The ultimate driving machine. That is how BMW refers to its cars. The company’s head of advanced design, Benoit Jacob, does that as well. Yet in a quite different way.
The state of car design
I would say the ambition of car design today is mostly average. It is always the same song. We are all copying each other. Maybe there is a bit of differentiation within automotive brands, but the ingredients from one brand to another are all pretty much the same. If you are talking about a premium vehicle, design is all about size, a powerful engine, a bit of chrome, and even more chrome in the interior. Mostly, design today is focused on integrating as many “must haves” as possible. The nice thing with the BMW i3, though, is that we had the opportunity to investigate different ways of creating the experience of having a premium automobile.
The future of design
Thanks to all the digital technology we have at our disposal, the sky is the limit. And I think that sometimes that is not such a good thing because good design comes out of restrictions, out of ways operating within the rules. If they know that the sky is the limit, many designers will actually feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s as if you were asked to design your dream car. Where would you start? A dream car for what? You need a couple of parameters, a range in which you feel comfortable to bring in some ideas. Design is never a spontaneous act that comes out of nowhere. It is not a big bang. Some designers still think that they have to create the big bang with every job. They think design is about their ego, but it is not. There are predecessor designs, there is a history, there is a culture. Design always has a context.
The role of the designer
In French, the word design stems from the word “dessin”, which means drawing. So designers are perceived as artists in France. In the United States, a designer is an engineer. Sometimes, I would like to abolish this word altogether because it can mean just about any- thing. A designer can be a cook or a politician, this is my personal view. Designers are always people who try to find solutions for a given problem.
When we designed the interior, the motivation was not to just create a new shape, it was all about efficiency. We know that in an electric car, its range is crucial. Now you can, of course, increase the range with the help of very expensive technologies. Carbon fiber components, maybe better aerodynamics, special wind technology, stuff like that. Those are features that we have on all i3 cars, but they all come from engineers. I could have said ‘Yeah, let’s do a car in carbon’, but that’s not a design- er’s job, it’s an engineer’s job. During the development of the i3, I was wondering what I could contribute as a designer for the extended range. So, our motivation for the interior of the i3 was to try to design the behavior of the driver, to influence it, before we started designing the shape. That thinking is really disruptive for BMW; a car which tells you to drive slow, to go smooth. These are driving behaviors that can extend the range of the vehicle, of course. So, at the end of the day, the design message is to choose the good life over fast life.
How the design of i3 came up
To express this idea in the design of the interior, we approached it in the terms of design thinking. The approach we took was based on the way people live at home, urban living if you would like. So, within the team, I came up with this metaphor of the small loft. I was saying to them, ‘Well, this is a small loft on four wheels, and from that perspective, let’s see how we can translate it to a formal expression.’ That was the framework to which we could add all the other ideas that popped up in our daily work. So the design of the car’s interior, which is becoming increasingly relevant today anyway, was not only inspired by car design in the classical way, but we also used ideas from furniture design.
I want to feel that all the people I work with are ticking the same way. Sometimes I like to challenge my team. I once asked them about what they thought is the most modern car in the world. I have a team of 35 guys and they then went on about a certain Porsche or a prototype they saw at the Geneva auto salon. Nobody said Tesla. And when I challenged them about it, they said a Tesla was just an electric Jaguar with two or three other clever features. For me, this confirmed that they have a completely different perspective than most customers in the real world today. And that is something I want to change.
Disruption from the inside
If you look into the history of economics, there are many examples of companies that were highly successful and then went bankrupt because they simply ignored technological innovation. My favorite one in school was the story of one American company in the 19th century. They were selling ice worldwide. They were cutting ice in big lakes and shipping it to the rest of the world. Eventually they heard about the heavy machines in the British coal mining industry. They were all excited how they could use quicker boats and stronger machines and sell more and more ice. But ten years later the fridge was invented and that was that. They went bankrupt although it was a very well run company. So we have to be aware that we are probably in an era where car design as whole is likely to change more than we think.
New business models
I have no idea about economics. But the one thing I do understand as a business model from a customer’s perspective is why you should pay so much for something you really only use five to six per cent of the day? When a car is not taking you anywhere, the only thing it can really do is just sit there and look good. Not really a good contribution to society and the community. And this got me thinking about the i3. Why does an owner have to cover 100 per cent of the cost of ownership? We do not offer anything in the technology in the car that could create extra revenue. But maybe there is an opportunity with cloud computing, for example. Also, maybe there are ways to help to finance the substance we have put in the development of the car. We get a lot of pressure from politicians in terms of emissions, safety and so on. But the customer is not paying you more for cleaner engines or standard safety features. That’s why I think it could be a future business model to create revenue through the contribution of the car as a system to society. However, do not get me wrong, I think the pressure from the outside is good for design. It forces us to come up with radical new solutions. That keeps us out of the comfort zone.
Can the car be cleverer? I always come up with the example of climate control, especially during winter. You step into the car and it is foggy and cold. Now you have to do a lot of things. You have to start the engine, you have to press a lot of small buttons, put on your belt, and do it all with really cold fingers. That is so annoying! That is why some people do not like cars so much: because they are not really helping. I think the car should know what challenges the driver is facing, like the temperature outside. The car can know your habits, based on statistics over time. Analytics and artificial intelligence offer tremendous poten- tial. We have to look at that first. What artificial intelligence can do. And then eventually we can find the design solution.
The advantage of the outsider
Disrupters from the outside have one very simple asset that we do not have. They have no history, and that can be a good thing. The problem with established car companies is that many of them are celebrating their 100th anniversary. We will celebrate BMW Group’s in 2016, Daimler did it a couple of years ago. So, we all have best-practice baggage to lug around. We find ourselves saying that we are successful because we have always done things in a certain way. Then the IT disruptors come along with no history, no dogma. They will say things like: “Design? This is not something that people really need.” They simply say that people only want to have efficient computers in their cars. That will be their take-off point, not design. Their approach will be to ask questions like: What are the three most annoying things in the car today? Then, they will work very precisely on these three things and how we can get rid of them forever.
One example is how to charge an electric car. The cable always gets dirty, so the charging experience is not nice. How can we make it bet- ter? We know the answer is unlikely to be electromagnetic induction or something like that because you would need a whole power plant to charge a car within an hour. But they are starting to think from a free point. And if the result is to have a cable drum which is visible on the roof, that’s what they will do. Because it fixes a problem. And with our 100-year history of doing things, we would say that we never put drums on the roofs. Never. And that’s why it would not be done. So I think your level of disruption depends very much on how much freedom your history gives you.
We are all working on that, it is a very hyped topic when it comes to car design today. It will not be a USP for any brand. It will not be a differentiator, because at some point, everyone will have it. But, how- ever progressive and creative I am, I still wonder. Autonomous driving technology is already familiar to people who have seen the prototypes. These people are already thinking that cars, which drive automatically, will offer a fully different experience than conventional cars. You will probably be able to do other things in your car while it is driving itself. So we could have rotating seats, for example, to permit more movement. There are many projects like that in every company. But I say that although it sounds great, we have to slow down. We still have to do the design.
Rotating seats involve a sophisticated mechanism, which adds weight and, worse, involves many things, which can go wrong. And are the seats really the issue if your car drives autonomously? Why would you need to sit differently? In the i3, we fixed a problem that is annoying in any car. If you are reading or doing something else while waiting for someone in front of a store, you will have the steering wheel on your knees. Nobody likes that. Now, in the i3, you can simply rotate the seat a little bit and stretch your feet sideways, so nothing is in your way. Also, we have designed the door panel in such a way that you can lean on it, too. This is the kind of smart engineering or smart design you need. A simple solution is not always the thing that moves or inflates or does a triple somersault. For me, it is already disruptive, especially in a company like BMW to basically force people into this line of thinking. I believe that the mother of efficiency, or sometimes even the mother of genius, is laziness.
Handicap as an advantage for disruption
A good example how handicaps can foster creativity is the Citroën DS. Not because I am French, actually I kind of hate the car. My grandmother used to drive one and I always got seasick in it. But I like the mindset and the courage that the car represents. In the Paris Motor Show of 1955, it was simply a shock. It was a real disruption, it was like nothing like anyone had seen before. Actually, it was a mix of super old school and modern technology, which is typically French. In this revolutionary car, you have pneumatic suspension and other innovations, but the engine is from the prewar era. Disruptions often arise from handicaps. Handicapped people often develop compensating capacities. So disruption often emerges from something, which is not quite complete, and people develop the technology to overcome that.
The future becomes mainstream
Recently, the sales of the Tesla Model S have surpassed those of the Mercedes S-Class and the BMW 7-Series together. It might not have the chrome highlights in the interior woodwork, but people still perceive it as a luxury car. People who drive it are looked at differently. However, in places like Silicon Valley, the Tesla is really mainstream. You find it in every Walmart parking lot. It is starting now in Munich, we are seeing quite a few of them and of the i3 as well. Electric mobility is definitely something that is no longer exotic. It will still take some time to become normal. People still need to be convinced, and the cars still have to deliver more. But the interesting thing about the industry is precisely its immaturity. There is no best practice yet. From a design point of view, there are also many strategies. Design strategy goes from very conventional to a little bit more eccentric like the i3. Nobody knows which is the right one; they all make sense in their own way. Now, will we keep this diversity in the future or will we arrive at a point where we say that we have set notions about what an electric car should look like? We know that customers expect, at least in this phase as early adopters, that the car serves as a kind of badge of courage. Owners want to show that you can do something for the planet, that they are doing their part. So we make it visible. The car is a statement. We already know that the customer is not prepared to pay more for an electric car, unless it really does look like something special.
The role of optimism for great design
Not long ago, we had a workshop with the managing committee of BMW Group design. Everyone was asked to do a small presentation about the meaning of innovation and modernity. I like to provoke a little bit, so I showed only three pictures: The Concord, a dress from Courage and the Citroën SM. My point was that the 60’s and the 70’s were a stage for disruption or innovation. Society as a whole was simply very optimistic about the future. The future was great. But then it all changed in the mid 70’s. Suddenly, the future was not cool anymore. Now, from a business point of view, both the Concord and the SM turned out to be total failures.
But when they were created, they crystallized a little bit of hope for the society as a whole. Another example was the U.S. Apollo program aimed at landing humans on the Moon. Just imagine, a top leader says the country will be on the Moon in ten years, and then it happens. People had a certain social optimism, which has been lost today. We feel the future is so uncertain, that there are so many threats. The question is whether we are still willing to transform dreams into modern cathedrals. Because I think the Concord and the race to the Moon are like cathedrals. You have a society, a nation, a culture, thinking all alike. There is unanimous agreement that things will get done. In earlier times, cathedrals were created out of religious convictions. I think the race to the Moon was a little like a religion. And the Concord was like a religion for France. But the only place in the world today where people are truly optimistic about the future is, you guessed it, Silicon Valley!
Think the most radical!
Once, while I was talking to a group about the future of the car industry, I told them that they probably thought their main business was transporting people from point “A” to point “B”. But to be really disruptive, you could say that the future of the car business might be simply to get people to stay at point “A” and not even bother about thinking of getting to point “B”.
Can you have a car industry if you stop making machines that move? You might if you were able to produce things instead which fulfilled you completely at point “A” and removed the need of travelling to point “B” in the first place. I don’t think that this will happen. But once in a while, we have to force ourselves to think in the most radical way!