There are big changes afoot in the automotive world, according to two leading car designers who spoke last Wednesday at Brainstorm Design, a conference in Singapore co-organized by Fortune and Wallpaper* magazines.
Ikuo Maeda and Peter Schreyer took different paths to the top of their industry. Tokyo-based Maeda is the son of Matasaburo Maeda, a legendary designer at Mazda, and followed his father’s footsteps to the automaker in 1982, rising to his current role as head of design in 2000. Meanwhile, Frankfurt-based Schreyer was design chief for Audi, Volkswagen, and then Kia, before becoming president and head of design management at Hyundai.
They share similar hopes for advances in car technology. But they have given thought too to bleaker prophecies—some have suggested that the sharing economy, and thus the decline of individual transport, may transform the car into “a mere commodity, mobility tool for the masses,” said Maeda. “Though at Mazda we believe that there will still be people who see their car as their friend, partner, and a member of their family. That a car is something special and irreplaceable.”
Schreyer pointed out that cars have always been symbols of freedom, recalling how he happily drove off at the age of 17 as soon as he earned his license. Now algorithms and artificial intelligence seem to be getting in the way of this freedom. “We have all these programs that learn about us and can make decisions for us,” he said. “So we are losing the culture of fantasy.”
“In the olden days, when you wanted to go from one place to another, you looked on the map,” he continued. “You had a sense for navigation like a pigeon. Nowadays you just put on the navigation system in your car and you drive, looking at the screen.”
He added: “I think artificial intelligence should be thought of as intelligent assistance. We need to redefine what freedom means in this new era, and not just be entertained and ruled by machines. They cannot replace human creativity […] The Bauhaus would often quote the Greek philosopher Protagoras, who said, ‘man is the measure of all things.’ We as designers must keep this in mind.”
“What I’m afraid of,” followed Maeda, “is that once we put our attention to innovation and technology, we don’t have any time to think about beauty. We have to think both ways.” At Mazda, Maeda’s mantra has been “car as art”—using aesthetic allure to reinforce the connection between rider and car. He cited the RX Vision Coupe as an example. In Japan, people have an appreciation for the way light changes throughout the four seasons, which they call Utsuroi. This inspired a flowing form for the Vision Coupe that leverages reflected light while the car is in motion, “to make it come alive,” he said. “A truly beautiful car can transform bleak city spaces and color the city anew.”
On a more pragmatic level, Scheyer suggested that the beauty of a car, and thus its emotional charge is essential to brand building too. “If a brand wants to survive, it needs a soul. It needs to tell a story, and it needs to stand for something,” he said. “So I don’t think we’ll ever end up with cars that are neutral boxes. We will continue to design for the human experience.”
For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.