AT THE MEMORIAL service for Steve Jobs, his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, said: “He possessed an epic sense of possibility.” By contrast, many car designers and engineers are too often chained to convention, and only rarely break free. Take electric cars. A dozen years or so ago, I spoke to many car bosses about the future of EVs. All said they were impractical, citing poor battery technology, low customer acceptance and questionable ecological bene?ts. But while they had their heads in the sand, possibly looking for more Middle East oil, Tesla’s Elon Musk was looking over the dunes and into the future. He made the impossible possible. Just as Steve Jobs did.
The car industry’s electric conversion was as improbable as it was swift. All car makers now say that electric cars are the future. Yet, far from embracing this bold new world, most of their electric cars have conventional petrol car-carryover architectures that don’t truly exploit the bold new packaging possibilities that EV mechanicals present. And isn’t good packaging the hallmark of intelligent design? Only BMW’s i3 and i8, and Jaguar’s upcoming i-Pace, hint at the brave new tomorrow.
Or take self-driving cars. Although the motor industry had spoken of it, experimented with it, and delivered many semi-autonomous driving aids, Google has been the headline driver. Just as an outsider (Apple) transformed the music business, so outsiders (Tesla and Google) have pioneered the transformation of the car industry.
Today’s automotive thinkers are often too cautious. Engineers and designers typically start with today’s compromises (frequently their own) before conceiving tomorrow’s cars.
They demonstrate considerable creative energy with concept cars. By asking impertinent questions, they often provide pertinent answers to tomorrow’s great issues. Yet management rarely green-lights such bravery. The old guard wants the upstarts to worship its wisdom, not question it. Clever designers and engineers accept that their most imaginative thoughts will never see the showroom.
Sometimes marketers can be the most in?uential thinkers: Jobs, after all, was more salesman than engineer. Mostly, though, they ?nd it hard to see beyond the status quo. They are paid to sell cars, not to improve them. Plus, as Jobs noted, companies often decline when salesmen are put in charge. Product matters less than short-term ?nances. Many car designers and engineers are only too familiar with this management model. So what a pleasure it was to talk to Adrian Newey about the Aston Martin Valkyrie. Newey started the project with an open mind, high ambition and a clean sheet. This is a rare trinity in the compromised world of car engineering.
His objectives were beyond bold – to build a car that has one horsepower for every kilo of weight; and one that, in track guise, can lap a circuit as fast as an F1 car. This is so far ahead of today’s class convention as to appear more daydream than ambition. The latest LaFerrari Aperta, after all, has a power-to-weight ratio 40 per cent worse. This new lightweight technology is also highly relevant to everyday cars. Such efficiency promises great fuel economy and energy utilisation, not just big speed.
I asked Newey what he and his Red Bull F1 colleagues could teach the car industry. “We push things as hard as possible and do so at a very high pace. Some road-car manufacturers have vast amounts of engineers, which is great from a research point of view, but can make them slow to react,” he said.
The Valkyrie (like Gordon Murray’s seminal McLaren F1 of 25 years earlier) is a hypercar with a hyper price, but its development budget is small by automotive standards. It demonstrates what’s possible when engineers and designers are allowed to think, and hints at an exciting and optimistic future, of spectacular style and step-ahead technology. We need a supercharged car industry, brandishing a new design language to showcase new technology, and bold ambition to excite a new generation of enthusiasts and buyers. This should be the most creative business in the world. Sometimes, it still is. Mostly it isn’t. So, cut the chains and embrace the possible.