If automotive designers can agree on one thing, it's that the future will be more diverse. Three current designers and one teacher came together to discuss the way forward at the monthly Automotive Press Association luncheon in Detroit. Cadillac's Clay Dean, Hyundai's Phil Zak and Ford's Scott Strong joined Larry Erickson from the College for Creative Studies at the Detroit Athletic Club.

There will be multiple forces driving this increased diversity, including the emergence of megacities (like Paris, Beijing, Shanghai, Mumbai and Singapore), changing demographics and new powertrain systems.

The increased urbanization we're seeing in many regions is leading to larger, more crowded cities that make traditional automobiles unsuitable and unsustainable. There simply isn't enough room for large vehicles carrying only one or two occupants on the roads of these metropolises. Dean discussed vehicles such as the General Motors EN-V concepts being shown at the Shanghai expo as one possible answer to the increasing density. Read on after the jump to hear more of what the panelists said.




To help get to this future, Erickson is working with students to develop designers who can look 10 or 20 years out into the future. Those aspiring designers need to look not just at the vehicles but also at society and how those vehicles will fit into it. Designers need to anticipate potential societal problems before they exist in order to simulate the solutions.

As megacities continue to draw a larger populace, banning cars from city centers is increasingly viewed as one of the solutions to reducing congestion. Even outside of cities, there's growth in countries like China, which overtook the United States in 2009 as the world's largest car market. Over the next decade, it's expected to build the equivalent of every American highway. Even while China is already the largest auto market, significant sales are only just beginning to move beyond tier 1 cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

To deal with this crowding, designers are looking beyond the traditional four-wheeled car to solutions like the aforementioned EV-N concepts, where semi-autonomous pod vehicles with three or even two wheels can move people around. Public transport will also be critical in these urban areas. But while people need mobility, not all all of them are enamored with cars as we have them today. Younger people in places like Japan and, to some degree, in the U.S. simply don't have the love of cars that prior generations did.

According to Dean, "we have the California car culture but when you go out there it doesn't exist." There's nothing glamorous about bumper to bumper traffic on the 405, and unless you hit the canyons late at night, the joy of driving is simply not there for most people. The problem for designers, says Dean, is "how to restore the magic." One possible answer is to "create opportunities to minimize moving around so that we can keep the things we want." Find ways to get the masses off the roads for commuting by working at home or using public transit and we can free up the roads for those who actually want to drive.

Designers also need to create passion and excitement in small spaces, and Dean referred to Gordon Murray's tiny T25 city car. Murray claims the T25 is still fun to drive, despite its diminutive size. All of the designers on the panel agreed that new powertrain systems like batteries and fuel cells will alter vehicle packaging in general, allowing designers to get more creative with cars' configurations. To do that, however, they'll also need to overcome customer inertia. Today, for example, luxury cars like Rolls-Royces have long hoods that they don't functionally need because that is what customers expect that type of car to look like.

Vehicle design will have to be tailored to the needs of different regions both functionally and stylistically. Ford's Strong said a vehicle provides a means to "maintain individual expression" and "resist autonomy." Erickson put it this way: "A car is the biggest thing you can wear." Dean said, "If there is a lack of desire for cars, it's because of what is being offered." He then brought up the idea that in the future instead of buying a car, we may get "a membership to a menu of transportation choices."

Perhaps Strong put it best when he said, "Think of transportation as the experience of moving between time and space." Designers need to "think first and then draw." They'll have plenty to think about in the coming years as our world evolves faster than ever before.