From LEDs to touchscreens: How technology is changing automotive styling

Tesla Model S sedanWe expect a lot from our cars. We expect them to protect us and the planet, all while performing the tasks of everyday life for years and hundreds of thousands of miles. However, we don’t notice a car’s safety features, fuel economy, or reliability until after we see what it looks like.

Automotive styling has always been a matter of taste, but like the more objective categories of automotive excellence, it changes with times and technology. Advancements in aerodynamics and materials, safety regulations, and the ever-increasing amount of tech we expect in cars is changing the way they look.

2012-bmw-6-series-gran-coupe-passenger-side-profileForm and function

In the beginning, automotive stylists essentially had free reign. Cars came as bare, ladder-frame chassis prepped for separate bodies constructed like horse-drawn carriages. Things are very different now.

The modern unibody (an integrated chassis and body) means the general shape of a car is often determined by the engineers, not the stylists. Concerns over aerodynamic efficiency and safety also limit what can be done to a car’s shape. Pointy tail fins and thin A-pillars are out.

That hasn’t stopped designers from penning good looking cars; gorgeous lines can be found on everything from the Aston Martin Vanquish to the Kia Optima. However, these impressive machines are more than just pretty faces.

New cars come with a lot of cameras: rearview cameras are a popular option, and Subaru uses a forward-facing camera for its EyeSight automatic braking system. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is planning to make rearview cameras mandatory on new cars, possibly by the 2015 model year.

It might seem like the NHTSA is making back windows redundant, but that’s because they’ve been shrinking in the name of safety and style. Thicker pillars and side surfaces are becoming necessary to pass crash tests, so the area available for glass is shrinking. In addition, raising the hood for pedestrian safety requires designers to raise the belt line (where a car’s windows meet the doors).

Raising the roof (line) would make an already bloated car look pretty dorky, but doing the opposite makes for a very sexy ride. Just compare the BMW 5 Series with the 6 Series Gran Coupe: they’re essentially the same car underneath and are differentiated only by styling. Or compare the staid Honda Accord with the streamlined Hyundai Sonata. With rearview cameras available, designers don’t have to worry as much about creating blind spots with those low rooflines.

Alternative powertrains also hold the possibility of exciting new shapes. Almost 10 years ago, General Motors built the Autonomy and Hy-Wire hydrogen fuel cell concepts. They had a “skateboard” chassis that contained the fuel cells and electric motors, and had drive-by-wire controls. That meant, theoretically, that designers could draw any shape they wanted and bodies could be interchangeable.

Today, we don’t have hydrogen cars, but at least one battery-electric car is applying the same principles. The Tesla Model S has its batteries in the floor, and its electric motor tucked between the rear wheels. That means what looks like a curvaceous “four door coupe” is actually quite roomy, with rear-facing jump seats for kids and a large front trunk for luggage. It also has an incredibly low 0.24 coefficient of drag.

2011 Audi A8 European spec front viewSignature style

However, the electric car presents automotive designers with a problem. Since before automotive styling existed, the radiator grille has been most car companies’ trademark. BMW’s twin kidney and Dodge’s crosshair are synonymous with their brands, and Lexus hopes its new spindle grille will be someday too. At the very least, the grille is the best place to put a badge.

The problem is this: electric cars don’t have radiators, so they don’t need grilles. In fact, having a hole in the front of the car can be a disadvantage in cars that need to be as aerodynamic as possible to maximize range.

The fish-faced Nissan Leaf is a good example. Instead of a grille, there’s a charging port behind the Nissan badge on the front end. The Honda Fit lost its black mesh grille when it was converted to an EV, while the Chevrolet Volt has a large, nonfunctional, grille that exists purely as a styling element.

The grille may outlive the internal combustion engine, but there is another possibility. Audi received a lot of criticism when it introduced its current shield-shaped grille, but most of that criticism subsided when designers added LED “eyelash” driving lights.

Now, even the lowly Nissan Sentra has a strip of LEDs running through its headlights. That’s because LEDs can be arranged in different shapes, creating a distinct presence when the sun goes down. One example: the 2014 Mercedes-Benz E-Class ditches the 2013 model’s quad headlights for two, but the outline of the old four-eyes look can be seen in the lighting elements.

Interior: Domain of the touch screen

“Count the number of buttons in your car. Now, count the number of buttons on your tablet,” Cadillac tells viewers in a commercial for its Cadillac User Experience (CUE) infotainment system. If alternative powertrains are changing the shape of cars, connectivity is changing the layout of their interiors.

It’s hard not to notice the screens that have sprouted from dashboards. Some are just for showing GPS-generated maps, while others are touch screens that actually control functions like audio, settings for adjustable suspensions, and climate control. Phone connectivity is also a must for the tech-obsessed, because it allows them to use their phones while driving or play their music libraries through the stereo.

So far, no one has come up with a particularly elegant way to integrate all of these functions. Every carmaker uses a combination of buttons, voice controls, and touch screens, with the occasional click wheel thrown in (see BMW iDrive). However, the buttons are either too numerous, or the alternatives too complex.

That brings us back to Cadillac: Why not just make a dashboard that looks like a tablet? CUE and other systems look like giant tablets, but this is a case of form beating function; most infotainment systems take some practice to learn, since users can’t rely on muscle memory like they do with analog controls.

Still, eager to attract tech-savvy buyers, car interior designers are increasingly looking to smartphones and tablets for inspiration. The Tesla Model S’ interior sports a 17-inch touch screen and virtually nothing else, while cars like the Chevy Volt feature center stacks trimmed in white or piano black plastic to make them look like Apple’s best.

The phrase “form over function” is usually associated with car exteriors, but it’s becoming increasingly relevant to interiors. A slick, button-less cockpit like the Model S’ reminds potential buyers of their favorite devices, but it may not be the most effective way to do the job.

Does it look good?

For better or worse, technology is having a major affect on automotive styling. Whether it’s the push of safety equipment or the pull of alternative powertrains and their flexible packaging, interior ergonomics or flashy displays, the tech underneath the skin is defining its shape. On top of all that, car designers still have to make sure their creations are pleasing to the eye.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Folding canoes and ultra-fast water filters

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Product Review

Boring takes a back seat as 2019 Corolla Hatchback mixes fun with practicality

We drive the 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback, the latest hatchback to bear the Corolla name. As the best-selling nameplate in automotive history, Toyota has high expectations to meet. This model mostly lives up to the legacy.
Cars

2020 Toyota Supra caught hiding in a trailer without a shred of camouflage

Toyota's plan to once again lure enthusiasts into showrooms involves bringing back the Supra, one of its most emblematic nameplates. Here's what we know so far about the upcoming coupe, which Toyota is developing jointly with BMW.
Product Review

Audi built an electric SUV for buyers who want gasoline-free to mean stress-free

We finally got to spend time behind the wheel of the electric 2019 Audi E-Tron bustling cities and arid desert of the United Arab Emirates to see how it compares with Jaguar and Tesla's competitors.
Cars

Pininfarina Battista is a 1,900-horsepower, 250-mph electric supercar

The Pininfarina Battista will be the first production car from famed Italian design firm Pininfarina. Named after company founder Battista Pininfarina, it has a claimed 1,900 horsepower and a $2.5 million price tag.
Cars

Tesla could show the electric pickup Elon Musk is dying to build in 2019

Tesla has started designing its long-promised pickup truck. The yet-unnamed model will come with dual-motor all-wheel drive and lots of torque, plus it will be able to park itself.
Cars

Allegro.ai is helping Hyundai mine the artificial intelligence gold rush

In November 2018, Hyundai invested in a startup named Allegro.ai. We talked to the company's founder to learn more about what that means for consumers in the not-too-distant futures.
Emerging Tech

With this robotic garage, retrieving your car is like using a vending machine

Remembering where we parked our cars can be a real pain. But what if our cars came to find us, rather than the other way around? A new automated robot parking valet system aims to help.
Cars

Thinking of opting for a car with a diesel engine? Here's what you need to know

Modern diesel-powered models prove that it is possible to build a clean, efficient diesel engine without sacrificing performance. Here's what you need to know about diesel cars, and how they differ from gasoline-powered models.
Cars

Best Products of 2018

Our reception desk has so many brown boxes stacked up, it looks like a loading dock. We’re on a first-name basis with the UPS guy. We get new dishwashers more frequently than most people get new shoes. What we’re trying to say is: We…
Cars

These winter-warrior cars will never leave you out in the cold

Snow can be an absolute pain if your vehicle isn't optimized to handle that sort of terrain. If brutal snowstorms are an annual part of your life, we recommend you pick up one of these winter-ready vehicles.
Cars

NYC mandates minimum wage for Uber, Lyft, other app-based rideshare drivers

New York City's Taxi and Limousine Commission approved a rule that drivers for companies such as Uber and Lyft must be paid at least minimum wage, even though they are independent contractors. The new pay rate includes operating costs.
Cars

LM Industries’ autonomous shuttles head to Phoenix, Sacramento campuses

LM Industries will deploy Olli low-speed autonomous shuttles at school campuses in Arizona and California as part of its ongoing "fleet challenge," which asks local groups to propose uses for autonomous vehicles.
Cars

Bosch’s CES-bound shuttle concept takes us on a trip to a not-too-distant future

Bosch envisions a future in which driverless shuttles occupy their own market segment. The German firm won't build the shuttles, but it wants to provide everything else, ranging from the drive system to the apps used to hail them.