Adventures in Car Design, California-Style

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The theme of this year's Los Angeles Auto Show, which opens on Jan. 5, is Design Los Angeles -- a recognition of Southern California's importance to the global auto industry. Fifteen manufacturers from around the world operate design studios in the area, making it a design epicenter of the industry. Not to mention Art Center Pasadena, the Harvard of auto design, which is located nearby.

The Design Los Angeles program includes a design competition, intended to allow the local studios to strut their creative stuff without actually opening their studio doors to competitors. Organized around the theme LA Adventure, the competition generated a wide range of concepts.

In response to LA's commuting culture, for instance, the General Motors (GM) team proposed the GMC PAD, a high-tech loft-on-wheels. Inspired by drag racing, the Hyundai Greenspeed Gator incorporates fuel cells and an innovative structure: a center spine-like chassis and "seat sling" hanging from the main fuselage. While some of the features on display aren't so far-flung, like in-wheel motors, others are more futuristic, such as software chauffeurs and adaptive tires that change their tread depending on the driving conditions.

The competition was organized in part by Chuck Pelly, co-chairman of the Design Los Angeles conference and a luminary of auto design. Pelly was the founder and former president of Designworks USA, now a subsidiary of BMW. Currently the co-founder of Design Academy, a design management consultancy, he has designed cars, race cars, boats, furniture, and more. Through Art Center, he has taught some of today's most successful car designers, including J Mays, Chris Bangle, and Freeman Thomas. Pelly spoke with BusinessWeek Online Innovation & Design Editor Jessie Scanlon about the Design Challenge and the state of auto design. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:

How did you come up with the LA Adventure theme?

Auto designers usually have to think in terms of the standard categories: SUV, sports car, etc. The LA Adventure theme really got them out of the box. Each team had a different definition of adventure, and you see that in the variation of entries. This competition showed all of the variations of cars that can exist. This is the second year of the competition, and the amount of imagination was really double this year.

Did more design studios participate?

No, it was the same number of studios, but more designers were involved. I think it got serious this year because [after last year's competition,] the management said, "Why did we lose?"

What was the inspiration for starting the Design Challenge competition?

We soul-searched to find a way to get exposure for the studios without asking them to give away trade secrets. That's what kicked it off. A lot of designers are frustrated that they don't have the chance to show off their talent.

Do you think that the auto industry isn't leveraging its design talent to the fullest?

Yes, I do. Most of it is a matter of risk. Everyone is so frightened. Making a new car is so expensive that the risk factor is what takes the unique ideas and keeps reanalyzing them until they become very similar.

How should car companies manage risk better?

I think there could be more experimentation if car companies didn't have to make such huge volumes. If you're making 300,000 vehicles, you have to play it safe. Ultimately, the companies want to make customized cars, and they are all working on ways to do that. Experiments with structural systems are usually about that.

Both the Mercedes-Benz (DCX) Mojave Racer and the Hyundai Greenspeed Gator -- two concepts submitted for this year's Design Challenge -- propose interesting structural systems. That's a realm of car design that hasn't changed much, but do you think we might soon see some more innovation there?

Absolutely. That's a key point. Car companies don't necessarily agree on fuel technologies and other things. But they all agree that cars need to be lighter and safer, and they see new structural systems as a way to do that.

The auto industry is borrowing some structural techniques from the airplane industry. Some new structural techniques are coming from high-strength plastics. They're all exciting.

What other design features or trends impressed you, as you reviewed the concepts?

One I found interesting is all of the new uses of glass. The panorama windows of the Maybach, the translucent hood of the Audi Neri. Some people really like to have an open car that lets them see everything. Of course, others want the squinty, protected feeling of something like the Chrysler 300.

Most of the concepts propose alternative power systems. Were any particularly innovative?

These are really about styling and concept rather than engineering, so they stuck to the basic power systems -- the hybrids or high-efficiency diesel. But yes -- designers absolutely want green cars. The risk factor in choosing the right technology and the cost of making them is creating a real tug-of-war now.

The Mitsubishi (MSBHY) Roadster concept uses in-wheel electric motors. What's the advantage of that technology, and when might we see it in production vehicles?

It's really a matter of driving conditions. The in-wheel drive would be extremely good in snow, because you could get absolute power to each wheel. But in California, say, where you don't have those conditions, it's not the most efficient way. Some in-wheel drive systems include suspension and power within the wheel, which is nice in that it opens up more room inside the car, but it also makes them heavier, and that's not good.

So there are problems that still need to be solved -- which is a good thing, because it keeps me employed.

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