The Detroit Auto No-Show

The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) has always eluded me. Every year I ponder doing the three and a half hour drive to Detroit to take in one of the world’ largest car exhibitions. But as sure as the sky is blue I never go because of the unpredictable January weather. Until this year and alas, the auto show has eluded me again.

Here’s my adventure. Yes, I did make it to Detroit but did I see any of the many concept vehicles? Well, let’s just say that my losing streak continues. I ventured to Motown with two objectives. Firstly, business, to meet some of the startup companies in the Electric Avenue segment of the show. Finally, in the new era of the ecological revolution, the powers that be at NAIAS have decided to dedicate a sizable portion of the exhibition to low emission cars. Secondly, I went for leisure, to check out the latest concept cars and new production vehicles making their debut in Detroit.

As I shook the hand of the last prospective business contact I had made at Electric Avenue, an announcement on the PA system asked all attendees and exhibitors to evacuate the show floor because a fire had broken out. I thought the incident could not be serious as they asked people to walk at a normal pace toward the nearest exit. I assumed surely they can douse these little flames quickly and get back to business as usual before I’m even halfway to the door. So I casually sauntered out trying to check out as many automobiles as possible thinking, yeah whatever, fire shmire. That was until I saw the smoke, a lot of smoke and I began to smell something serious getting over-roasted by the Audi booth.

Needless to say, it was a fairly large burner. After thirty minutes in the lobby they announced the show would reopen in two hours. That later got updated to two and half hours and then finally to three and a half, at which point I decided to keep my record intact and not see the Detroit Autoshow again eventhough I actually went to Detroit.

What I can report is that there were many startup companies showing electric or high mileage vehicles in Electric Avenue. There seem to be two camps, the enterprises that have used designers to style the vehicles and the others who created cars out of engineering studies. While the latter vehicles are definitely interesting technically, I wonder how well they will capture the public’s desire to purchase them. Will these vehicles show up to the showroom and never walk out the door. Will they go to the eco-party but never get asked to dance? Will these cars never do the good work they were meant to do? Will success elude them as the North American International Auto Show eludes me?


A Matter of Process: CargoMAX600 Part 2

So how does a designer find a solution? Well, there’s no straight forward way to achieve this. Light bulbs just don’t turn on. And sometimes the harder you try the worse the outcome. The CargoMAX 600 certainly posed a challenge. The more I sketched, the more frustrated I became. By Sunday midnight, all I had were some very pedestrian designs, things that any competitor could envision. I needed something unique. After two full days of freehand drawing, scaled side views and long thinking sessions, I was nowhere closer to a design than I was on Friday. Time was running out quickly. I needed something to show the manufacturer by Monday morning at 8.30.

Finally at 4am, I caught a glimpse of the vision. By creating a protruding feature line that grew gently out of the front of the cabin and then got more pronounced as it moved backward, I could retain a consistent width of the narrower cabin all through the roofline. This was important in creating a dominant “core”. A core is rounded corner between two principle surfaces and they are particularly important in automobile design to establish volumes. This core would define the vehicle as being tall and narrow like the Sprinter. The feature line which I called Line “D”, would break from the volume created by the core and establish the wider cargo volume. Also, it would visually slim the side view and create a sleeker look.

With this thought sketched out, I retired to a couple of hours of sleep. Early Monday morning I was back at the drawing board. Armed with a refreshing nap and a huge sense of relief that I’d found the magic styling bean, I set out to finish the rough design. At 8.30, I scanned my sketches and emailed them to my client. Approval was swift but I wasn’t out of the woods yet. We needed to put together a more formal presentation for my client’s customer by 5 pm.

Six hours to do a couple of sketches? Seems easy right? Not quite. Because of the aggressive timeline, I needed to make sure that the lines that I created were doable from a functional standpoint. Without this verification, the design could get ruined in the engineering stage. Hence, I began frantically drafting two dimensional cross sections to assure that it could work.

After a grueling afternoon session and no lunch break, I had the truck roughly worked out. Our meeting with the customer went incredibly well and we got approval to proceed.

The next six weeks were spent detailing and engineering the body. It did not change very much from the original sketch and ten weeks from that first initial idea I watched the truck motor out of the factory.

Watch the CargoMAX 600 movie.


A Matter of Process: CargoMAX600 Part 1

As stated in the trailer to Design Confidential, this blog promises to take readers behind the scenes of a design project. Designers talk frequently about “process”, the activity we engage in to create products. This process can be very complex with multiple phases ranging from research and information gathering to ideation and sketching to prototyping and validation. Sometimes, it’s linear as described above and sometimes it’s a circle, a zigzag or any combination of these.

What’s important is that every good design project has some kind of process. This series of blogs called “A Matter of Process” will take readers into this activity one project at a time. For this first installment, I’ll choose a simple one, the CargoMAX 600 cargo van that I designed a year ago.

While vehicle projects tend to be very involved, the CargoMAX was straight forward and had a textbook linear approach. The main reason for this? Time. The design team had 10 weeks to take the truck from sketch to prototype. This adventure began the week before Christmas 2008. A local truck body manufacturer was tasked by an American company with designing and building a first prototype for a new vehicle. The design brief was to create a cargo van with the same interior volume as the Mercedes Sprinter but built on an American chassis. The business case was that while the Sprinter was very practical and attractive, its chassis was not rugged to take the punishment that vans go through in North America and it was expensive. Also, by utilizing Chevrolet equipment, purchase and repair costs would be lower. To compete with the Sprinter, however, the van had to possess an attractive body, something quite uncommon in the truck body industry.

The first step was a daylong meeting the Friday before Christmas at the manufacturer’s facility to fine tune the vehicle specification. In that session we laid out the basic dimensions, the type of doors we would use, how many fiberglass components would make up the body and some basic design features. With this schematic in hand, I set out that weekend to create the rough design and styling.

Needless to say, it was not an easy task. The cargo body walls needed to be fairly upright in cross section to provide adequate volume but the cab of the Chevrolet had a large amount of tumble-home, meaning its upper cabin caved in toward the centre of the vehicle. This was my primary design challenge: how to neatly transition from the inward sloping cabin to the boxy cargo area. There are several easy ways to accomplish this but since the client wanted an attractive automotive look, I had to find something that broke from the norm.

To be continued...

The movie below tells the whole story.


Architecture in Context

The Washington Post called the Royal Ontario Museum’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal the worst single piece of architecture of the past decade. Certainly, the museum’s addition has stimulated mixed reviews. So it’s not surprising that yet again, it has been trashed.

However, I believe that a building needs to be judged in its context, the context here being our city. Toronto is hardly a place full of avant-garde architecture. Anyone notice what usually gets built around here? Terribly proportioned, over decorated, pseudo-renaissance-victorian-art deco mashups. Hello people. The ROM actually had the sense to stage an international design competition for a “modern” building. That deserves credit in itself.

Yes, we do get the odd piece of contempory design, but the so-called “Toronto school of architecture” puts up the same fare year after year. The solutions are so predictable that one would think a chain store was behind them. I’ll agree that Daniel Libeskind’s Crystal has some shoddy detailing and from some angles it’s not that pretty. However, it’s a welcome change from the boring glass, steel and wood packing crates we usually get.

In a society where discussion about design of any kind is non-existent, the ROM extension got designers and non-designers talking about architecture and that’s a positive thing.

Lastly, Toronto is a diverse city. It is one of the few truly pluralistic societies on the planet. Shouldn’t that be characterized by its buildings. Modernist rectangular prisms executed by the city’s top practitioners are great and important works to have in this city. But should they be the only works? We need different types of architectural solutions and the Crystal’s deconstructivist theme is a fantastic foil to the other contemporary buildings.

In Toronto, there is no courage to adopt the solutions that we need to make our city better. Let’s at minimum not trash those daring enough to make our city a bit more visually exciting.


Innovation for all

Today’s blog is a letter to the editor I sent to the Toronto Star.

David Crane’s excellent piece in last Friday’s Toronto Star “Liberals need an economic vision” is truly visionary. Two points of the article really stand out for me because they are verification of beliefs that I have held for many years.

First this quote, “…manufacturing must become more knowledge intensive, with greater investment in research and development, as well as training and skills upgrading, design and marketing.”

Nothing could be closer to the truth. Canadian companies need to delete their current short-term practice of not investing in design and begin to act like global players. What is key is that manufacturers can be innovative merely by implementing an alternative approach to how they develop products. With modest investment, a producer can improve their chances of sustainable success in the new post-recession economy by using design. Companies must shed the old approach of getting “a guy in the back” or a CAD jockey to be their product developer and use professionals for these endeavours. They must also employ better and more sophisticated strategies in the branding and marketing of their products.

Secondly, David Crane sees the immense potential of looking to Canada’s different cultural communities for their energy and talent. Our nation has been gifted with a truly diverse society. Immigrants are a treasure trove of new ideas and approaches to problem solving. Also, their link to their ancestral homeland gives access to foreign markets and additional bases of knowledge. My own connection to Italy allowed me to learn the methodologies of Italian automotive and industrial design which were critical to starting a successful design consultancy here in Canada.

Thank you, Mr.Crane, for recognizing the value of Canada’s multicultural mosaic and for linking the word innovation with the word design.


Bono: Popstar to CarCzar

Bono’s latest editorial in Sunday’s New York Times on the state of automotive design certainly struck a sweet chord with me.

The auto industry’s dismal collection of minivans, SUVs and un-sexy sedans of the last few decades has stuffed our roads with a lot of visual jalopies. His proposed installation of figures like Marc Newson, Steve Jobs and Frank Gehry as auto-supremos might seem flighty but we need only look back to the automotive heyday to see that these new hires could really make the industry rock again.

In the 1960s, Detroit was run by the engineering departments. Born of these development teams were products like the Mustang, the GTO and some very elegant Lincolns. All became icons of American ingenuity and creativity. The 1970s saw direction go from the gearheads to the beancounters and what we have is our present day tedium. We have our “safe” solutions, our “family feeling” where all the cars in the brand share the same styling flavors. The big problem is that all the world’s brands (with a couple of exceptions) are getting their flavor from the same spice rack.

The important difference to acknowledge is that the 1960s had a more design-driven approach while subsequent decades opted for a corporate approach with shareholders affecting the decision-making. This is an environment that stifles the bold solitary visionary while embracing a design by committee product development method.

There is abundant talent in the car styling studios of the world. Note ex-BMW design director Chris Bangle. His flame surfaced Z4 is still the coolest BMW of the last decade and his “Bangle butt” 7 Series while the butt of much criticism continues to be copied today. Mazda consistently holds up the design torch and can make even a smaller car like the new Mazda 3 Sport look lovely.

The ability is there but its fruits are not always sold to the market. For example, Renault continues to captivate with its show cars but the latest Clio and Megane models are quite dull.

So Bono, I vote with you. Let’s make the designers the vocalists and lead guitarists of the auto industry and not the background singers.


My Eco Epiphany

The word epiphany has come to mean a reckoning, an awakening or an event that can change one’s life or way of thinking. So as we pass this day on Christian calendars, I’d like to share my Eco-Epiphany.

First some background. My dream from as far back as I can remember was to become a car designer. And of course, within a future car designer’s dream there lies that even bigger desire to design big displacement, multi-cylinder, long hooded, super exotic sportscars. When I lived in Turin, working as an automotive stylist in a large design house, I designed for companies that made these. So it is quite ironic that my epiphany happened in the very place where these machines are conceived.

It was just before Christmas 1991. On a typical dull, colourless, Torinese winter day, I boarded a plane headed for Amsterdam. But on takeoff, I noted a strange sight. As the aircraft ascended, I could make out a precise distinction between the purple coloured smog and the cleaner air above it. With each second that passed, this line descended on the window until it was gone. It was as if the plane was emerging from a polluted lake. Looking down a few moments later, I could see this haze, purple like the Hendrix song hanging over the city, a smoggy shroud of Turin.

From that day on, I dreamed a revised dream. My objects of desire suddenly had less cylinders if none at all. The world seemed in need of new solutions very quickly. It was in that moment that my dream machines became leafy green instead of Italian racing red.

I have always retained since that day that people would need new solutions to transportation. Whether it’s mass transit, human powered vehicles or just cars without the petroleum, the world would have to evolve. Sadly, it has not evolved quickly enough. So in this new decade I hope that political leaders and industrialists will have their epiphanies also.