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The future of design: Top auto designers say eco-friendly is hottest trend

Post Time:May 23,2008Classify:Industry NewsView:418

By Scott Burgess

Everyone loves concept cars. With their curvy, chiseled lines and out-of-this-world technology, these vehicles belong in the 21st century, admirers always say.

But the reality is the all-new Chevy Malibu is a 21st century vehicle. And so are the Ford F-150 and the Nissan Altima. Every car company that releases a 2009 model is building a vehicle nine years into the 21st century.

Designers readily admit they're behind the curve on making more futuristic vehicles production ready. It's a point they conceded Tuesday as they spoke at an Automotive Press Association forum about technology and design at the Detroit Athletic Club.

"No one could have expected that the market would have changed as quickly as it has," said Pat Schiavone, Ford Motor Co.'s director of design for North American trucks and SUVs.

But it did, and designers are adapting, looking for the next home run.

"The time is now," said Dave Marek, chief designer at Honda Motor Co.'s research and development center Americas. "The problem is everyone wants to ease into the future. No one wants to be the Beta, they want to be the next Blu-Ray."

Meshing technology with design has always been a cost-to-reward calculation. Lighter materials such as aluminum and carbon fiber cost more than steel. But lighter weight creates more efficient vehicles and efficiency is the wave of the future.

The group of five designers agreed that the future face of cars and trucks will have a much more eco-friendly look. Spiking fuel prices and concerns over global warming have made big cars and trucks easy targets for disgruntled consumers paying $70 to fill up and angry environmentalists out to save the world.

People have jumped out of their big SUVs and pickups and into crossovers and small cars. Green vehicles, ones that offer high mileage and low emissions, have moved from fashion statements to mainstream.

"At GM, everything is going to have to be green," said John Cafaro, a top General Motors Corp. designer.

Green traditionally meant giving a wedge-shaped vehicle a weak engine and a bad paint job. But the growing consumer demand and expanse of new materials means cars and trucks of the future will not only be green but made from sustainable materials.

Many designers are dusting off old concepts from previous generations to find ways to create exciting cars. Others mix engineers and designers at the wind tunnel to carve out an efficient vehicle that still looks good.

"Ask any aero expert and he'll tell you to make the front round and the back flat," said Robert Bawer, a designer with Nissan Motor Co. "All of this takes a tremendous amount of energy to sustain, but we all know that cleaner is better."

Technology doesn't merely change the way vehicles are tested, it can replace materials used to build it. Rip out oil-based foam and replace it with foam made from soybeans instead of oil, dump the steel roof and glass windows and replace it with lighter polycarbonate, trade out fenders with carbon fiber or aluminum to lighten a vehicle.

And those materials give designers a new canvas.

Designers can curve polycarbonate in ways glass could never be bent. Companies are exploring ways to mass produce carbon fiber cheaply.

So what kind of face will that give the car of 2010? Probably very little.

But in the coming years, cars and trucks will certainly get smaller, lighter and more efficient.

"Now, everyone says they want it," Marek said. "The next generation will expect it."

Scott Burgess is the auto critic for The Detroit News. He can be reached at (313) 223-3217 or

Source: The Detroit NewsAuthor: admin