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.