Ford F150 Lightning
Ford F150 Lightning

 

Did I channel my inner Jeremy Clarkson a little too much? This question will frame it better:

 

“Think of an American company with billions of dollars in revenues.  Coca Cola, Nike, McDonald’s, Visa.  Do you know what is bigger than any of those?”

 

On May 19th, 2021, that was the question asked by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.  The show bearing her name is one of the highest rated news shows in the USA.  Her lead story is usually the big deal of the day in America, mostly about politics.  Surprisingly, the answer was completely non-political.  It is not another company but a truck: the Ford F-Series pickup truck.  Peter DeLorenzo, a.k.a. The Auto Extremist adequately named it The Franchise.  The next day, Ford was going to reveal the F-150 Lightning, the electric version of the best-selling pickup truck in the USA for four decades.  You can watch the news segment here.  Two things are happening.  First, the entire industry is shifting to electricity.  Second, this is creating a huge opportunity for the usual competitors and new start-ups to grab some of those dollars.  From lifestyle to utility, from out of this world design to conservative, there is a huge design bandwidth in the upcoming electric pick up wars.

 

The usual suspects

Ford’s cross-town rivals are not resting on their laurels.  Both Stellantis and GM have announced electrified versions of their trucks.  Ram has teased an image of its Revolution, a rather futuristic looking truck.  However, you will have to wait until 2024.  It is also working on a mid-size truck.  GM has cornered the high-end market.  Rising from the ashes, Hummer is ditching its gas guzzling image for a state-of-the-art electric GMC sub brand.  With all the bells and whistles, the EV truck will have 1000hp, Ultium batteries, “crab mode” and a UX powered by Unreal Engine.  The more mainstream electric 2023 Chevrolet Silverado was unveiled at CES .  It even channeled a famous television series for the Super Bowl…

 

Chevrolet Silverado EV
Chevrolet Silverado EV

If finding a charging station worries you, you will probably want to wait for the Tesla Cybertruck.  If you need the most capable truck with the most mainstream design, it is not the truck for you.  Plenty of ink has already been spilled about the Cybertruck (and lately it has been about its giant wiper).  To its credit it has pushed the boundaries of design to an absolute “low poly” extreme.  Elon Musk has just delayed production until late 2022 because of the global chip shortage.  There is a good chance you will not see any on the road until 2023 or later.

 

The rest of the field

A few years ago, some Faraday Future employees left to form a new start-up called Evelozcity before changing to its new name in 2019, Canoo.  With its cab forward look, the Canoo truck has optimized its electric platform and is thoughtfully executed in every way, like a Swiss army knife.  Canoo broke off the discussions with Hyundai to have its cars built.  However, its cars should roll off the assembly line in a new plant in Oklahoma in 2023.  Other lesser-known start-ups will come after the F-150 such as Lordstown, Bollinger or Atlis.  Lordstown just agreed to build Fisker cars at its plants.  There is no word about its own pickup truck.  Atlis has a camouflaged truck on its Twitter account, a heavy-duty pickup truck, good for 500 miles and a 15-minute recharge time.  The equally utilitarian looking Bollinger is aiming for real heavy-duty work.  At this point each one of them must roll down the assembly line to assess their real viability.

 

 

Canoo Pickup Truck
Canoo Pickup Truck

The real contender

If you want a historic date in automotive history, you will probably want to mark down September 15th, 2021.  The first all-electric Rivian R1T pickup rolled out of the old Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Illinois.  After coming out of “stealth mode” at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show, Rivian beat everyone else to the production line.  It is one of the most serious challengers to Ford and ironically with investment from Ford itself (and some guy named Jeff Bezos).  The R1T is a little smaller than an F-150 yet very capable.  It will go over 300 miles on a charge, it is very well designed and cleverly positioned in the market for well-heeled outdoor fans.  Charging stations will be available at parks and other recreational spots.  The first reviews are coming in and they are glowing.  The R1T is the real deal and perhaps already a favourite to win the electric pickup wars.

 

RJ Scaringe with the 1st R1T
RJ Scaringe with the 1st R1T

Final thoughts

There are challengers coming for Ford but let’s be clear: the Blue Oval has its franchise, and it is building a moat around it.  Ford just announced three battery factories and a truck plant creating 11000 jobs.  EV and ICE versions of the F-Series share a most common design.  Ford left a traditional whip antenna so you could catch AM radio signals in rural America.  All accessories fit across the entire range.  The pricing has been kept close between versions.  How is it going so far?  Ford stopped taking reservations as three years of production capacity are already spoken for.  How big of a deal is this car?  Let Maddow close the segment in eye popping terms:

 

“The revenue from the F-Series is more than 42 billion dollars.  Nothing else in America comes anywhere close.  It has been that way for decades.  If Ford can transition the F-Series to an electric vehicle, it’s good-bye gas cars in America.”

 

 

 

This is Part 2 of the 2021 ISD Rubika Degree show review.  Don’t miss Part 1!

Today, I talk with Swarnim Verma on the Heart of England Speakers podcast. She discusses her upbringing in India and Dubai. She then details her journey to becoming a digital artist that took her all the way to France at ISD Rubika in Valenciennes (France). To earn her diploma, Swarnim and her peers had to give a 35-minute speech in English in front of a jury of five industry professional. That is one third of their final grade.

The cartoonist Scott Adams has coined the term “the talent stack”. He is average at writing, drawing and business. However, when you combined those skills, you get the multi-million comic strip franchise Dilbert. Swarnim combined her skills, her talents, her eye for colour and her software knowledge in clothing and texturing into a game changing weapon.

 

Conceptual CMF by Swarnim Verma

 

Her way is unique in approaching CMF (colour, material, and finish).  Her experiments are named “conceptual CMF”. Traditionally, CMF designers collect physical fabric and material samples to create their mood boards. Swarnim’s moods board are full CGI. CG fabrics tend to be stiff. Hers were flowing and photorealistic, not to mention with some dazzling colour combinations. A detailed look at her workflow can be found in an article she wrote for Adobe Substance.

The digital design graduating class had three women for a total of 14 students. The gender split was comparable to the previous classes I saw graduate. It was inevitable that at some point, a woman was going to take first place overall in the year end jury. That was not the surprising part. The real surprise was how it happened. Over the years, the winners were in some predictable categories. They were hard core car guys. Then they were wizards at visualization for cars or for watches (or clothing soon, probably). Swarnim Verma is none of those. Here is the best advice for students who want to single themselves out and who aspire for greatness: be yourself. It worked for her.

 

 

 

 

Audi R8 - full CGI by Fabien Vandemortelle

 

This is Part 1 of the 2021 ISD Rubika Degree show review.  Don’t miss Part 2!

Do you remember the last time you took a plane? It had been over two years for me, so I was giddy at the idea of taking to the skies again. It was time for my yearly trip to the north of France to judge the digital design graduating class at the Rubika Institut Supérieur de Design in Valenciennes (ISD). This was another marker in time for me. 20 years ago, I came to Valenciennes to become one of ISD’s first 3D teachers. The day before, the entire family gathered to take a now ritual lateral flow test. I don’t remember how many we have gone through all this time. All tests turn up negative until I see one test with the dreaded two lines. And it did not take long either. Goodbye flight. Goodbye weekend in Paris with one of my best friends. Ugh. Thankfully ISD was prepared so I was able to participate in the jury remotely.

 The Usual Suspects. Expanded.

Every year, it was customary to run into one type of student: the car guy / girl. There was no doubt what that student wanted to do out of school. It was cars and that was it. Saurav Ponkshe created one of the most detailed Porsche 911 models you will ever see. It not only had the exterior but also an interior and a fully articulated roof (too bad it is not in full details on his online portfolio).

Saurav Ponkshe's 911

Over the years the students’ tastes have evolved and there are now two other types: watches and clothing. For watches, there are so many to choose from. For clothing, those of us who are a little older need to take notice on how to promote yourself online. Thomas Radenne created an online fashion show on social media in the middle of the pandemic. Of course, he tagged the people he wanted to reach in his post, and they did reply. It is a brave new world.

Saurav Ponkshe's 911

The Visualization Wizards

Fabien Vandemoortele had some great images. His Audi won the best student image in the Domeble Symetri contest (Corona Render) but I really liked the Fairlady Z (3DS Max / Corona).

Fairlady Z by Fabien Vandemoortele

Nirmal Tudu used Blender to showcase his 911 Singer. Last year, Valentin Becart showcased what the future of visualization was going to be with Unreal Engine. If this year needed any confirmation, he is going to have some company. The population of students using Unreal is rising and it is bound to become more popular in design studios around the world. Saurav Ponshke had a nice visualization of his Porsche in a pre-made Unreal environment. It is a great step to understand how to import data within a readymade scene. Praveen Balaji went way further as he created an entire tropical forest environment from scratch. In it, he dropped a Mercedes 4×4 and the entire visual was a showstopper. 

Praveen Balaji's Mercedes 4x4 in Unreal

The Future

At every jury, a student comes along and lights up the presentation room. This year it was Swarnim Verma. Her bubbly personality was on full display. She was prepared, smiling, engaged and confident. Her presentation and public speaking skills were impeccable. I am a trained public speaker and I am telling you this: she made a 40-minute speech look easy (and even highlighted her newfound fluency in French). She took the jury from her humble beginnings as a digital artist to where she is today. Teachers found out early that she had an eye for color. Swarnim coupled that talent with software use to dazzling effect. What did we witness? It is the future of CMF (color, material, and finish). In Part 2, we will have a much longer and in-depth conversation with Swarnim.

Praveen Balaji's Mercedes 4x4 in Unreal

 Conclusion

Like clockwork, I look forward to seeing what the ISD students have done. It never disappoints. Think about the technologies used by the students during the time I have fortunate enough to be on the jury: Blender, Marvelous, Unreal, and now Substance. All those programs were known in the industry, but some students have created fantastic case studies for their use in automotive design. This year, on top of it all, the winner’s presentation was unexpected, brilliant, and ground-breaking. It felt like a breath of fresh air. As long as this fresh breeze blows from the north of France into the automotive design world, I suspect people in the industry, and I, will keep coming back to inhale it.

Brian Baker

Sedans (or saloons) have always played a part in automotive design.  They are a practical and dependable vehicle format.  But where did the sedan come from?  What is its history?  And is there any life left in the future?  To answer these questions (and more) I invited my longtime friend Brian Baker, VP of Education and Principal historian at the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan, on the FORMCAST podcast.  Hope you enjoy the episode here!

NAIC at Night

To say that 2020 has been a bad year would be an understatement of epic proportions.  But hang in there everyone, we are more than two thirds of the way through this year and there are promising utterances of a vaccine on the way.  Still, this year will arguably go down as the single most memorable year in human history.  A world war was certainly terrible but thankfully it really was only fought in a few countries.  Covid-19 affected every single sector of human activity in every country, and that also includes cars.  It will shape the car industry for years to come.  It affected the product line, the design of cars, shared mobility and society overall.

The Product Line 

As human activity started to shut down in March, everyone felt the cash crunch.  Car sales around the world grinded to a halt.  Want an eye-popping statistic?  The 1.4 billion people in India bought a staggering zero vehicles in April 2020.  If your business case for a vehicle line was not strong before, COVID19 was probably the final blow.  Nobody is immune to this new reality.  Volkswagen has been on a tear to turn around its green credentials.  Prepare yourself for an onslaught of green ID vehicles of all sizes.  With Dieselgate and the COVID related cash crunch, VW is taking a long look at its luxurious (and polluting) portfolio.  The wildest rumour is that Rimac will take over its crown jewel Bugatti.  And nobody else in the VW empire is safe. 

Design Goes On 

Just recently General Motors issued an official statement: its staff will stay home until June 2021.  That certainly does not mean that design work stops.  And that has been true for all of the design studios around the world.  Sure, there has been contraction and furloughs worldwide, but the work has continued.  Automotive design has always been at the cutting edge of technology.  Why?  It costs billions to put a car on the road.  By investing heavily in technology, you maximize the chances of getting your product right.  Those technological investments certainly paid off.  With design studios all around the world, OEMs have long mastered conference calls, secure review rooms for 3D CAD reviews and virtual reality tools.  

The rest of this article continues on Formtrends.

The clock said 23h00 but at least I finished my bike. I got the materials, the lighting and the set ready. I clicked “render” and went home. I suspected it would take Alias a few hours to calculate the 1280 x 1024 image I asked for. I came back to the Tinkertoy building the next morning. In the computer lab I was greeted with evil stares and for good reason. When I turned on the monitor the computer was still rendering 12 hours later, completely hogging the machine.

A generation later, the same image is rendered in seconds. Welcome to the crux of the battle. Along with Hollywood and gaming, the automotive industry is one of the biggest spenders in computer graphics, a never-ending arms race in hardware and software. It costs billions to put a car on the road. Modelling a vehicle is only a small part of the battle. It is essential to visualise the design as fast and as accurately as possible, all along the design process. This process can be divided in three categories: real time, calculated images and animation.

Click here to continue

Corvette in Blender

If you have some time to kill on Google Street View, check out the original campus of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.  If you go to this location, you’ll find the nicknamed Tinkertoy building.  The computer lab was on the third floor.  It was a mysterious room, hot, dark and full of very colourful computers.  I had never seen such computers before and for good reason.  Those were Indigo boxes made by Silicon Graphics.  They could cost you more than $50,000 apiece.  Only big companies and schools were able to afford them.  I attended my first 3D class with Alias more than 20 years ago at that location.  I logged in and for all intents and purposes I never logged out.  From my first class I was completely hooked on digital modelling.  I stumbled into a world that literally had no limits.  More than 20 years later, let’s have a look at the state of digital modelling.

 For the rest of the article, please go to Formtrends

The car gods have smiled upon us lately. In July General Motors unveiled the 8th generation Corvette in California. In September, Jaguar Land Rover took the wraps of the long-awaited Defender. Both cars are quite at opposite ends of the vehicular spectrum. Yet they are identical in one unique way: icons. It is an extraordinary dichotomous situation for the people in charge of those vehicles. It’s a great honour but it is quite a pressure cooker. Public expectations are sky high and some people will inevitably be pissed off. For every successful 911 there is an equal miserable failure (insert your own here). We’ll take a look at both and for good measure we’ll see how things turned out for a certain motorcycle.

 Example 1: The Defender of The Empire

The first Land Rover Series I rolled out of the assembly line way back in 1949. It was to the United Kingdom what the Jeep was to the United States: simple, rugged, unbreakable, an iconic versatile all terrain machine. A Series I was a gift to Churchill’s 80th birthday. The Queen was carried around in a “Landy”. She was even seen at the wheel of the Defender, the heir born in 1983. After a record 66 years the Solihull assembly line went quiet. Generic SUVs carried the Land Rover name yet everybody was waiting for a “true” Land Rover. Their wait was rewarded by design director Gerry McGovern. The new Defender strikes all the right tones. Like its forefathers it is a true off-roader, boxy with short overhangs on the outside. There is an honesty of purpose on the inside, with screws and IP beam tastefully exposed. And those white steel wheels are awesome. As a design it is a great continuation of the brand, with all the HMI you could ever need as a bonus

Example 2: A Promise Finally Kept

Coincidentally there have been 66 years of Corvette because of its formula: an aspirational 2-seater sports car with a big V8 upfront. However, its father Zora Arkus Duntov always wanted to make a true mid-engine sports car. There have been no less than 8 mid-engine Corvette studies. Physics finally caught up with the Corvette. 755h with the C7 ZR1, it was the end of the performance envelope for that formula. There also was another pressing matter: Le Mans. Corvette Racing won its class 8 times since 2001 but not since 2015. Outgoing design director Tom Peters said “design it for a ten-year-old” and the C8 delivered. There are some points of contention. The surfacing is quite busy at both ends. However, the inspiration from fighter jets is just striking in its side view. It can pack the requisite two golf bags and most importantly it remains aspirational: $60,000 for a mid-engine sports car that can keep up with a C7 ZR1. Watch out for a bonkers Z06 or ZR1 in the future. Oh, and that C8R definitely means business …

Example 3: The Sequel to Mona Lisa

Let’s throw back and finish with one of my favourite brands, Ducati. The 916 was one of the most iconic and most decorated motorcycles in the world. It won 6 world championships in its 8-year run (996 and 998 included). How do you replace the Mona Lisa of motorcycles? Chief designer Pierre Terblanche penned the 999 in 2003. The public reaction was definitely mixed. It was purposeful and clever. The 916 was sex on wheels, with its cat eyes, twin gun exhausts and exposed rear wheel. The 999 had stacked headlights, a conventional swing arm and a box for an exhaust. It did what it was supposed to do, 3 world titles in 4 years. Yet it failed to capture the public’s imagination. Look back at the first generation Multistrada. Along the 999 they both look like products. With a BMW badge it actually would not shock anyone. In 2007 Terblanche was gone and Ducati brought sexy back with the 1098. All the cues from the 916 were back. It was not as revolutionary as the 999 but it followed the design expectations set by the 916. It won two world titles in 4 years. All was right with the world again. Most importantly it also started a design streak at Ducati that is lasting to this day.

Conclusion

There will always be furious debates about cars and bikes. It is even worse when they are about iconic vehicles. In the age of social media, it can be downright nasty (ask Star Wars). The Defender and the Corvette face some unknowns ahead of them. Will the Corvette alienate its fan base? Lowering the demographic is a good idea for GM. Yet the boomers are the biggest buyers and some of them already said no. Also, mid-engine cars are exotic, coming from the likes of McLaren and Ferrari. Will potential buyers really cross shop a Corvette? For the Defender it has kept its off-road prowess. Yet it is a big truck and it will cost a pretty penny. Do people even go off road anymore? On the flip-side, is it going too soft by adding a plugin version soon? There will only be one way to know: sales. Look at what happened to the 999, a sales flop for sure right? The Ducati 999 actually outsold its predecessor 2 to 1 its first year (feat accomplished by the following 1098 as well). The 999 even increased Ducati’s market share in superbikes. The designs of the Corvette and the Defender have rightfully earned high marks. Yet the market will be the ultimate judge. The 999 design was vastly more polarising yet it sure got the job done. Maybe Terblanche knew what he was doing all along.

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.