Autoblog: Big question first, was there anything that you saw at the show that was a real standout for you from a design perspective?
Paul Snyder: No, not really. There was a lot of restraint. And I can only guess that the OEMs are hiding all the significant, next-generation technology vehicles, and what they're doing now is just maturing the vehicles that have existed for some time. There's a little bit of new segments coming up, like the Audi Q8, which was significant for Audi, but not necessarily significant from a design point of view.
AB: Looking at the new Lexus LS, or the new BMW 5 series, one thought I had was – you used the word restraint. Perhaps there's a slight backing away from excessive line, or excessive crease. I don't think it's universal – the new Camry's a little creasy. But I think Mercedes has led the movement away from the almost Baroque styling of earlier this decade, and others are following suit.
PS: I definitely saw the restraint. Though the Lexus has an extra line in there as well. Actually a couple I think – on the front, on the fender, between the wheel lift and the hood, there's just sort of an additional line. It doesn't seem to really go anywhere. But I think the new BMW 5 Series is really interesting from the point of view that they tried something in one area – this helixing shoulder line, that kind of tucks under and becomes a kind of a deep crossing undercut, and that's really sexy in that one area – but that's not new. What's new is that BMW is using more lines that they've ever needed to. When they broke with tradition originally in the late '90s, they took a formula, which is, you have a beltline, a shoulder line, a rocker line, and they did some expressive things with that and the section in between.
But now there's really nothing innovative happening aside from this one helix detail, and there's nothing else on the car that even speaks the same language. I do like the increasingly bold kidney grille, like on the 7 Series. The new front end of the 7 Series is great, so the 5 Series is kind of taking that on as well, but I didn't see anything innovative there. It's just weird honestly. And for me it's just strange because the car really hasn't changed other than that, and that's not BMW, that's not German, to just put kind of a superfluous embellishment in a section, without any kind of technology context, or overall new language statement.
AB: Interesting. You mentioned crossovers. We see even more proliferation in that category here, anything from the new Q8, which you mentioned, at the top, to the new BMW X2, at the smaller end of the spectrum. It's almost like anything elevated is a crossover. I was just wondering if you could speak a little to that expansion in that market. If you see anything interesting about it flowing out of that.
Well, in terms of the expanding notion of crossover I guess you could kind of consider the VW [I.D.] Buzz – the Bus Concept here – to be in that category. It's obviously heavy on the autonomy, which is cool. But, I was really surprised that they went retro again. I mean, given the amount of talent and just the sheer size of their design center, they must have had other ideas. The kind of language that went into the Volkswagen Up a few years back, that kind of purity would have been much more appropriate to that concept.
AB: Do you see any way that the crossover category is going to retract? It's bigger than anything. Sedans are practically disappearing in America. Cars, what we used to refer to as a "car" is practically disappearing.
PS: No, I don't see it disappearing. People like the size, the command seating, the room for the whole family, the all-weather capability. I would hope that making them more efficient is probably going to be a big priority. But if you take their fuel economy penalty out of the equation – ostensibly they'll be electrified, within the next eight to 10 years – I would think, then it's still something very, very desirable.
AB: Running a design program that's been focused for 60 or 70 years on cars, how does that influence how you approach it? Are all the students drawing jacked-up lumps with 25-inch wheels and four-foot high flanks?
PS: I was told that the Q8 has 23-inch wheels on it, and that's going to be a production wheel. Pretty badass. But it changes the whole perception of the vehicle's scale. When you see a photograph of something like that, or a photograph of the Tesla Model X, you don't get any sense for the size of the vehicle. It's the same with the Chrysler Portal concept, which is interesting, but I thought the styling was very busy. All these vehicles have huge wheels, and until you see them on the road you really have no sense for how big they are. They're actually very large vehicles – the size of an SUV or minivan.
AB: Speaking of minivans, that's an interesting segment. You'd think it would've been vanquished by the crossover, but it's sort of revived – over 550,000 were sold last year, up six percent over 2015. We've got the new Honda Odyssey premiering here, we had the Chrysler Pacifica hybrid last year, the new Toyota Sienna should be out soon. Is there anything of interest to you in the minivan?
PS: Well, actually, that new Odyssey was my last project at Honda. So, going through all the research with the marketing, product planning, and engineering people, we established that the SUV and large CUV market is great for some consumers, but others, they love the opportunity to just press a button and have that sliding door open. There's very little step-up, there's very little bend-down, so that aperture of the second row door is what defines that segment. And more often than not, what happens is, people will find themselves needing something like a minivan, and they'll buy one and then they'll never turn back. They just love it. It's such a practical vehicle, so honest. But it's a category that's quite conservative, so the design is refined, but evolutionary.
AB: Obviously, the other buzz topic is autonomy. I was wondering I you could speak to it in terms of design and what you've seen here at the show at all. Chrysler's Portal is here, and Volvo was talking about their next steps in autonomy, and VW with their Buzz concept.
PS: Yeah, I think what really remains to be seen is what the business case is going be for all the manufacturers, whether or not they're going team up with a second-party provider, or market them to just basically sell the vehicles to a third party, and have them operate their own vehicles like Uber or something like that. But I still have yet to see it really influence architecture. I mean, VW had this amazing opportunity with its fully autonomous Buzz concept, and they used a retro theme!
AB: Could it be a Trojan horse? You have to make this new technology palatable to people somehow, so you couch it in the cozy and familiar.
PS: I guess so, but I don't think it was really necessary. Especially for urbanites, which seems like the first core market. I think the opportunities in the taxi-bot segment are huge. They could be branded. And within that category, each mobility service provider could brand themselves in terms of the experience that they offer. That experience could be luxury, that experience could be infotainment, that experience could be price.
In some of our projects at school were really exploring this last semester. So we had one that was modeled around pet-ownership, one that was modeled around riders being foodies, one that was modeled around, in New York City, being all about the art scene. So not only would you be able to know what shows are happening at what galleries through the infotainment system, but the interior itself could be an interactive artistic statement, an experience – vehicle as gallery space. And of course, a lot of people have been talking about vehicle as an extension of the home. Living room, or even kitchen. Of course, all the students at CCS now, they refuse to put glass on their cars. There's this emerging technology where you can do body-colored glass. So they're all doing it. Mercedes showed it on a vehicle not long ago. They're all doing that. So you have all the privacy that you could ever want on the interior.
AB: Car as bedroom – boudoir, love nest – becomes a possibility.
PS: Yeah. Or, god knows, putting your makeup on, shaving. You see people doing that on the highway now. It just won't be dangerous anymore.
AB: Or car as bathroom, I guess.
PS: Err, yeah, well. I wouldn't want to be the guy to have to clean it.