If you want to know what the future car’s going to look like, it’s worth having a chat with one of the Callum brothers. On Friday, Ian Callum unveiled Jaguar’s new XJ - which set tongues wagging around the world. But while big brother is grappling with the future of luxury cars, little brother has an even more interesting job – working out the future of mainstream, global car design. So a few weeks ago we spoke with Moray – man behind many recent Mazdas and the new Ford Taurus, and recently made executive director of Ford’s design Americas. Check the video, and then see our take on what he said below:
“What makes a car good is going to change”
Here in Europe, since the Focus I of 1998, Ford’s cars have stood out because they’re fantastic to drive. Ride and handling balance, steering feel, and control weights are all top of the class. It’s true that in the motoring press at least, a car will rarely be deemed “good” unless it drives dynamically well. But Moray believes that “the technologies that make a car good will change” - and he implies that the focus will move into vehicle interior functionality and connectivity. Today’s cars suffer from a problematic mis-match between their development lead times and the pace of technological change. Acknowledging something needs to be done about this, and tallying with what J Mays recently told us, Moray makes clear that Ford is lining up to position itself as top of the tree in this area too.
Yet while Ford rhetoric currently focuses on “Sync” and the Fiesta’s centre console (which apes the design of a mobile phone keypad), there’s clearly the potential for a car’s interior to change even more radically with implementation of touchscreens, and soft – rather than hard – ware. A radical vision might be that the vehicle interior becomes a blank, digital canvas. Removal of heavyweight hardware could reduce weight, improving overall vehicle efficiency. If interiors became endlessly reconfigurable, added to or subtracted from with software applications, then individualization and configurability increases massively - allowing users to tailor cars to their precise needs. It may sound strange, but such developments have the potential to make a vehicle more sustainable – by allowing them to be reconfigured for different drivers and usages.
As Moray suggests, what sofware based apps means is that "it doesn't mean to say you need to get a new car to get the new technology". Potentially, this means consumers get bored less quickly, and cars survive for longer. Whether a new 'model-upgrade' culture would be allowed to replace the model-change culture of today's industry, itself a product of the need to maintain mass production, is of course open to debate. But the idea of car companies making money from software services and upgrades, rather than just mechanical maintenance and vehicle sales, is fascinating.
“[Car sharing] gives us the chance to make cars more specific for specific tasks”
We know car sharing’s on the radar at Ford. Sue Cischke surprised us earlier this year when she talked about how the company had been looking at it. But if you ask car designers about such ideas, you’re often met with a blank response - the organisational structure meaning it isn’t what design departments do or think about. At first, Callum does the same, suggesting “it’s outside of the realms of the design side of things”. But as we talk more he seems interested in what the increasing popularity of models such as Zipcar might mean for future vehicle design. What excites him is the potential to design more targeted, specific (and by implication, efficient) cars – targeted at specific usages or users: “if you’re going to use one sort of car to do one sort of motoring, and another to do a different sort, you can really pinpoint the design to something that’s much more applicable to the task, but at the same time much more exciting.”
A current Mustang Zipcar - but could car sharing allow Ford's designers to develop much more targeted, specific, efficient designs in the future?
What Ford’s designers should do next
As one of the big-name designers now brought together under the ‘One Ford’ umbrella (others that stand out are J Mays, Freeman Thomas and Martin Smith), Callum has both an enviable and unenviable task ahead of him. He’s with some of the best designers in the business, and Ford appears to be on the right track – yet the car industry is rapidly changing (just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, and hadn’t noticed). The past fifteen years have seen an unrelenting march toward ‘prestige’ and a push up market by many car makers. Everyone has chased, but few have made inroads into, the dominance of the Germans - particularly BMW and Audi. The German’s are now ‘micro-nicheing’ - creating new vehicle segments, to questionable effect. Their brand cachet means they’ve got away with it to date, but this questionable nicheing (BMW 5 series GT anyone?) is an entire world away from the sorts of really useful, targetted 'niche' cars Moray mentions which could be developed for specific usage purposes as part of larger car share schemes. Such a policy would make much more sense for a brand such as Ford to be looking at, than some of the niches the Germans are pushing. Today, having sold off its premium lines, Ford is happily 'non-premium' and is instead focusing on a series of core models, creating ‘world vehicles’ or platforms.
Such consolidation looks smart right now. It saves money, and millions of brands probably aren’t that best thing to have today (ask GM). Yet creating cars that are all things to all people – across four continents, is a tough brief. On top of this, the Blue Oval’s core areas - mainstream hatchbacks in Europe, and trucks and Mustangs in the US - are likely to come under increased competitive pressure over the coming years, of the like never seen before. So is the ‘core-line’ approach enough to keep Ford’s head above water in the mid and longer term?
Maybe. Ford has a clear strategy for now, but it needs to go further and really utilize the talents of people like Callum, especially if it’s committed to being a sustainable leader. So while BMW ruminates on Project-I, which has somehow become a “premium” urban mobility solution for cities in 2014, and Toyota tinkers with the ‘I’ Series (iSwing, iReal) of personal mobility concepts chairs, there’s an opportunity for Ford to become the true world leader in the sub-car personal mobility sector. The market doesn’t exist right now, but it will – and this is what Ford needs to see. Not only does the brand carry exactly the right down-to-earth, ‘of the people’ image to suit such an area, but it would instantly give the company a jump on Toyota, positioning it close to the political decision makers and city leaders, and as the car company really thinking about a future generation’s mobility needs in the growing metropolises of the world.
We know that Ford is already looking at urban mobility issues, involved in research at places like MIT and Stanford, and we also know that while existing mobility projects from these teams are systematically and technically appealing and advanced, they hold little aesthetic appeal. So Ford is well placed to let its latent design talent off the leash, to allow them to define and develop a ‘Ford’ look for transportation in our 21st century cities. A Model T for the city of 2020? I’d love to see what Moray Callum thinks that would look like.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 14th July 2009
Disclosure: Ford is sponsoring The Movement Design Bureau's design and research work throughout 2009