“When you’re under water, you reach for air, you want to breathe with all your body and you will for a bright future. So you fight for your life. It’s what we do.”
That’s how the executive director of design at Volkswagen (VW), Klaus Bischoff, describes the scandal which eclipsed the automotive company in 2015. Reports revealed how VW had fitted 11m cars worldwide with software which lowered the vehicles’ emissions count during testing. One figure estimates that an extra 250,000 to 1m tonnes of nitrogen oxide emissions were produced every year, including the much more harmful nitrogen dioxide.
Such a public scandal puts an intense amount of pressure and scrutiny on a brand, but Bischoff seems determined to see it in a positive light. He claims that it “sped up the transformation” of the company into one that aims to create zero emissions by 2050.
“The huge diesel issue that hit us was a huge motivator,” Bischoff says. “If the diesel issue hadn’t have happened, we might have sat in comfort, and thought: okay, let’s just have one electric car and that should be enough.”
During the scandal — which Bischoff calls “truly challenging” and also the “best time” of his career — the company called together a “workshop” of 42 managers who worked out what their “road to the future was”. VW came up with the idea of an “electric family” and brainstormed how this “vision” could be worked out in terms of design. (Of the last four years, Bischoff says: “We worked our asses off to deliver on this.”)
The future of VW
The result of that reset is the ID range of vehicles. Unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show, the ID.3 is an electric car with updated digital details, like an intuitive lighting system that recognizes when a user is approaching. Bischoff says that when cars are connected to the internet, a “total brand design appears”.
As part of the ID range, which has been in development for three years, VW also updated its logo with a classic, pared back look — aimed for more integrated application across digital platforms. In the past year, VW has also set up a subsidiary company for energy and charging called Elli, as well as a ride-sharing service called MOIA.
Despite these greener initiatives, the announcement of the ID range doesn’t mean things are totally electric at VW. “We will still see the combustion engine down the road still,” Bischoff says.
Is driving the shift to electric vehicles the responsibility of the client or the car company? “We have 650,000 employees, with another 2-3m people depending on them,” Bischoff says. “We can’t just throw the switch one day to the other, it’s a time of transition.”
The transition relies on some delicate financial logistics. The market share of electric vehicles is 1.5%. If VW took itself out of the combustion engine market, Bischoff says, it would have to close 99 factories, leaving only two.
One of the problems is that the demand for electric cars doesn’t yet match up with the conversation around them. Customers are still hesitant about electric cars, Bischoff says. “Everyone is talking about electric cars, and the market share is rising, but not at the speed you might think.”
That’s why, he says, VW is focused on making the electric vehicle experience as good as possible. “We need to make electric driving entertaining and super intelligent, so that once you go in for it, you never go out again.”
The road to driverless cars is “full of stones”
The other inescapable talking point is autonomous vehicles. Here, the future is even further away. The road to driverless cars is “full of stones”, according to Bischoff. Optimistic estimations put their arrival in 2025 while more pessimistic projections put it at 2030.
While Bischoff sounds excited about the prospect of driverless cars — they will become “more like living rooms” — he talks at length about the difficulties with integrating them into cities, drawing particular attention to problems of congestion and how vehicles will have to anticipate infrastructural problems. “We have to make traffic and motoring an intelligent thing,” he says. “Digitalization will help with that.”
It is also unlikely that everyone will only drive VW cars in the future, so some sort of centralized operating system will need to be created so that cars can communicate with each other. Toyotas will need to talk to Hyundais which will need to speak to VWs. Bischoff says that VW is developing a system which is “already paving the way so that a grid of cars could talk to each other”.
The obvious problem with this is that each brand will want to be responsible for the platform — but Bischoff points to the size of VW as a factor in their suitability and says that Ford is “interested” already.
The realisation of driverless vehicles will also be led by region-specific details. “In China, most probably, autonomous vehicles will be controlled by the government, so they are at the helm of the robot. They will say: You want to go there? Okay, I’ll allow you to go there.”
Other country-specific but less legislative motoring quirks might also be an issue, Bischoff says. “Imagine you are at a big roundabout in Paris in an autonomous car. The vehicle might know where to go, but you still have French taxi drivers.”
“You get the best ideas when there’s a race”
VW is used to this global outlook. At the headquarters in Wolfsburg in northern Germany, there are 400 creatives from 30 nations. It is a “melting pot”, Bischoff says. He is also responsible for the design team in China (70 in Shanghai, and around 60 in Changchun in northern China). In Brazil, there are around 40 designers, and 20 more in Mexico and another 20 in Santa Monica. Despite the scale of these operations, the “very disciplined” design process doesn’t change across networks.
“We have tight schedules, and the team here in Wolfsburg is the biggest pool of designers and with 30 nations, it’s a melting pot of design,” he says. “The way I control it is competition.”
Competition runs like this: designers are split up into “studios” made up of around 5 members with a group leader, who then compete against other studios on different briefs. There are around 100 projects every year. It is an “open competition”, meaning that teams can look at each other’s projects, a crucial element of the design process, according to Bischoff.
With a project to create a car — which would typically have a running time or two to three years — the competition is split into interior and exterior projects. Bischoff says that whenever he has hired designers, they’ve always been firmly in either camp, though VW is keen that designers become familiar with both disciplines. (Bischoff himself began working for VW as both an interior and exterior designer.)
During a typical competition, four studios are picked, then two in the next round, until there’s one which is followed through to project. It’s not a “cherry-picking process” where VW picks different elements of projects for a finished product, Bischoff says. “You choose one exterior and one interior project.”
“A constant push of competition leads you to a better end product,” Bischoff says. If it sounds a little cut-throat, Bischoff says that VW encourages a “self-motivating” atmosphere. He also insists that there are so many projects that even if you lose twice, you could still win three in a week. “It’s important not to create losers,” he says.
“The work that needs to be done is not yet done”
Bischoff has been with VW for thirty years. He joined in 1989 after graduating from industrial design at the Braunschweig University of Art. In that period, he’s been responsible for the Golf VI and VII, the Touareg and Tiguan models. For the time being, he says he is happy to remain at the company.
But with the future of car design so in flux — Bischoff calls this period a “kind of revolution for design” — when would he be happy to leave? “I would like to leave the company at a point when the future is positive and bright, if possible,” Bischoff says.
Is it currently at that point? “No,” he says. “The work that needs to be done is not yet done. We are in the midst of transformation, not the end.”