Function driven automotive design in pictures
“Form follows function”
As we embark on a new era in automobiles thanks to major technology driven transformations such as - electric power, semi and fully autonomous vehicles and on-demand drives, design is an aspect that often seems to get less coverage. Yet, as we speak, the design of cars is being transformed to meet the demands of new technologies.
In the beginning
The first generation automobiles to hit the road were nothing more than a horse carriage powered by a motor in place of horses. The primary objective was to get from place A to place B quicker than a horse. They were never meant to be beautiful or sexy; utility being their only purpose.
The need for speed
Smooth, streamlined production cars did not appear until the 1930’s when car’s started being designed with aerodynamics in mind. The first production car to use aerodynamic design was introduced in Germany by Tatra. The motivation to apply aerodynamic principles to car design was driven by a desire for increased speeds that could be achieved on the newly commissioned Autobahn. The first model was the T77 designed by Hans Ledwinka and Paul Jaray.
Aerodynamics continued to be a highly focused area in car design especially among European manufacturers. The aerodynamic ‘teardrop’ shape became widely used and copied well into the early 1940s as seen below in the Saab 92.
Even headlamps were hidden away to make the cars as streamlined as possible as early as 1936 with the Cord 810.
The post-war era witnessed a deep lull in function driven design which meant lower emphasis on streamlined cars. Cars started appearing more boxy with aerodynamic design being limited to sports cars. A possible reason for the continued use of boxy designs in USA could be a unique regulation that required all cars to be equipped with sealed beam headlamps as seen below in the Rambler American produced by the American Motor Corporation.
It was the oil crisis of the early 1970s that rekindled aerodynamic innovation due to the emphasis on streamlined design in search of higher fuel efficiency. Popup headlamps made their way back and so did the focus on reducing the coefficient of drag which led to cars like the Audi 100 (1982) that pioneered an innovative flush window that translated into a low drag co-efficient of 0.30. The crisis also led to the popularity and introduction of new subcompact cars with low engine displacements.
The future’s electric & autonomous
Electric cars provide a new opportunity to rethink car design completely thanks to the lack of most traditional elements found in a gasoline car such as a bulky engine, transmission tunnels, radiators and even gas pedals. How far can these be stretched without losing the emotive design appeal of cars will be a challenge. Add to this the rapid advances in autonomous car technology which means designers have even more freedom in reshaping the car.
Glimpses of what modern electric cars could look like could be seen in the mid 90’s when General Motors rolled out their EV1. The need to pack as much battery capacity and search to squeeze as much mileage as possible meant the need to achieve a very low co-efficient of drag. The EV1 achieved a remarkable — 0.19. Though a business failure, the EV1 clearly indicated that the era of the electric car was not too far away.
Within a decade since General Motors EV1, Tesla Motors has ushered in the era of the electric car and made them not just desirable with the Model S but also affordable with the Model 3. In 2014 the first Model S equipped with Autopilot was sold bringing autonomous technology to production cars. Tesla’s SUV, the Model X, equipped with fully automatic doors is clearly designed with an autonomous future in mind. The car is meant to drop you off and pick you up without the need for human intervention. Imagine those family ice cream trips without having to worry about messing up the door handles!
The next few decades are going to be an exciting and fascinating time for automotive design and transportation.
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