, it’s also conceivable that a single player with a unique design concept will cause a breakthrough disruption. Like Ford did in his day with the Ford T that occupied 50 percent of the market at the time or, later, the iPhone that went on to shape a globally valid product typology. An iPhone on wheels is something that many people are dreaming of.

Without a steering wheel new hierarchies and lifestyles emerge in the automobile

Even millennials desire to own a car, but for them other parameters than, for instance, size and power output are decisive

Will there be a two-class design: sleek and futuristic for electric vehicles, conservative and posh for cars with IC engines?

There’ll be no two-class design. Unless a special law was enacted it would take about 30 years to completely replace the entire fleet of privately owned vehicles in Germany. Consequently, cars with IC engines and electric vehicles will have to co-exist for a long time. A dual model is conceivable. Electric vehicles will initially shape our cityscapes. And if governments do their job properly these cars will be rather compact ones like the Japanese Kei-Cars. Cars with IC engines, though, will continue to dominate in boundary regions much longer. After all, the IC engine also offers advantages – just take costs, range, the time it takes to refuel and the availability of battery charging stations, for example. Therefore, not only from a historico-cultural perspective but also from an economic point of view it’s important not to allow a witch hunt of IC engines. Let’s not forget that the more electric vehicles we have on our roads the less the overall burden will be that’s caused by IC engines, which by now have become very clean anyway.


We already know and can see that an element defining a vehicle’s identity such as the radiator grill is superfluous on an electric vehicle. What will engineers and designers instead be using as a differentiating feature?

Not only the radiator grill but, essentially, an engine compartment would become superfluous – except if it were converted into a trunk like in the case of Tesla or on the old 911. The question of identity, however, is a crucial one. People view the front of a car as a face. That’s why character is also referred to as a design value. Naturally, personality can also be created without a radiator grill – as it used to be with the Beetle. But scope for development needs to be shaped. It’s possible that future cars may no longer have “eyes” and a “mouth.” Designers will have to search for substitutes for them – because, let’s face it, cars are not refrigerators. There’s no doubt, though, that OLED lights on the one hand and the technology required for automated driving on the other will provide new accentuating details.


Will electrical components such as the wheel hub motor completely change a car’s design?

From the E-Golf we’ve learned that the combination of an electric traction motor and a battery does not necessarily have to change a car’s design completely. However, it would be embarrassing for the engineers not to take advantage of the opportunities of the new technologies to define a new automobile architecture. This would be as if the cell phone had been designed in the shape of a normal phone – except without a cable. Wheel hub motors provide additional degrees of freedom for design. The reason is that if the motor is completely “absent” there’s even greater freedom for design. When there’s no motor or engine you don’t need an engine compartment, a hood and definitely no radiator grill, plus new possibilities emerge such as for pedestrian protection. Ultimately, though, the decision about the forms of propulsion that will dominate the future will be of an economic nature. Before any standard will win through we’re going to see a wide variety of possible configurations. I’m sure that this is going to be very exciting.

The Schaeffler Mover with wheel hub drive offers a platform for autonomous and electrified mobility solutions such as robo taxis or transport vehicles. The drive and suspension components have been consolidated in a single, space-saving unit. This enables 90° steering and maximizes interior space

Wheel hub motors result in additional degrees of freedom for design because in the “absence” of the motor the designer gains additional freedom

More and more people are using car sharing systems. Privately owned cars have had their day particularly in big cities, also as status symbols. To what extent will such a trend influence design?

This development is the result of a mobility policy that has been heading in the wrong direction for decades, one that has stripped driving of its quality, especially in urban areas. Germany in particular is a poor example. Preference has been given to extravagant automobile concepts instead of promoting the use of city-friendly models – Japan and Norway are better at this. Furthermore, there are many countries that have hardly been investing in better, future-proof infrastructure. Car sharing is an interesting concept that becomes highly visible in the cities because these automobiles ostentatiously use public space. In spite of car sharing accounting for just a small percentage of overall personal mobility its low-cost accessibility motivates young people to use and love automobiles – and the manufacturers that operate these systems in the private sector are perfectly aware of this. Having become accustomed to using a car intensifies the millennials’ urge to personally own one. But for them other parameters than, for instance, size and power output are decisive. These parameters include eco-friendliness, parking space, individual design options and, of course, the integration of digital entertainment and communication technologies. The brand policy pursued by many automakers has not adequately taken these trends into account so far. New technologies such as electric mobility and automated driving are now offering the opportunity to correct this to some extent. But I’d caution anyone to imagine the car of the future to be a thrifty one-size-fits-all type of vehicle. I rather believe that due to the western consumer culture we’re going to see a wide variety of lifestyles and mobility forms.


Finally, a personal question: Would you name two or three of your personal icons of automobile design and tell us what current car is your favorite in terms of design?

Every epoch has its icons. At the same time, it must be noted that the days of icons are over. Botox and silicone are keeping past legends alive, such as the Porsche 911. Personally, I’m thrilled by the intelligence of the automobile from the 80s. Aside from passive safety and emissions control technology – and far from digital gimmicks – design in those years achieved conceptual perfection. Modern icons, clearly, are Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Fiat Panda, Toyota Land Cruiser J7, which is still being produced and operates in the world’s harshest environments, and Mercedes-Benz 190 – Bruno Sacco’s masterpiece, unrecognized simply because it was “small.” You know that I take a critical view of current automobile design. In terms of styling, I find Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover’s lines esthetically appealing. If I were to look for a new Euro 6 car that should above all be sustainable, economical and pleasing I’d choose a Morgan 4/4. This is also a tribute to yesterday’s car while looking forward to tomorrow’s.

The interviewee

Paolo Tumminelli warmed up by studying architecture in Milan, sped into design, slid into marketing, rushed through strategy brand consulting and landed as full professor for design concepts at the Faculty of Cultural Sciences at ­Cologne University of Applied Sciences. In his generalist approach, he sees design under the perspective of a global consumption culture. The focus of his research is on automobility. On these issues Prof. Tumminelli provides advice to entrepreneurs and corporate executives. Besides he was – and still is – a publicist, author, speaker, curator and moderator.

Photos Claas Janssen, private (1)

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Without a steering wheel new hierarchies and lifestyles emerge in the automobile

Without a steering wheel new hierarchies and lifestyles emerge in the automobile