I have a theory about the future of automotive design, and it’s one I’m reasonably optimistic about too. And I’m about to share it with you.
Once upon a time cars had great visibility. Hoodlines were low, bumpers were only knee-high, pillars were small. Windows were big; greenhouses were big. You could see things in front of you, and you could see things behind and to the side of you.
Then something peculiar happened, much of which can be traced back to Chrysler debuting the 300. Its styling, marked by bold angles and a high beltline, captivated the automotive world and the buying market. The car that was supposed to rejuvenate Chrysler somehow did something else, kicking the realm of car design into one focused on dramatic design. Coincidentally, and relatively simultaneously, safety technology for drivers and occupants as well as for pedestrians was accelerating towards making its impact on design as well.
In turn, we got things that are both good and bad. High beltlines, tall bumpers, massive pillars; safer cars to drive and to be driven in. Concept car-like styling, and the decreased visibility to match.
But I don’t think it will stay that way.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s we went through something of a technological revolution in the automotive industry. It was a time of the proliferation of many now-commonplace technologies. Among these were navigation, the integration of advanced computing systems and all that comes with them, the increase in number of airbags present, and so on. From SUVs to front-drive economy sedans, designs were relatively simple and clean prior to this newfound integration of tech.
Cars designed in the late 1980s and early 1990s were graced with designs still bearing the tech of their times: low beltlines and big windows. Pillars were used for design and to support the roof and crumple zones, but that was it; they didn’t yet have to contain airbags. Towards the late 1990s, much more focus and emphasis was put on safety. Airbags became more common and of increasing importance to buyers, and as such these technologies were incorporated more and more into automotive designs.
Right around the same time, Chrysler debuted its 300. It was a return to form for the big-body American sedan, a car that made a statement visually and that had a presence all its own. With a tall, upright grille and nearly SUV-high trunk, the car had proportions unlike anything we had seen before at its price point. The 300 looked big from all angles and it was, and the high beltline and short windows had a drastic impact on this.
Though visibility was decent in the 300, the car set into motion the trend of bringing the waistline of the car higher so as to increase the sleekness, aggressiveness, and concept car feel of the vehicle in person. The “tank-like” styling was born, leading us to vehicles like the 5th and 6th generation Camaros, and even otherwise mundane family sedans began trading greenhouse for visual drama.
Concurrently, we saw a massive proliferation in safety technology and in emphasis on automobile-related safety. Not just for drivers and occupants, but for pedestrians as well. Vehicles like the aforementioned Chrysler 300 were perfect to bring these technologies into the modern age of safety. In tandem, safety forced design and design allowed there to be more in the way of safety. Big pillars allowed for airbags to be put throughout the cabin, and the high hood allowed for a flat plane up front to improve pedestrian impact safety in the event of striking a pedestrian.
Through the increasing number of technologies available to the automakers, they were able to make vehicles much, much safer over the last twenty years or so. Automated computer programs, advanced technologies like carbon fiber and aluminum and high-strength steel, modeling systems to simulate impacts, and even improvements in manufacturing processes have all in turn made cars safer. But they’ve also furthered the high, tall bumper and hoodline styling elements, and have made the pillars of the cars larger to the point of fault. Visibility has suffered due to the changes in safety and styling, but I don’t think it will be that way forever.
Today, we’re employing better and stronger and safer technology than we ever have. The improvements in things like airbags will allow them to become smaller while being equally safe as those they replace. Pillars constructed of newer, stronger metals will allow them to become smaller as well, all while improving structural rigidity. And that’s not to mention the massive slew of pedestrian and collision avoidance systems that will soon be in place, along with pedestrian airbags, better brakes and tires, and so on. As cars begin to embrace and introduce newer technologies, many of those once reserved for the likes of NASA and other fields in which lightness is vital and tolerances are critical. Of course things go in cycles, so what looks good now might not in ten years, but we will also begin to go away from the “small window” look as a result of changing tastes.
The evidence is there already. Jeep made efforts to bring the beltline lower on the JL Wrangler if for no other reason than to make it easier to see out of and thus live with than the JK it replaced. And then there’s Tesla’s Model X which made a breakthrough in cabin openness by use of its mesmerizingly massive windshields that extend well above that of the normal units. Even with what appears like less metal in the roof and thus the perception of less strength, the Model X manages to ace crash tests. And they are just the start of the widespread proliferation of the electric battery technology and safety tech that comes along with it and its integration into the chassis and structure of cars.
And so, I must hope and assume that in the coming years and generations of the automobile, much of the bad done upon blind spots and visibility and small greenhouses will be undone thanks in part to the cycles of automotive design but mostly to the current and future technologies that will be used to improve safety for drivers, occupants, and pedestrians alike. I’m predicting a trend that will improve visibility through larger pieces of glass rather than smaller, and a design trend that will follow.
In many ways, form follows function in the auto industry. Designers have to create around what the engineers (and marketing team) mandate, and have to work in the constraints given. In many other ways, though, it’s very true that function follows form. We will have to wait to see if this is the case for future cars, but if my prediction of greenhouses increasing in size is true it could mean at least one good thing: the 7th generation Camaro will be a car you can actually see out of.