Q&A with Derek Jenkins, Atieva design VP

01 September 2016 | by Owen Ready

It’s a year since Derek Jenkins’ rather surprising move from super-successful Mazda, as head of its US design centre, to complete unknown Silicon Valley startup Atieva. With 12 months under his belt and the public communication about the company’s first car beginning to emerge, we headed to Menlo Park to find out how work is progressing.

How would you describe your first year at this new company?
It’s been action-packed. I’ve been heavily involved in building a design philosophy – creating the overall brand tone and message and the reason for it to exist has been paramount. It’s been exciting but a tremendous amount of work I have to be honest! But one of those things that reinforces my original reason for joining was the opportunity to take all the things you learn over a career, starting with the fundamentals of good design, and adopting that to start from scratch.

Does it feel very different from working for a traditional car company?
I can’t underplay that and there are pros and cons. In a big car company you are very insulated and you have usually a very large budget, tons of staff, tremendous technology and equipment. You tend to join a car company because you think it would be a great place to work, so you also want to respect its brand, and I think that’s part of good design, but so often that becomes a confining element. By trying to protect this thing can hinder it moving forward.

When you’re in the scenario where ‘brand’ is controlled by so many people in the company, do you feel you become less of a designer in the traditional sense?
Throughout my career there has been a small percentage of the time when I’ve been involved in true form-and-function synergistic projects, where use attributes had a unique target and you really built up the car’s persona on that. But other times you’re just moving around surfaces and graphics and unfortunately that’s the majority of the time. But this is a full-blown experiment with forms and function and expressing the vehicle's abilities thorough the design. And that’s the dream. The void of a legacy to respect is a massive asset to innovation.

What aspects were already defined before you arrived?
The basic vehicle concept was there – it is a sedan I’m not going to beat around that, but it’s a different type of sedan. But how we positioned it has evolved and what its different use attributes are is the new space. Where we’re headed is not just for a single vehicle, but a brand stance. The first vehicle is philosophically, physically and experientially indicative of the brand position – it’s the first step in what we want to realise over time.

What are the values of the Atieva brand?
I can’t get too specific but the values are built around the megatrends we’re seeing globally – electrification converging with autonomous technologies, connected technologies, mobility and shared platforms. You take all those elements and a clean sheet and you’re going to do things differently. Everything from an innovation, architectural and product taste and aesthetic standpoint – and the consumer target – is derived from that thinking.

Do you almost have to censor yourself by being aware of what will be acceptable?
There are emerging consumers and we’ve seen the shift – more and more people are willing to move away from traditional marques. They are more interested in new experiences. But at the same time we also can’t be so polarising that we scare off a bunch of other potential users that might be on the fence. That’s one of the designers’ biggest jobs – if I know the target customer, how far can I progress this concept into the future and not lose them? It might be super-cool but if it ends up failing commercially as a result, it doesn’t serve anyone.

Do you feel like you’re working more for a tech or a car company?
At the end of the day we are a car company and that’s not a shameful thing – I’m a car guy at the end of the day. But I do feel there’s an aura of the tech industry – there’s definitely something going on here that’s different. You’re exposed to a lot of different things and there’s so much momentum, but to say that we’re not a car company to me is a stretch. At the end of the day we’re building what is the most complex mechanical consumer product you can make. Of course we want elements of the phone in the user experience, but at the end of the day it has to be an amazing car. If you fail at that it doesn’t matter how connected you are.

Lots of senior designers are moving to startups. Why?
Most people in the know are aware that there are big things coming over the next 10-20 years. We can all feel it and are motivated by being part of it rather than being isolated in an environment in which it is hard to really push change. Up until the last few years these opportunities didn’t exist outside an existing organisation but that’s been proven to not be true any more.

You must be quite thankful that Tesla proved this can be done
There’s no question they went out there, took risks and opened that door. But it’s only just been opened and there’s so much potential. We’re only at the very beginning of that story. We’re at the end of a chapter for the automobile and the new chapter is new just starting, and it all revolves around electrification.

Motor placement has become very formulaic over the last 30 or 40 years – sedan: motor in the front, driveshaft, fuel, people sit here. If you look at five generations of a sedan and line them up hardly anything has changed. Of course the tech has been refined and there’s tonnes of detail innovation, but the architecture is identical. Now drive components are dramatically reduced in size and weight and they’re flexible. Having to package all this stuff is old-fashioned and that’s something I’ve only started to realise here. The ability to redefine what you get out of the overall size of the vehicle on the inside is a complete paradigm shift. Current segmentation is all built around small, medium and large and that’s all going to get skewed because now I can offer you a lot of different variety in a given size, just by nature of the drivetrain. Then you throw in autonomous driving, then the idea that sometimes the car is used for personal use and sometimes for ride-share. So if you create a product line around these parameters, it’s substantially different. That’s the opportunity.