On Italdesign's 50th birthday, CEO Joerg Astalosch explains how the Italian design house is continuing to push innovative designs in the rapidly evolving world of mobility.

Italdesign has been around for over 50 years, creating revolutionary designs and innovations that push the boundaries of the automotive world. How has the industry changed in this time and what have you done to adapt and remain a pioneer of future transportation? 

Well, I am in my mid-forties, so I definitely cannot judge the past 50 years. On what I can judge, I see that the environment for development has become extremely complex, markets differ highly and competition is more brutal and global than ever. It was always key for us to not make life more difficult than it is and to understand not to put the customer in the middle. Additionally, it is crucial to ignore naysayers that want to stick with the establishment and focusing on setting extreme targets. 

We are now seeing inspiration from many other industries being applied to the automotive world. Fundamentally, if we stay in one space we will not progress. How has car design changed over the last decade and where do you see it going in the next decade? 

I agree with your judgement, if you stay in one space you will not lead. Our mission is to lead automotive design and engineering. In the last decade we saw the rise of the Chinese market and its development in design. I also think that, globally, the attention to detail has increased even more, especially with the European brands. However, not much has happened until recently, especially with car interiors and, in my point of view, this has only progressed in sports cars with a much better driver focus and a much higher integration of electronics. I think that we will soon see dramatic progress inside the car, pushed not only by the establishment but also by disrupting newcomers. 

How will the emergence of autonomous vehicles - from cars to passenger drones - impact your thinking about design? 

If fully autonomous equals in a “no driver” scenario there is a big impact. That gives dramatically more options in the interior, allowing the customer to use the time better when he doesn’t want to drive. This opens up many options for us and increases the need for specialisation. A self-driven car could end in a situation where the interaction between customer and transportation will define the brand much more than the driving behavior of the car. As an example, UX and HMI will be significant growth areas. 

What are the challenges found in autonomous vehicle design or do you see a clean slate with endless possibilities? 

We have to understand that there will be a significant time ahead in which we will see autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles - and mixtures between the two. On one side, this is challenging and, on the other, it’s presenting new possibilities. Our task must be to define stringent developments in current technologies that our customers do understand, while being highly innovative in new line ups or functions. 

The average car buyer isn’t exactly turned on by the idea of owning an electric vehicle. This is mostly due to the lack of range and infrastructure, however design must play a huge part in attracting buyers. How important to you think design is in raising the profile of electrification and clean mobility and what direction must we go in? 

First of all, I think many car buyers are attracted by electric vehicles, and this will increase by the development of battery technology. During the hybridisation push in the US at the start of the last decade, customers where very much willing to go a different way but, in the beginning, this was associated to higher costs. Then there were two cars – hybrids that looked different and normal cars that looked the same but carried a hybrid. The first ones have been especially successful. We believed at that time that many consumers were willing to pay if they could also demonstrate that they cared for the environment. Therefore, I do understand the car companies that focus on their EV’s through a different design route. The exceptions are only those that exclusively sell electrics, like Lucid and Tesla. Volvo is also a good example, who even created a new brand for their upcoming EV Fleet. 

How has the introduction of virtual reality and artificial intelligence changed the designing process? 

Yes, to a very high extend. I learned this from my colleague Filippo Perini, who runs a fully-virtual design process with his team at Italdesign. This process is then interlinked closely with a highly virtual development process from our CTO, Antonio Casu. The lower the series volume, the easier the process can be digitalised. However, it is important for us as an engineering service provider that we can support our customers in achieving their goals and serving their needs. From a fully virtual process to a fully digital process with all facets in-between. This is important because it is not so easy to release a design exclusively in VR. So, if we improve the level of comfort and the quality of the decision by creating a physical model, it’s a good reason to do so. 

A huge issue the world faces at the moment is congestion. Although EVs are a greener solution to the cars on our road, we will still be faced with the same issue of overcrowding and inefficiency, especially when the average car is parked for 90% of the day. Do you believe that future mobility services will be the best way of combating this issue? 

Let’s agree on a well-to-wheel view. The overall cleanliness depends very much on the energy mix for the electricity on an EV, or if an ICE powered car is run with synthetic fuels. Then we have to respect different use cases, for cities and rural environments, for singles and families and so on. I believe that, in megacities, shared mobility in all its forms, together with the current public transportation and taxis, will play a highly significant role. If those are innovative and helping the customer in their daily challenges, they won’t even have to be incentivised by the authorities. But all partners have to come up with user-centric innovative solutions that are respecting the realities of the customers and the cities. 

Can you talk about your “Pop.Up Next” concept for horizontal and vertical mobility; how did this partnership with Audi and Airbus come to fruition? 

The novelty of Pop.up, presented with our research partner Airbus for first time in public in March 2017, is its modularity and smart integration into the cities. Airbus supplies the flight technology, we supply the driving technology and both of us worked on the cabin. I am very thankful to Tom Enders and his Team at Airbus that we could start this journey in 2016 together. In 2017, Audi joined and they have a great EV and ADAS know how, left aside there scaling and industrialisation competence. With that kind of setup, we are hitting the bullseye of our mission – being at the forefront of mobility and playing the role of an incubator with a highly competent series development team, from design, to development to prototyping. 

In addition, do you believe that collaboration is important to not just creating these innovations, but bringing them to our cities? 

I think my answer is now not such a surprise, so therefore let me say clearly that I believe that only a network approach will make us successful. The team players will win. Everybody else will vanish or become a commodity, which many of us have to learn. 

Predicting the future is a very difficult thing to do as there are many paths we can go down - whether that’s electrification, autonomous technology, car sharing and smart cities. What is your outlook for the next 5-10 years and how do you see this vision coming to life? 

My guess is that the future will be a mix of solutions and transportation means that are intelligently and digitally connected. A great example for me is TRAFI - different transportation means, managed and ticketed by one app. New transportation means will be added and some old ones will vanish, respecting investment cycles and city infrastructure needs. I do not believe in one new transportation mean that beats everything. However, a good friend of mine, Mark Cousin from Airbus, told me that an expert will always be wrong in predicting the development in his field of expertise. That sounds very reasonable and now all readers can start to dream, some of that will come true.  

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