Amidst changing consumer behaviors in a booming sharing economy, vehicle owning will endure, say Acura experts—but will have to be more about a personal connection than A-to-B transportation

There's plenty to contemplate about the near future of personal transportation. Electrification, autonomy, transitions away from ownership—these are a few of the high-level topics the auto industry is trying to solve simultaneously. The resulting next generation of vehicles is currently being developed at automotive design studios spread across the globe. These places are incredibly secretive and nearly impossible for anyone outside of the designers and staff to visit.

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Acura invited PSFK to tour its Southern California design studio, and it's the first time the brand has opened the building to journalists in more than a decade. The tour included the opportunity to speak with several members of the Acura design team. PSFK wanted to find out more about their thoughts and perspectives on what lies ahead for personal car ownership and how automotive design is changing to meet the needs of customers who may or may not want to own personal vehicles in the future.

While many other automakers have been turning out all-electric or autonomous vehicle concepts for several years now, Acura so far hasn't made public any of its future technology and design ideas. That doesn't mean it hasn't been working on proposals in secret at its studio location in Torrance, California, however. Dave Marek, Acura Executive Creative Director gave a presentation that revealed some of the consumer trends forecasting and advanced vehicle design studies the team produced. The presentation hadn't been shown to anyone outside of Acura before and the price of admission for us was leaving all cameras and mobile phones on a table at the door.

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To give some context around where Acura was headed, Marek shared some of the retailer's research that looked ahead to where society might be headed in the next quarter century. Marek said 2020 represented a pivotal year with the beginning of the fourth revolution, a nod to The Fourth Industrial Revolution book by Klaus Schwab. A defining characteristic of this period said to extend to 2045 is the pursuit of experiences. Marek said that there will likely be a major shift towards experience taking precedence over ownership.

One of the possible drivers of change cited by Marek is the Strauss–Howe Generational Theory which in part hypothesizes that there's a greater concentration of social, political and economic change occurring every fourth generation in America. The next Fourth Turning as it is also called will begin in 2020 with millennials and last for the next 20-25 years.

All of these factors potentially converging together already presents a wide range of challenges and opportunities for automakers. Marek said that for designers specifically, their role will not only be to bring beauty to a product but equally how they can bring joy to the experience. This expanded consideration of the experience he says will fan out to include a paradigm shift in marketing and selling.

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We asked Randall Smock, lead exterior designer, what he thinks people's connection to cars will be in 2030, a decade following the societal and technology changes Dave Marek previewed.

“We’re in tune with where the industry is going,” Smock says, “and how people's use of vehicles is evolving. We’re also aware of the implications of introducing some of these advanced technologies like autonomous driving. We’ve noticed that ever since we started leasing programs, that was the first step of a kind of disassociation with personal vehicles. People were starting to transition away from a long commitment of buying a vehicle and holding on to it for ten years. Their expectations shifted to selling it after five years or only leasing it for maybe three years. It seems to be a more short-term relationship now. So project that forward: Is it a move towards more shared vehicle use? All it takes now is an app to sign up to use a car and you can walk away when you’re done.”

“But, I think people still want to have a car,” Smock added, “and they want it to be their car. You keep stuff in your car. It’s not only transportation from A to B,; it's a personal space. For a lot of people who live in areas where personal cars are a necessity, the car speaks about you. It’s a reflection of your style. In places where there’s better public transportation, people don’t spend as much money on cars. They might spend that money on fashion because that’s what represents them. But in a car culture, your car speaks to who you are. So I think there’s always going to be some level of need people have to pick a car that represents their personal style and taste. The options and technology surrounding ownership are changing, but I think the emotional attachment people have with cars and the desire for personal ownership won’t go away.”

We asked Smock if it was inevitable that the auto industry is funneling towards producing autonomous pods with little design character or if the changes in technology and engineering represent a new open door to creativity in vehicle design that could offer people alternatives to mundane transportation experiences.

“This is a really exciting time to be in design because that’s not established yet. This is a similar time to say the 1920s and 30s. There wasn’t a long established history or expectations of what a car should look like, and that’s where we are again because of all these new technologies. That’s really exciting as a designer because the old rules of design as it relates to luxury or sportiness can be redefined. And I’m hoping it doesn’t settle on just one agreed on way. I’d like to see the auto industry branch out and really explore a diverse array of different vehicle options for people to choose from. I’m really excited at this time in my career that possibilities are really opening up and giving us new ways to design. There’s manufacturing technologies for example with new materials, plastics and transparencies this gives me a whole new canvas to work from.”

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The marketing ramifications of autonomous vehicles could present an additional paradigm shift to the one Dave Marek highlighted in his presentation. We asked Simon Yu, lead interior design, might interiors become the dominant part of a vehicle used in marketing since that's where much of the experience a person has with the vehicle will occur?

“Traditionally, the exterior design of a car is the part that sells it and draws people in to the dealerships. But the interior is what people typically buy the car for,” Yu said. “That’s where they realize they’ll end up spending most of their time once they own the vehicle. To me, the exterior still has to look good, no matter what. I don’t think anyone wants to end up seeing the same autonomous car pods everywhere. No matter how technology evolves, I think people will always crave something unique and different, that not only goes for vehicle exterior design, but also interiors. The desire people have to identify with cars and see a reflection of their personality is something I don’t think will change.”

We also asked Yu if it was getting more difficult to design vehicle interiors because of the changes in expectations from different generations. There's now much more to consider around cleverly integrating technology, delivering comfort and excelling at safety.

“It’s always a challenge to understand a customer’s perspective, whether that’s historically for boomers, Gen X or Gen Z and then Gen Y. Every customer is unique and they all have needs that evolve as they enter different phases of life. Some aspects are always constant and there are also broader shifts that occur. I’ve noticed that the younger generations are trending towards technology priorities like connectivity over horsepower stats. They’re also looking for vehicles that facilitate experiences over brute speed. We still have to do the research for each generation to understand their needs and wants. Part of what we rely on is clinics with customers to listen to their wants and needs and dig deeper to understand why they desire something. Vehicle interiors are as functionally important as they are aesthetically well designed, to me it’s really important to understand why customers want something so we can develop a solution that best fits their needs and aspirations.

To show a direction where Acura hypothetically might evolve to as a luxury performance brand in the future, Dave Marek shared a vision project the studio produced of an autonomous concept vehicle. We weren't allowed to share any images of it but it looked like a transparent faceted cabin with clamshell doors and wheels that can move in any direction.

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The interior provided the ability for a driver to pilot or have the controls retract and switch over to self driving mode. The concept also showed interior integrated AR/VR projection that could display different scenic environments. The project had a sci-fi vibe to it and looked like a more refined version of this Acura LA Design Challenge entry from 2014 pictured above.

Acura

Disclaimer: Acura paid for our travel, hotel and meals during our stay in Los Angeles.


Lead image: Acura via Facebook

There's plenty to contemplate about the near future of personal transportation. Electrification, autonomy, transitions away from ownership—these are a few of the high-level topics the auto industry is trying to solve simultaneously. The resulting next generation of vehicles is currently being developed at automotive design studios spread across the globe. These places are incredibly secretive and nearly impossible for anyone outside of the designers and staff to visit.

Acura invited PSFK to tour its Southern California design studio, and it's the first time the brand has opened the building to journalists in more than a decade. The tour included the opportunity to speak with several members of the Acura design team. PSFK wanted to find out more about their thoughts and perspectives on what lies ahead for personal car ownership and how automotive design is changing to meet the needs of customers who may or may not want to own personal vehicles in the future.