Ken Okuyama talks about automotive design from a position of deep experience: Currently the Chair of the Transportation Design Department at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, Okuyama has held senior design positions at Pininfarina, Porsche and GM. Examples of his work run the gamut from the sleek Ferrari Rossa sports car to the Metrocubo, a practical box on wheels with dual sliding doors. AD&P sat down with Okuyama to get his thoughts on the current state of automotive design and where he thinks it’s going in the future.
AD&P: What is lacking in automotive design in America?
Okuyama: In Detroit, too much of the focus is on styling instead of functionality. Design is the combination of engineering and styling. Designers have to know more about engineering function and what people want–not just how to make a pretty picture. It’s not enough to put a nice shiny skin on top of whatever. You need to understand the production process. For example, whether the car is made out of sheet metal, or fiberglass or SMC [sheet molded compound] means there are different tolerance issues and designers have to understand that.
AD&P: When it comes to that kind of practical approach, Asian makers have often been cited as worthy of emulation.
Okuyama: Yes. The designers there work very closely with the production facilities. Many design studios in Asia are actually within the assembly plants. What’s good about that is that you know all the details and you know who to talk to address things like gap and quality issues. The problem is that you are so close to reality that you don’t know how to foresee the future and initiate advanced projects. That’s been the problem with many Japanese companies. Although the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry are nice cars and they work every day, they don’t really give you something more than you expected.
AD&P: Okay, which car companies do give you the unexpected?
Okuyama: Right now, German com-panies are doing that. They have a good combination of quality control and the ability to handle every day functional issues, but at the same time they give you vision. Audi is a great example. Ten years ago, Audi was just a mass market brand. Now it is exclusive.
AD&P: Which automakers have the hot studios right now?
Okuyama: When you talk to designers, they want to work for Audi, Chrysler and Renault.
AD&P: What role will niche vehicles play?
Okuyama: They will be the dominant trend in the future. So many different cars can be made off of the same platform that we don’t have niches anymore–niche has become mainstream. That makes the future market difficult to focus on because there is no large mass of vehicles anymore. Look at the minivan: you have a PT Cruiser, mainstream minivans, smaller minivans in Europe–we have to assume that there won’t be any mega-trends in the future. Before, you could determine whether the future of car design was say, either round or square, but now you can’t tell, those waves don’t exist anymore.
AD&P: What design concepts will drive future vehicles?
Okuyama: What we are trying to do is change the priorities so that when you design a car you locate the people first and put the architecture around them. You then squeeze the components in afterward. Right now, the first thing designers do is set the dimensions, base the structure around the engine and the major components, and then squeeze people in.
AD&P: What role will fuel cells play in design?
Okuyama: When fuel cell cars become the majority, it will greatly change the architecture of cars. It’s not like today where the engine is this big chunk you have to design around. Fuel cell componentry can be taken apart and put all over the car.
AD&P: How much of future car design is going to come from suppliers?
Okuyama: Suppliers are very important from the point of view of introducing new technology, but it is difficult and expensive for smaller companies to have design studios. Companies like Magna, JCI or Visteon can do it. But to run a full design studio for a year costs $100 million. To run a successful studio you need talent, equipment and time and I don’t think many suppliers can afford that.
AD&P: What are your views on automakers’ advanced design efforts?
Okuyama: One of the reasons I came back to Art Center after working for Pininfarina, GM and Porsche is that I feel that there is a lack of vision for advanced future programs among the automakers. They are so close to the current market. In car companies now, when you show an advanced model to the president of the company he will ask you, “When will this go into production? When will it be profitable? How much will it cost?” He will ask these questions about a very advanced model and the designer has no idea when it will come out. But that is the mentality at car companies nowadays. Many makers are closing down advanced design studios because they can’t afford them. So, we want our school to act as a think tank for advanced design.