Volkswagen is a company in rapid transition. In the wake of its emissions scandal, the Group was forced to fundamentally alter the core of its powertrain strategy, prematurely ushering in a completely new — and until recently, unanticipated — generation of future-proofed cars and trucks. And somebody has to design those.
In this case, that somebody is the team managed by Klaus Bischoff, head of Volkswagen Group Design. VW arranged for Autoblog and others to partake in a virtual roundtable session with the design chief, who took us through the ins and outs of remote design and his vision for the future of the company's brands.
The future is a heavy subject for VW, which is still recovering from Dieselgate, the aftermath of which mandated a radical shift in product plans, effectively forcing the company to write off diesel as a future powertrain in favor of EVs. This resulted in a corresponding adjustment to its design goals, which are no longer constrained by the necessities of internal combustion engines.
But customers expect cars to look like, well, cars. With the rare exception of out-there concepts like the Tesla Cybertruck, there's serious incentive for designers to lean into convention, even with unconventional automobiles. There's danger, Bischoff says, in getting too far ahead of the customer base.
"If you go too far out ... you have given your chance away."
"If you jump too far, if you go too far out, especially if you go into the field where designs are awkward and may be different, but not balanced or modern, you lose your customers," he said. "Go step by step," he said, urging incrementalism.
There are other hazards besides getting too far ahead of customer tastes, too, Bischoff says. Heritage plays a key role in designs such as the VW Golf Mk8 GTI above, especially with a brand as beloved by many as Volkswagen. The company has tapped into that appeal with concepts such as the ID.Buzz, which re-imagined the classic Type 2 Microbus as an EV.
Bischoff, who once owned a Type 2, said that his involvement with the ID.Buzz project tempted him to purchase another, but he's managed to resist the urge so far.
"Temptation is always there."
That's not the only classic Volkswagen that might inspire future EVs. Bischoff was receptive to the prospect of other icons being revived as EVs, including the Beetle.
"Yeah, why not? Let's see," he said.
Bischoff isn't giving any secrets away here, of course, as his responsibilities begin and end with design, but he also emphasized the fact that when it comes to the looks of a car, the buck stops with him. The board may have final say, but as he puts it, the board can only choose from the designs his team presents, and calling it a "team" is definitely downplaying the scale of VW Group design.
Overall, the company employs approximately 1,600 designers representing more than 30 nationalities. Even under the best of circumstances, these artists and engineers are distributed all over the globe. Right now, with stay-at-home orders in effect all over the world, they're even more scattered than usual. But collaborative design and social distancing can go hand-in-hand thanks to cloud-based tools and the raw power available even on today's home computers.
This wasn't the case even just a decade ago, and even now, designers still rely on clay modeling and other real-world design techniques to make sure that virtual designs translate well to reality. Elements like tactile feedback, even down to the temperature of various materials, can't be communicated via VR. Not yet, anyway.
How is that handled when company designers are quarantined from each other? They rely on experience, Bischoff says.
It wasn't the last time Bischoff noted that designers aren't mere hobbyists doodling on a tablet. One participant asked if VW would ever consider crowd-sourcing a vehicle design via social media. Bischoff finds that unrealistic, as his designers are professionals with combined experience measuring in the thousands of years.
In other words, don't try this at home.