The Not-So-Ugly Truth About Rising Vehicle-Safety Standards

GREENVILLE, SC /PRNewswire/ -- Can cars be safe and beautiful at the same time? That may not have been the case a few decades ago when automakers were forced to hang those big, ugly so-called federal bumpers off the ends of their vehicles. With vehicle safety standards on the rise around the globe, are designers today feeling a little 1970s deja vu when it comes to meeting the challenges of making cars safe as well as more fuel efficient?

"(Back then) we said it was the end of automotive styling," says Patrick Le Quement, senior vice president for corporate design at Renault and one of the most influential automotive designers in the world. Le Quement was a young designer at Ford of Europe when the U.S. mandated those bumpers. "But we've found ways to make beautiful cars since the 1970s," Le Quement adds, contending "the golden era of auto design is ahead of us."

"Safety and design go together," adds Freeman Thomas, director of strategic design for Ford.

Thomas adds that one of the designer's challenges is to make safety an aspirational aspect of a vehicle's design. Safety, he adds, can be transparent. For example, airbags provide safety, but they are hidden out of view until they are needed. It can be the same with other safety features.

Le Quement likes to quote Charles Eames, designer of the famed Eames chair and much more. "Constraints," says Le Quement, quoting Eames, "are the designer's best friend." In other words, let obstacles inspire creativity and beauty.

Le Quement and Thomas are among jurors for the 2007 Michelin Challenge Design (MCD), an annual and international design competition that culminates at the North American International Auto Show, January 13-21, 2007, in Detroit. "Sharing the Road" and enhancing the safe interaction among the variety of roadway users was the challenge put to this year's entrants.

Several works selected by the 2007 MCD jury demonstrate safe can indeed be beautiful. For example, with his Safefoor concept, Peter Ortlieb of Germany combines the lines of a gorgeous sports car with such creative safety features as special energy absorbing side skirts and sensors that read an impending collision and expand the front or rear bumpers out to absorb impact forces. Ortlieb also foresees new wheel and tire technology, with air spring-loaded cleats that project out to provide traction on snow and ice.

Le Quement remembers that in the 1970s, "everything linked to safety was looked at as less freedom for the designer." "But society has changed," he adds. "The design community knows we have to contribute."

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