If there was an industry we could choose not to be in at the moment, it would be automotive design. To say the industry is facing seismic changes would be understating things somewhat.
Electric cars will be all the rage in the next few years, with most carmakers promising a full sub-range of electric vehicles, or electrified versions of their current line-up, by 2025. Then you have the small matter of autonomy and the prospect of the fully driverless car.
These changes will have huge implications on the way we interact with vehicles, and naturally, the way they’re designed. The compact nature of electric drivetrains and the negation of the steering wheel means traditional vehicle silhouettes and interior layouts could go out the window.
A vehicle’s interior could fully be dedicated to cabin space, which means a sort of lounge on the inside and a sort of egg-shaped blob on the outside, which is probably the least exciting thing we could think of designing.
However, at least one car designer isn’t too worried about the future. That car designer is Julian Thomson, the newly minted head of Jaguar’s design team. A man who’s taking over the reins from the industry legend that is Ian Callum and becoming only the third Jaguar design director in the carmaker’s history.
No pressure, right? And we haven’t even got to the bit about increasingly stringent crash safety and emissions legislations, which will also have an impact on how cars will look in the future. But this is a job Thomson is relishing. “The world is changing so quickly. It’s very exciting being in charge of such a brand. As a car designer, there are certain brands that you really want to define and Jaguar certainly is one of those.”
While there’s still a huge question mark over the sort of cars we’ll be driving (or not) in the future, it’s pretty clear the people of tomorrow will not want to be driving the cars of yesterday. That is to say, the cars their parents drove, instead wanting something more innovative and modern, according to Thomson.
A delicious bit of irony, then, since not too long ago, Jaguar was famous for having one foot in the past, peddling retro-inspired cars in the 1980s and 1990s.
But what if, I put it to Thomson, those younger folks might want an aforementioned egg. After all, you hear so much about the modern urbanite not wanting to own a car and instead electing to use ride-hailing services that will one day no doubt be ruled by driverless vehicles.
To which he responds: “I think a lot of people will arrive at very realistic transport options, whether it’s eggs, ride-hailing or car-sharing, it makes a lot of sense. But equally, I think there will also be a lot of people who really enjoy the interaction with a product like a car. The car still represents a dream of mobility, so I think the future for luxury carmakers like Jaguar, the future is still very good.”
He also mooted the idea of how younger city-dwellers wanted cars more suited to urban environs and “different bodystyles”. Suffice it to say, Thomson would not be drawn into a discussion on what the next Jaguar could be, but I’ll just say there’s a gaping hole in the line-up for a compact hatchback, a shooting brake and, dare I even dream it, a revival of the XK grand tourer that ended its production run in 2014 without a replacement.
As for what future Jaguars could look like, Thomson wouldn’t be drawn into specifics, though he did mention they would not have the sort of ‘same sausage, three lengths’ styling language that so dominates the car industry these days. A deliberate move, Thomson opined, to break into the Chinese market where brand consistency and therefore, recognisability, is paramount.
“I don’t just want to do different sizes at Jaguar, but they also ought to have a design language that’s instantly recognisable. Straightaway, you know it’s a Jaguar. It’s not a particular grille or headlight design. We’ll have a ‘face’, but our cars will have a distinct sculptural form,” he says.
“We’ll always have the best-proportioned cars and that proportion is important to us. We are a human brand and we want to show the brand is created with love and emotion, like a piece of art. Jaguars need to make a connection with your heart and that’s why we’re different. We don’t just want to be brash,” he continues.
And that vision (excuse the pun) might be best embodied in the Jaguar Vision Gran Turismo Coupé, unveiled on the sidelines of last November’s Tokyo Motor Show. It’s a fully electric hypercar, so theoretically, Thomson and his team could give it any form, but elected to give it a profile that resembled the carmaker’s most storied cab-rearward, front-engined cars, something he described as “more Jaguar, more British”.
Interestingly enough, he says that video games are where “pure concepts have gone to live now, where they can be really elaborate and so far-reaching”.
“In terms of that Jaguar concept, it’s the ultimate realisation of the brand. We can push even harder, go even crazier.”
Thomson is referring, of course, to how concept cars these days have to have some kind of grounding in a production reality.
This is something I lamented, though Thomson set me straight. “The gap between exciting production cars and concepts are really small. It’s not that production cars have gotten boring, it’s because they’ve gotten more exciting.
“If you do a good concept car and can’t deliver on that in your production cars, you’re going to disappoint your customers. People see a concept car and they also see the promise of a production car. They’ll go, ‘I want that, I want to buy that’.”
Now, you’ll excuse me if I say that sounds downright terrifying, but it’s perhaps I’m just not the glass half-full sort. Either that or I’m not the new head of design for Jaguar cars. Where I see terror, Thomson sees opportunity.
“The market is such that people now expect very creative solutions, so it’s a great time to be a designer. Almost anything goes,” he says.