Talking with Michael Robinson About Design
One of my favorite car designers is Michael Robinson, an American who has worked most of his career in Italy, becoming Design Director for both Fiat and Bertone. Over his impressive 40-year career, Michael seemed to have no fear of thinking beyond the ordinary. Many of his boldest ideas were decades ahead of others. With all the radical mobility innovation emerging today, Michael has the enthusiasm and excitement of a designer just starting his career.
In 2011, he was leading a project on a new concept for self-flying electric aircraft, just one indication of how far ahead of others he was—and continues to be. I caught up with Michael and asked him 5 questions:
You have designed so many cars over your career: which two were the most rewarding?
My first cars when becoming Design Director for Fiat, then later Bertone, have remained closest to my heart. In 1998, I led the design for the Lancia Dialogos concept car. It was one of the very first autonomous vehicle proposals, and had other firsts, including; experiential design; augmented reality windshield; Virtual Personal Assistant; Vis-a-Vis seating; and more. The car evolved into the production 2003 Lancia Thesis, and was the basis of a Popemobile for Pope John Paul II.
In 2010, I led the Alfa Romeo Pandion show car project, an exhilarating project that went from first design ideation to fully drivable prototype for the Geneva Auto Show in only 4.5 months! While rushed, my team and I came up with many wild ideas, while our shops tore apart the Maserati Granturismo donor car. The Pandion had new ideas for the industry to see; algorithmic design in cars for radical random form generation; first two-piece doors that open entire bodyside; innovative interior treatments with lighting and material use, and more.
The most beautiful cars in the world have been designed in Italy. With Silicon Valley becoming a new hub of mobility innovation, what’s the future for the Italian design house?
Italian car design companies have always been famous for beauty, carefully reformulating architectural proportions to create next-generation visual trends. Unfortunately, they (we) have not been equally as advanced when it comes to technology. My early autonomous cars were 20 years ahead of the rest of the world, then Fiat management prohibited any further research in this area. Today Italy is far behind in the race for EVs, AVs, AI, etc. It will take a giant effort for Italian designers to catch up.
If you have a meeting with the CEO of Uber, what would you say about the importance of great automobile/vehicle design for the future of their business?
Uber is a service company. Therefore, its business is based on customer experience, which is rapidly becoming the new core of car design. Most car designers today have a hard time sketching experiences, but that is where we will make our customers happy. So I would encourage Uber to hire extremely creative, extremely artistic designers, and create a Customer Excitement Team! This would be my dream job!
What role do you see great automotive design playing in the future of autonomous cars/mobility?
Car design has only had a marginal role in autonomous vehicle development so far. The majority of all R&D activity is focused on AI: trying to program driverless cars to avoid killing people. Technology is coming, but it’s not mature. The Royal College of Art in London is now teaching AI to car design students. This is the future of car design. Otherwise AVs will continue to be horrible geek boxes that end users will despise, until someone can put some pride in them. Imagine comparing a 1963 Ferrari GTO today to today’s AV 50 years from now. Which one will be worth more? This is what car designers must add to the AV industry: Historical value today.
You began working on autonomous vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft before others, what is your vision for the future of aerial mobility?
I’m not a fan of flying cars for a number of reasons. First, imagine rush hour congestion in major metropolises, all transferred above our heads! The skies would turn black with vehicles, and whenever any one of them stalled, it would just fall out of the sky! Second, most early flying cars are really ugly. Bad design! Trying to stick 30-ft wings onto a 10-ft car is really stupid. Then Avatar taught us all how to make multi-rotor craft and transformed helicopters into urban taxis. The most beautiful design heretofore is the Aston Martin Volante, but it has yet to fly. My AgustaWestland Project Zero first flew in 2011 with a max autonomy of 5 minutes. The weight-to-performance ratio of electric flying vehicles is a giant challenge for everyone. Declarations of four-hour autonomy in 2020 are pure propaganda.
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