Latest Trends in Auto Design Emphasizing Fuel Efficiency

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With gas prices surging and the economy in a slump, automobile designers' new challenge is to create vehicles that are not only aesthetically pleasing, comfortable, and functional but also fuel-efficient.

With prices now approaching five dollars per gallon, there has been a dramatic decline in sales of gas-guzzling trucks and sport utility vehicles. General Motors recently posted an overall sales decline of approximately 27% from the previous year and announced that it would close four truck plants, focus on manufacturing smaller cars, and possibly sell its Hummer brand, according to a June 4th Los Angeles Times article. GM also posted a 14% decline in car sales and a 37% drop in SUV sales. Hummer sales dropped by 60% in May. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Hummer H3 gets about 15 miles per gallon.

This blow to the automobile industry means that those seeking a career in automotive design will have to take environmental sustainability into account now more than ever. Automotive designers develop the appearance and, to a lesser extent, the ergonomics of a vehicle, designing with human well-being and total system performance in mind. An automotive designer typically has a background in art and graphic design with a degree in transportation design or industrial design, and he or she will often work with automotive engineers to develop the concept of a vehicle.

The design team is primarily concerned with three facets of the given automobile’s aesthetics — interior design, color and trim design, and exterior design — and focuses on both form and function, not just the outer appearance of the parts.

Interior design deals with the placement, proportion, and shape of the seats, headliner, pillar trims, instrument panel, and door trim panel, focusing on passenger comfort. Trim and color designers concentrate on all materials used in the automobile (such as wood trim, carpeting, leather, paints, fabric designs, and plastics), along with the design and development of all exterior and interior colors.

Exterior designers focus on the shape, surfaces, and proportions of the automobile. All aspects of the designing process are recorded in a collection of manual or digital drawings, followed by digital and industrial plasticine models. Fashion and architecture influence automotive designers, and research into global trends must be done two or three model years before the car is on the market. What’s more, designers now face the challenge of appealing to consumers by giving the automobiles an appearance of environmental friendliness while still achieving strong aerodynamics and maintaining brand identity. According to AutoWeek, “It’s not enough to make cars fuel-efficient and sustainable — they need to look that way, a panel of top auto designers said Tuesday [June 3] at a Detroit luncheon. That means styling cues such as covered wheels and bubble roofs could become increasingly common.”

Indeed, designers are moving away from contemporary looks of squared backs and rounded fronts in favor of a “sort of science-project look [that] could end up sexy, or perceived sexy,” said Pat Schiavone, Ford’s North American car design director. Designers are looking at their companies’ racing divisions for ideas on how to create cars that both look and are fuel-efficient.

William Kozyra, CEO and president of Continental Automotive Systems North America, recently spoke with BusinessWeek about design concepts for cars of the future, stressing sustainability, safety, and connectivity: “You are going to see an explosion of improvements in efficiency in vehicles, including traditional technologies such as direct gasoline injection, turbochargers, [and] double-clutch transmission technologies that we have in production, all the way to low-resistance tires.” Kozyra also discussed advances in such safety features as blind-spot detection, rear-end collision avoidance, and lane detection warning, which, with advancing image-processing software and camera technology, could result in the first wave of self-driving cars by 2030.

A career in automotive designing entails an interest not only in art but also in the latest technologies that will ensure the safest and most environmentally sustainable vehicles possible.
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