Travel | ON THE ROAD

World's carmakers head back to school

International car manufacturers know that the automobile as a symbol has lost some of its gloss for the younger generation. Today’s young people want to take transportation in new directions. They have a more ecological, environmentally sustainable vision of transportation, and often it’s so idealistic that it’s unrealistic. The car industry is a vast forest providing food and shelter — its different branches providing employment for millions of people. Razing the forest would have devastating repercussions for the international economy. The move to a greener future is one that must be very carefully planned.

Automakers need fresh ideas they can incorporate into marketable products. But the industry is so competitive that they can’t afford to take too many risks. The new model has got to sell.

To tackle the future of automotive design, carmakers have begun to work in conjunction with international design schools and their students in an effort to consolidate their strengths for a positive outcome.

Design teachers understand the creative process, how to harness its wildness and encourage its growth. They also have a far better understanding of “real” application than their students do. Projects can be cultivated within design schools with a far more relaxed approach to deadlines, and the focus needn’t be a realistic application. There is space to make creativity itself the focus.

There are now many major international design schools where transportation design is studied: University of Northumbria (Britain), Tsinghua University Academy of Art and Design (China), Mushashino Art University (Japan), Monash University (Australia), Art Centre College of Design, Pasadena (United States), and the Instituto Europeo di Design (IED) of Turin, Italy. The work of students in these schools shows great strength in car-body design and its real-world application in manufacturing. They also provide a fertile environment for exchanges between students and the industry.

The first German Design Forum presentations were held July 14 at the Fachhochschule Pforzheim University in Germany, before a panel of designers from several companies and media representatives. Six international design schools were invited to present projects proposing innovative, futuristic design solutions for vehicles for both private use and public transport. An exhibition by graduating students showcased ideas including vehicles conceived for designers, architects and musicians, vehicles specifically for Germany, a transportation system for the waterways of a metropolis and strategies to increase the Honda brand’s image among young people. This kind of forum is the organic matter that breaks down to provide the energy for new growth in the automotive industry, and the experts know it. Professor James Kelly, who now heads BMW Technikstudio, hosted the event. Nissan design in Europe recently ran a competition for design students and Shiro Nakamura, chief creative officer at Nissan Motor Co. in Tokyo, was in attendance. The challenge for the students was to come up with a car- interior concept to meet the expectation of customers in 2015. A group of students from Phorzhein University in Germany won the competition with a range of futuristic vehicles.

Toyota has had fabulous results teaming up with Italy’s IED recently to create a lineup of hybrid Prius concept cars for 2010-2015. The endeavor was organized as a third-year project for 26 students doing their postgraduate Transportation Design course, it was led by the school’s Transportation Design Course coordinator, Fulvio Fantolino, and it was followed through various stages by Elvio D’Aprille, assistant chief designer at Toyota Europe Design Development, and Tateo Uchida, another chief stylist at Toyota. The set task was to come up with concepts that utilized heightened technology, while also stressing the emotional element, an important characteristic to draw the attention of the European and world markets.

These projects, created and submitted as the students’ final thesis projects as well as to Toyota, give manufacturers greater insight into what the younger generation — one at ease with technology and concerned with the environment — thinks about the automobile. They also indicate what is desirable to the future market.

Vitalis Enns, a 2005 graduate of Pforzheim now working in the industry, said that the design projects had given him the opportunity to follow different mentors from both within the school and the design industry. “I want to design things that are advanced and change the way people live. . . . (But) I had to learn the commercial way if I wanted to make it in the industry.”

Having worked within this type of mentor program, both as a student and as a project director, I cannot stress enough the benefits to students, the study of transportation design and the car industry as a whole. The students bring with them a freshness of vision, the schools provide real automotive design experiences for their students, and the insiders, meanwhile, bring an understanding of the limitations, their experience and a willingness to share information.

The positive charge that young designers bring, their single- mindedness, their optimism and their vision, holds great promise for the future of the automobile. The decision-makers of tomorrow are ready to talk and the industry is ready to listen.

Serge Mouangue is an industrial designer and interior architect from Renault who is currently working in Japan with Nissan Motor Co.

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