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Have you ever exited a supermarket and wondered why you couldn't find your car? Chances are you suffered from something all of us have at some point: cars tend to look a lot alike these days. But, why? Furthermore, what do today's best automotive designers think cars will look like twenty years from now? Will cars fly or be a predictable evolution of what's on the road today?

Discussing the future of automobiles is a favorite pastime among those in the automotive business. Designers and engineers from every generation have put their dreams on paper (or LCDs). Some have even been spectacularly brought to life. The Firebird concepts are a trio of future-think cars produced by General Motors for their Motorama shows of the 1950s. Jet airplanes influenced these show-only creations that included such innovations as turbine engines, drive-by-wire controls, and titanium bodies.

But GM's designers from the Eisenhower era didn't accurately predict the future, although many cars today do feature drive-by-wire controls and lightweight alloys. Even though cars have never looked like the finned Firebirds, this design folly doesn't damp today's crop of automotive designers from offering opinions on what the cars of 2028 may look like.

At a recent Automotive Press Association gathering in Detroit, senior designers participated in a panel discussion about automotive design trends. The distinguished panel consisted of Pat Schiavone from Ford, Dave Marek of Honda, Nissan's Robert Bauer, Ty Stump from Chrysler, and John Cafaro from GM. These styling masters identified key trends that will drive automotive design for the next decade and beyond.

It's All About Aero

Did you ever wonder why the fuel-sipping Toyota Prius and the Chevrolet Volt electric car have nearly the same profile in silhouette? Aerodynamics. Any aero engineer knows that a car designed for maximum mileage must enter the air smoothly and have a relatively sharp cutoff at the rear (to cleanly detach the air stream from the body). The general shape of Prius and Volt use a similar approach to meet their aerodynamic (and fuel economy) targets.

What you don't see when you look at the Prius or Volt are the painstakingly details that enhance the general shape of the vehicles to make them more efficient at piercing the air. Whereas older cars used to have window frames around the side glass that could catch the wind, the Prius and Volt have nearly smooth side surfaces -- even the door handles are aerodynamically designed. The APA design panel agreed that "smoothness" is the trend future.

Cars like GM's 1996 EV1 and the 2000 Honda Insight have already shown the world what radical (but practical) aero designs look like. Their diminutive size helped mileage, and foreshadowed our current enchantment with smaller cars (like the smart fortwo). Among their many aerodynamic features were skirted rear wheels. These cars foreshadowed the smoothness trend.

In the future, designers will embrace new technologies to make cars smoother still. For example, large wind-catching exterior rearview mirrors will be replaced with miniature rear-facing cameras that have no aerodynamic drag. (These cameras will display what's behind you on interior monitors.) Front grills will feature movable panels that open and close to meet the cooling needs of the engine. When these panels are closed, the car will benefit from less drag and get better fuel economy.

Evolution vs. Revolution

Designers talked about the public's resistance to designs that are too wild or aggressive. Honda's Dave Marak opines that more vehicles will take on the cab-forward look of his company's hydrogen-powered FCX. "People have seen this general shape before, and this is something they're willing to park in their driveway," he thinks.

If you trace a line from the hood to the windshield to the roof on the FCX Clarity, the transitions are gentle and smooth. While this may not look radical, compared to the angular shape of sedans from the 1980s (think of a Chevrolet Caprice or Dodge Diplomat), the FCX is shaped like a bullet. This look will become more mainstream.

GM's John Cafaro astutely noted that "Just as all birds are aerodynamic and don't look the same, cars will continue to show a diversity of style." His comment was in response to a question from the audience about the probability of all cars needed to look the same in order to be efficient. As proof, Cafaro pointed out that the 2010 Cadillac SRX crossover, an aerodynamic crossover.

The Next Big Thing

Ford's Pat Schiavone thinks that a styling revolution could be brewing. He shared that Ford as pulled out a couple of old concept vehicles for inspiration. He referenced the series of Probe design studies that were on the auto show circuit in the 1980s, and specifically referenced the Probe IV and V from 1982 and 1985. He also brought up the Synergy 2010 vehicle produced by Ford in cooperation with Chrysler and General Motors. The Synergy represents a more recent look forward (1996). Beyond the aerodynamic styling, it also features a hybrid powertrain.

Schiavone says, "With decades more experience and technology than we had when we did the Probes in the 80s and 90s, I think we could see bubble cars one day in the near future. It could be the next big thing. Advanced materials and technologies may allow us to do something cool like that." Perhaps one day the car the Jetsons used to cruise Orbit City will be a reality.

Design Perspective -- The Time for Innovation
Ford's Model T (now a century old) typifies the upright buggy-derived style of early automobiles. As the first car designed in a wind tunnel (one owned by the Wright Brothers), Chrysler's benchmark 1934 Airflow began the era of modern aerodynamic styling and engineering. More recently, the 1986 Ford Taurus put a different face on aerodynamic design, one many called the jellybean look.


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