Benoit Jacob is out to brainwash you. He's not just designing BMW’s new i sub-brand of hybrids and EVs—he’s trying to design the way you interact with your car.
The Frenchman sits on the edge of his seat.
Behind us, his latest design is minutes away from being unveiled to the world’s press under the bright lights of the Los Angeles Auto Show.
It’s impossible to tell if he’s just nervous or if he always talks this fast.
“There is a lot of territory which is not yet explored when it comes to car design, when it comes to character…. This is a very strong focus which I describe as ‘design beyond the shape,’” Jacob says, rapid-fire, in a thick French accent.
The BMW i3 concept car
What's the future?
Right away I’m thinking Jacob is a bit of a radical. And it’s rare, I think, to find radical people working in the strict orthodoxy of the automotive industry. Even among designers.
But Jacob has been charged with shaping the future of the automobile. BMW’s new i3 and i8 hybrids are apparently just the tip of the iceberg: advanced carbon-fibre construction, next-gen batteries and powertrains. The i3 Coupe concept shown in LA is the clearest indication yet of exactly how this practical city car will look once it goes on sale in 2013.
Following it will be the i8 supercar. We’re guessing Porsche 911 speed, but Prius-like fuel economy. It will be very impressive indeed if BMW—and Jacob—can make good on the initial promise of the concept.
The problem with hyrbids
Some say all hybrids and EVs on the market now are severely lacking in desirability, in emotional appeal. They’re ugly. The original Prius, for example, or the awkward Nissan Leaf.
Jacob, however, gives credit where it is due.
“I cannot really comment from a design standpoint on what Toyota did [with the Prius]. You have to start from somewhere. They were also the first to say, okay, something has to change. I think, you know, now the world is progressing. And the industry will come with more attractive proposals."
He may be a radical, but he’s diplomatic about it.
Inside the i3, a revolutionary dashboard takes center stage
Has car design become boring?
“I am convinced that car design can progress.” A brave statement, considering it would be much easier to argue car design has become stagnant and unoriginal with every new design apparently converging on some main theme. He does admit though that, “Car design today is very ‘on the mantle.’ They are so macho or perfect that it is hard to make car design progress.”
But, fear not. As the great Sam Cooke once sang, a change is gonna come.
"Now technology is changing. If you have to integrate new materials, new drivetrains - this is a chance to also create a new story, a new aesthetic." Jacob says this all with a wonderful confidence, his quick tongue making everything sound matter-of-fact. I suppose you do need confidence though if you’re trying to predict what will be avant-garde in five years’ time.
And here he gets backs to the brainwashing, to manipulating behaviour through design.
“It’s not just about shapes, but also the use case scenarios and the behaviours that are at work when it comes to mobility. It’s a very abstract thing, but this is where I would like to push the brand and to really take car design to a different level than we know today… Addressing the behaviour of people the way an architect does, or the way a product designer does—to influence the way people behave or interact with the object."
A radical pragmatism
There is, however, one major problem with a utopian vision of future mobility. Personal cars are, at best, only a small part of the solution. Many automakers, like Mercedes-Benz and BMW, are starting their own car-sharing services but it goes beyond that too. Jacob isn’t just reacting to the market, but rather hoping to push the market in a good direction.
“What we have to design, it’s not only the car, but also the whole ecosystem around electric mobility. We’re not doing this alone. This is also done with people caring for the environment. Cities. Politics. I hope we bring with our car a very strong message that delivers also very strong commitment that says we are ready to move. We are bringing a very small contribution in the whole game, but we hope some other partners will help us draw the big picture when it comes to mobility.”
Car design needs more radicals.