Back in 2014, we started sketch modelling something crazy. That was in the User Experience Studio at GM.  It was a bank of buttons that was floating in mid-air.  It bridged the console to the instrument panel. I never got to see the finished product. That’s because on Tuesday, August 5th 2014, I was on a one-way plane from Detroit to London.  Goodbye 12 years at General Motors, goodbye United States, and hello to a brand-new challenge with Tata Motors, cheers to the United Kingdom.  Monday August 11th was my first official day.  Five year later, it is now a perfect time look back at the five biggest takeaways from the last five years.

 The Upside Down – Part I

The first thing to absorb was the culture shock.  I grew up in France so I should not have been amazed by a more socialist society.  I was a teen without a worry in the world then. Now I was a family man. I knew all too well about the costs of medical coverage and education. In the UK our family uses the National Health Service. It’s cheap and efficient. I send my kids to public schools and the quality of their education has been great.  As my daughter enters secondary school there will be plenty of things to worry about.  A bulletproof backpack?  That will not be one of them.  There are a lot of great things about living in the United States.  If you are an entrepreneur the US sky has no limit.  We can debate for an eternity about socialised medicine and the Second Amendment.  At the minimum, five years away will make you think about the choices you make as a society.  I’ll leave it at that.

The Upside Down – Part II

In the United States you get your health benefits from your company.  Bigger companies typically get better coverage for medical / dental / vision for yourself and for your family.  You can start working at a car company as a contractor.  If you are good at what you do you will eventually be offered a permanent job.  And that’s a big deal.  In the United Kingdom it is the complete opposite and it took some adjustment as a manager.  Good contractors are hard to find. They are in demand and their pay rate can be higher than permanent employees.  And of course, health coverage is universal.  “Permies” receive paid holidays and other goodies on both sides of the pond. It is up to the individual to determine what best fits them. 

The Work

It has been, it is and it always will be about the cars.  In those five years Tata went through two iterations of Impact Design.  And our digital team was more than happy to contribute.  The EVision showed a compelling execution of a luxury car with Indian Design.  That was the beginning of our use of Blender in automotive design.  The 45X highlighted the first ever use of the parametric software Dynamo in automotive design.  It also previewed the production model Altroz.  And the H2X showed how a micro SUV could look tough.  Each car had its mission.  Each car had its different set of challenges.  And guess what: I enjoy challenges. The reward is to see our cars in the metal or featured in the likes of Car Design News.

 The Travel

It is one thing to help design cars for the Indian market when you are 4000 miles away.  It is another to be driven around a tuk-tuk at night in the middle of Pune. It’s not quite a scene from Octopussy but you get the idea. It was great to see how the cars we design were used in their natural environment.  It was also the unique treat to taste for yourself the richness and diversity of the Indian culture, from the temple of Dagdusheth Ganpati in Pune to the Gate of India in Mumbai.  I was also fortunate to travel across Europe: Amsterdam, Valenciennes, Munich and of course London.  If you fly one hour out of Detroit you are either still in the US or in Canada.  In that time in Europe it will take you to medieval times or to completely different countries. It sounds cheesy but it’s pretty cool.

 The Achievement & What’s Next

In the last five years I reached one of my professional goals.  It was great to check that off.  And in that quest, I started my journey to master of a new skill.  Even Ian Callum thinks it might be a good thing to have. I gave a speech in Amsterdam which was okay but it needed work.  So, I decided to do something about it.  I really got into public speaking with Toastmasters and that’s something I will keep doing in the future.  When I signed up more than two years ago, I did not know that it was going to be so handy so quickly. I had to present for work in France, in Germany and in the UK. In the last five years it is definitely the best skill I picked up for myself.

 Conclusion

In the end one thing remains: I am glad I made the change. Oh, the famous buttons made it to production in the 2020 Corvette C8. It would have been nice to be a part of it but there are no guarantees in life. Even in a booming economy GM had a massive round of layoffs just recently. Would I have been spared? I don’t know. Here’s what I know. I started writing this post from Battersea Park, a spectacular area of London.  I also know that my first day at Tata was the exact same day Detroit was drowned in a biblical flood. The entire neighbourhood I lived in for 9 years was under water.  I sold the house less than 2 weeks before…

H2X

For people in my line of work it is becoming increasingly clear that a yearly pilgrimage to Munich will be a must. The Automotive Innovation Forum hosted by Autodesk has now gone global. OEMs from Asia and America are now flying in for the two-day event. People discuss and share ideas and methods about the digital tools needed to enable automotive design. I was very fortunate to present last year and I was equally happy to fly to Germany last month. Two things stuck out in my mind this year

First, Rivian, Italdesign and BMW started off the day with their keynote addresses. Each company was impressive in their own right. However, Nio stole the show. The ES8 was on display in the Hilton Lobby. As well executed as the car was, it was not even the most impressive part. The centre piece was what could be referred to as the “Nio experience”. It has completely taken care of any problem related to or derived from the ownership of an electric car. Did you forget to charge your car? Have a coffee at the Nio House while your battery is being swapped. Not convenient enough? You can summon a charging van to your car. Want to drive from Shanghai to Beijing? It is more than a 12 hour drive but fear not. Those highways are hooked up to the Nio charging network. Obviously all of this requires a huge investment. Time will only tell if Nio can achieve its vision but it sure offers a compelling vision. You can check out  part of the presentation online.

Second, let’s get back to more “car design nuts and bolts”. The other biggest takeaway is that some studios have moved away from clay completely. Clay can be expensive. On top of qualified staff, it requires a massive hardware investment: clay ovens, milling machines, physical bucks to build, to maintain and to store. The move away from clay is not too surprising if you are a consultant. The savings can be substantial. The alternative is to set up a PC and two trackers in the corner of your office. Strap on the VR headset and that’s it. That is way less than the cost of a full-size model. It is a little more surprising to see OEMs diving into the full digital realm. GAC’s new advanced design studio in California has gone fully digital and so has its neighbour in Malibu Audi. 

I have spent a lifetime in the tube but I am not a “clay hater” by any stretch. It has my appreciation and my respect. It dates all the way back to school. I remember how difficult it was to sculpt the clay into submission. It really is more like art and you need the flair for it. My clay mentor Alexander Buchan was a fantastic teacher and a sculpture wizard. Also there is nothing like feeling the presence of a car in front of you, running your hands on the surface and feel the fullness of the shapes. In 3D you can zoom ad infinitum into a part. And because of it some designers are never satisfied (never). When you see it in clay, either modelled by hand or milled from the computer, it keeps everything honest. That’s how the surface looks. You can’t zoom in past the physical limitations of your eyes.

When I started in the business many moons ago, parts were already created without clay or foam models. There were done in 3D only to be seen again when the car rolled out of the assembly line. After movies and video games, the automotive industry is probably right up there when it comes to capital investment into computer graphics. Can you even tell what is rendered and what is photographed anymore? It’s a technological warfare of clusters, headsets, tracking gloves and raytracing for the masses. Let’s put it another way. Do you remember the reveal of the first iPhone? When people saw it everybody knew it was going to be big, expensive as hell but revolutionary without a doubt. In Munich it did not feel like that January in 2007 at all. Nobody wondered if there was going to be a revolution. It had already been underway for a quite some time. The only question remaining is: how far will it go?

To clay or not to clay? Sound off in the comments.