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Tata Motors gears up to take on new challenges in car design

Murali Gopalan | Updated on January 23, 2020

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Pratap Bose, V-P, Global Design, Tata Motors, says it is important to think constantly ahead

It was nearly five years ago when Pratap Bose hired a couple of new capabilities within the design team.

One of these pertained to trend analysis and prediction function. “I have a specialist who really just looks at trends.. a good way to do this is that you look into the past and you sort of project that into the future,” says the Vice-President, Global Design, Tata Motors, in a telephone interview from the UK.

According to Bose, the timing of a trend is very important to understand what could possibly pan out 6-7 years down the line. “This is a function we introduced very specifically to design..the huge influence of how we look at society,” he continues.

For instance, it was noticed that there were a growing number of younger customers coming into the market. Likewise, women now take up a significant chunk of the customer space thanks to greater financial independence. “We also saw the growing trend of younger kids who are now powerful influencers in the purchasing decision of families,” says Bose.

He then adds how he is inundated by messages on Twitter where someone speaks of his five-year-old son or eight-year-old daughter who really dote on brands like the Harrier for instance. All these are critical inputs for Bose and also puts in perspective the importance of trends.

“You have to really understand not only automotive trends but what is happening in society. The guy I hired is not a car designer at all,” he says. The key is to to “take the most dedicated guess” from his inputs apart from other reports and analysis. “How you interpret all that and take a call as a company is really where you differentiate yourself,” explains Bose. Clearly, this is not a walk in the park as this involves going through an “exhaustive process” with the teams from design, marketing etc “to really see how we go forward”.

The Tata design chief reiterates that it is “fundamentally important” to figure out where “you really place your resources” since there could be some sort of a “huge swing in society or a massive influence of a competitor” bang in the middle of a development programme.

“You really need to watch out consistently for these signals…it is a ride you need to be on constantly,” he says. Eventually, all inputs coming in from different trends will need to be analysed and broken down in order to be able to make a forecast of sorts.

Definition changes

For instance, the definition of a family car could even change since the very definition of a family by itself is changing. “Today, two women or men could make up a family and when you say family car, the ideal image of parents and children may not hold good for the future,” says Bose. These are critical things that “we question and debate” not only in design but also marketing.

The trends specialist, who was hired to be part of the design team, has tremendous global experience and the bandwidth to understand these things before they actually become a trend. “After all, we have a four-year development process starting from a sheet of paper and then to sheet metal…lots can happen in these four years,” says Bose.

It is in this backdrop that the recently launched Altroz has a lot of significance. In his view, it is a “special kind” of project as well given that in a car designer’s career, “you have very few opportunities to influence architecture”.

According to Bose, this means that the proportion that will come off the architecture in the future, the drivetrain possibilities, the product opportunities that may emerge in the future…the sky is the limit.

“Altroz for me is more than the story of the car itself, it is actually the car which is the first manifestation of a product on the Alfa architecture,” he elaborates. The design team has been “very fortunate” to have been part of the architecture design rather than doing some product “that is already there on a defined platform”.

Bose believes this is an important point because architectures usually survive in a company for 15-odd years. “I see it as a responsibility to the company as well as the design team in the future that you have established a base,” he says. It is one which allows future design teams to really work on products which continue to be exciting, impactful and stunning.

“To me, Altroz is therefore much more than the product itself. It was really an opportunity to allow the design team to establish the bones/skeleton of an architecture which has deep influence for the next 15 years,” says Bose. It is important to think futuristic since people’s tastes will change as also the way they live.

He cites the example of Apple whose iPhone is 10 years old and “you can imagine if you have to do an architecture that needs to survive 15 years”. This means factoring in immense economic/technical changes that are going to happen and “you cannot foresee many of them”. For instance, how fast or slow the auto industry moves into electrification is anyone’s guess and yet the architecture should allow for a good lineup of battery electric vehicles for the ranges required. “There is a lot of flexibility and potential disruption that you will have to think of when you are part of an architecture design development team,” says Bose.

Hence, going beyond physical parameters like wheels or the length and width of the car, there are deeper questions to ponder over. There is so much uncertainty in the world and across societies that “the architecture must accommodate” all this by being truly flexible.

Telescope into the future

“Beyond thinking of the product and category, you really need to have a telescope into the future,” he says. For Altroz, the challenge was to deliver plenty while keeping in mind the cost of a premium hatchback and within the price envelope that the customer had in mind. Do costs then hamper a designer’s creativity? Bose does not subscribe to this theory.

“I am often asked about these so-called constraints but I feel that design actually flourishes under the harshest constraints. This is when the designer’s brain really begins ticking,” he says. Bose also maintains that, by the end of the day, design is all about problem solving and creativity.

While automotive design has an artistic element to it, one needs to understand that it is also part of a business that has to make sense, money and must be sustainable. According to him, many car designers “sadly understand” the business side of design very late in their careers since this is not taught at schools.

“I find it extremely exciting to have a set of challenges to work around.. we have costs, legislation, pedestrian, manufacturing and so on.. you can look at them as constraints or opportunities,” reasons Bose while pointing out that . miniature paintings are never perceived as constraints to creativity and, in fact, can effectively “depict life on small paper”.

As for the mobility landscape of the future, electrification is on everyone’s radar and, as Bose says, with the development of battery technology, the flow can be within the wheels and “god knows where else…it frees up the architecture of a car completely”. In his view, it is only inevitable that future electric vehicles (EVs) will have a different layout to a car of today.

“The customer will also be ready for that shift and it can revolutionise car design where you are trying to extract every watt of energy.. aerodynamics, materials, layout etc,” says Bose. All this will impact EVs hugely and push companies to think differently.

Beyond electrification, carmakers will also have to change their mindsets to think as mobility providers in terms of air, water, underground and so on. “There are opportunities for partnerships/alliances and all this would be great for design,” he says.

For instance, where a larger intercity truck ends and a smaller intracity vehicle takes over, the multimodal and interchange points are “interesting points of consideration” since they can cause some amount of inconvenience to commuters in a normal journey from point A to B.

This, according to Bose, is where real design thinking comes in and will leverage artificial intelligence and big data for a massive play in providing options.

“When the system knows when you are leaving the house, this is exciting. You are going beyond designing products to lifestyles and that is the ultimate design challenge,” he adds. Bose says he is really looking forward to the next decade when all this will happen and spawn design of a complete journey for a commuter.

It is also quite likely that the car of the future may not need a bumper or airbags which, in turn, could impact design. “Companies will have to think differently since they provide one product today but for future mobility, you need to think wider and deeper which means alliances become important for competencies,” says Bose.

Mobility disruptions can also change ownership dynamics for cars and industry experts have spoken of GenNext steering clear of this route. It is their belief that Ubers and Olas will gain traction in the future as a result since youngsters are not so kicked about ownership be it cars or homes.

Bose, however, insists that this will not come in the way of design creativity.

As he points out, the challenge from Uber/Ola still involve using a car to get people across from end of the city/town to another.

“The importance of design becomes even more profound/exciting in the user scenario,” explains Bose. Where the traditional ownership of a car would typically see 40-50 people use it during its lifetime of buying and selling, this is much higher in shared mobility where the same car is used by 50 people in a day.

This has implications for layout, material, tough seat material to keep it clean as well as different design interiors. There could be other challenges like, for instance, the rationale of a boot for a car which is constantly on the move. “Usership and ownership are different in terms of use and this brings to the table different sorts of design challenges and parameters,” says Bose.

Clearly, his hands will be full through this decade as the automotive industry is slated to go through its share of upheavals in an era of mobility disruption. Yet, the good part for Bose and his team is that the opportunities in design will be plenty; the key is to constantly think ahead and push the envelope aggressively.

Published on January 23, 2020

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