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VW Group design boss fears CO2 rules will overcomplicate exteriors

Walter de Silva: Simplicity should rule car design.
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Volkswagen Group design boss Walter de Silva has been waging a 15-year battle against vehicles with unnecessary exterior graphics. His campaign started at VW Group subsidiary Audi and now includes the German automaker's entire range of brands. His most recent works – the VW Up minicar and the seventh-generation Golf – display the kind of design purity de Silva covets, even if some critics say the cars look boring.

De Silva's push for purity could face its biggest challenge yet: tougher global CO2 emission rules. He says exterior designs are being altered to achieve optimal aerodynamics and better fuel efficiency at the expense of pleasing aesthetics. A wave of vehicles with complex, cluttered designs could start to arrive before the end of the decade, de Silva told Automotive News Europe Editor Luca Ciferri.

Should simplicity rule car design?

Absolutely. It was true in the past and it is even more evident now. Complexity is progressively going out of fashion. Young people want simpler, more intuitive things. While my view on simplicity won’t change, I fear stricter emission rules may permit a resurgence of decoration and graphics that are not aesthetically pleasing.

Why do you fear this?

To cut emissions you have to reduce the vehicle’s weight and drag coefficient. While there are multiple ways, such as using different materials, to reduce weight, aerodynamics is not an art, it is a science. A wind tunnel does not care about brand image or family feeling, it just measures the model’s aerodynamic performance, its drag coefficient.

Are automakers at risk of becoming like the aviation industry where computers create a perfect aerodynamic shape and the only differentiation comes from graphics and color?

Yes. Look to the third generations of the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight. A key element when creating both models was to achieve an extremely low drag coefficient. Their proportions and their side views are almost identical. The only way to distinguish one from the other is with graphic elements.

Will this trend extend to premium models and supercars?

Because of the importance of brand recognition for premium and exotic models, there should be some compromise on the drag coefficient demands resulting in a greater influence given to design aesthetics. Luckily, you do not buy a Bugatti or a Lamborghini based on CO2 emissions. You want performance and emotional design.

How soon could we see the resurgence of the exterior graphics you fear?

By the end of the decade the first clear signs will become more evident and then become dominant in the next decade.

Are you worried?

I am not excited, but I am not worried either. New limitations are a great stimulus to creativity. Look at the bulky front ends we initially saw as we tried to comply with the first pedestrian safety rules compared with today’s nicer, sleeker ones, which already comply with the new stricter round of the rules. Or look at the VW XL1. It has a near-perfect aerodynamic shape, it’s very compact and, design-wise, it is a huge improvement on the first prototype.

What are your main responsibilities as VW Group design boss?

Coordinating about 2,000 people working around the world and keeping an eye on about 150 projects. This includes new vehicles, restylings and face-lifts at our eight car brands, three truck and van brands and Ducati motorcycles.

How is this humanly possible to do?

Normally I skip the sketches phases and get involved once we have the proportions model. This is a foam, full-sized model, painted in gray with black windows, which is used just to evaluate proportions. Once we OK the proportions, which are the basis of any successful shape, we start the design process.

Meet the design boss
NAME: Walter de Silva
TITLE: Volkswagen Group Head of Design
AGE: 63
MAIN CHALLENGE: Keeping design simple despite a trend in which aerodynamics take precedence over aesthetics.

How often does the VW Group have a complete design review?

On a quarterly basis in Spain. It is a long day for the entire management board and brand bosses as 30 to 45 full-sized models are reviewed.

With so many car brands how do you define the boundaries to make sure that the practicality of a VW is different enough compared with a Skoda?

We have a very comprehensive brand bible that covers all the group brands. It is updated every other year, both for the exterior and interior. These guidelines help a lot because they are very strict, which drastically reduces overlapping.

And what happens when a potential overlap appears?

Jungle law applies: lions eat gazelles.

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You can reach Luca Ciferri at lciferri@crain.com.

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