On a whistle-stop UK tour, Ford design VP Moray Callum took time out with Car Design News in London to explain the design impact of the brand’s 2021 autonomous vehicle plan, why Tesla is interesting but beatable, and his new interior-angled recruitment bias…
Many brands are communicating autonomous vehicle design plans now. What are Ford’s?
We’re developing a car without a steering wheel for 2021. It will be a Level 4 Autonomous car within geo-fenced areas, [meaning the machine takes on all aspects of driving even if the human fails to respond to a request to intervene, within most environments]. That area is still pretty wide, you just won’t be able to cross the Sahara in it.
How do you feel about such a potentially momentous project?
The whole autonomous thing will be a real challenge to get right. Electric vehicles too, but the autonomous trend is the one that is really changing our industry. We’ll be designing the first autonomous [production] cars, that’s just amazing. I’ve done a few cars in my career, but now I’m actually going to do something different, and autonomous really is different. Our first autonomous vehicle will not be sold to the public though, it will be a transportation service. Run by one company for another company. We’re imagining a car might do 300,000 miles in four years. It won’t be designed to last ten years, because it won’t need to last ten years. Its lifespan will be shorter.
How would you describe Ford’s design language today?
It’s in a post-Kinetic phase. We’re still using what Kinetic meant to people – so the cars look like they are fun to drive and are great to look at – we’re not going to change that, just evolve it. I’m not into names to be honest. As long as the cars stay looking good, I’m pretty happy. Our job is changing though. The styling or design language side of things is getting a bit more superficial than it used to be, there are a lot more questions being asked of design these days. It’s gone from just designing a car so people walk into a showroom and fall in love with it and take it away, to designing the relationship the customer has with that car during its life. That’s a real change. It’s a lot more to do with the user experience.
Are you recruiting to reflect greater user experience expectations, as I think it’s fair to say you’re behind in this area at the moment?
We’re catching up. The interface design part of our job is the one that’s expanding most dramatically. We’re not just recruiting from traditional car design schools anymore either, we’re looking at all industries and bringing people in from the film industry for instance. Quite frankly I think all the carmakers are novices at this, we’re all learning how to make that interface work.
Do you have more interior than exterior designers now?
We probably do actually, if you include what we call the ‘digital delivery’ designers. That’s where the big changes are happening.
How’s the One Ford policy of making just one vehicle type in each segment and selling it to the whole world going? Does it still exist?
I think we’ve peaked with our One Ford strategy and are tailoring cars a bit more now. I think One Ford was the right thing to do at the time, but we’re learning that we need horses for courses. If you know you’re going to do a mid-size car of a specific size, there’s no point doing different ones all around the world. But there might be cars for some areas that aren’t needed elsewhere. There are cars we sell in China that we don’t sell anywhere else for instance.
What about getting the size right? Some critics say the current global Kuga compact SUV is fine for the US, but too big for Europe?
I think you have to go where your revenue stream is and err on that side, but most of the time there isn’t that much conflict.
When’s the first Vignale edition you’re going to be really excited about?
I’m excited by all of them [smiles]. We’re certainly designing Vignale versions from the start [of the design process] now, which I think is helpful. The Mondeo Vignale is a great vehicle but as we move forward we’ll add more…
…A Fiesta Vignale?
Will there be a standalone Vignale model?
Not in the near future… I think we need to see how much of a success the Vignale brand is and see how that goes. We didn’t want to make the connection between Ghia and Vignale as Ghia was a series thing, while Vignale has more content and services attached too.
When’s the next big design step change?
You’ll see more of step-change post-Fiesta.
On the next Focus then?
How about your concept car future? To sow the seed of a steering wheel-less Ford perhaps?
Do you think concept cars communicate that to people? I think there will be different ways to do it.
When was the last proper concept you did? Was it the 2010 Ford Start?
Probably. We’ve done more teasers lately. The Google Car was a proper prototype, it was a mobile laboratory. That approach is more pertinent to me.
So no new concepts from Ford?
I’m not saying anything…[chuckling]
What do you think of the continuing SUV trend from a design viewpoint?
If you ask a car designer to sketch something they will sketch a car. They will very rarely sketch an SUV. But I think we are beginning to learn that the SUV is going to become the predominant model in most makers’ ranges. I think the high H-point [seating position] trend is going to continue, but we’ll be looking at different formulas for that shape.
What kind of formulas?
I’m not going to tell you! [laughs]. The issue is that these car shapes are not very efficient, the aero is not as good, nor the centre of gravity and by definition the weight. They’re not the most efficient pieces of engineering but obviously that’s what customers are looking for.
Do you think an SUV can look truly sporty?
To make an SUV better-looking is to make it more car-like, with a more raked-back windscreen and lights. You’re using the traditional tools that make a car look good, which by definition makes it a little less SUV-like and a little less practical.
What about new sportscars beyond the GT and Mustang, smaller standalone models like a new Capri or Puma?
I think there’s a change in what people think a sports car is, they want practicality and functionality. The market is diminishing for small sports cars, unless it’s part of some sort of ride-share scheme where you can hire it when you want it. If that trend gets bigger it could help us to be more specialised, instead of offering a tool that can do everything.
Do you think there will come a time when you’re brave enough to make a car not look like a car?
That’s one of the discussions we’ve been having, as you might be designing a car that people aren’t going to purchase but still want to be driven in. I think people will still want to be seen in some cars and not others. Tesla is an interesting example as it chose to make a really good-looking car, as opposed to a science project. From the Model S (full grille), to the Model X (half a grille) to the Model 3 (no grille) they’re doing it in steps. In the short-term I don’t think people will want to be seen as guinea pigs. The potential from new technology will be there to change how cars look, but I’m not sure it will happen quickly, I think it will be gradual.
Do you envy Tesla’s ability to act more quickly than someone with 1100 designers perhaps can?
I don’t think it’s a design issue, but more that they’re fully electric vehicles; that makes things a bit easier. We have the legacy of our [factory] plants [to keep busy] but I’m sure we could out-design them tomorrow if we had the same set of criteria. And Teslas are still 130,000 dollar cars.
Where will this electric future leave your best-selling F150 pickup?
I think we’re far away from that pickup being an electric vehicle in both customer perception and capability. I think those customers will be the last ones to go electric but I don’t think they’d be reluctant to do it, if the vehicle could do the job. They’re not luddites or Neanderthals. Going aluminium has already been a big deal. We’re already quite good at bending that metal. The F250 Super Duty is an incredible truck.