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Audi's Design Guy Looks Inward

Audi's Design Guy Looks Inward

The auto maker's Walter Maria de'Silva predicts a revolution in interior design, from ergonomics to materials.

Italy's Walter Maria de'Silva proved he could change the fortunes of an auto maker in the 1990s with his bold restyling of Alfa Romeo -- a coup that revived the sporty Italian brand. But the challenge was even greater when Volkswagen offered him the job of chief designer for its premium Audi Group, overseeing the Audi, Lamborghini, and Seat brands, in 2002.

De'Silva's task was to inject Audi's cars with excitement and emotion -- without diverging too radically from the brand's clean, simple lines and understated "Bauhaus" look. Some auto industry experts shuddered at the potential collision between Italian design and German engineering. But Audi wanted de'Silva to design cars that would turn heads and lure customers from premium rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz. And de'Silva delivered.

Audi's latest generation of cars, from the sprinty A3 sportback to the class-beating A8 sedan, are winning top ratings and fueling double-digit sales growth. Audi's new look is edgier, and the gaping front grill exudes raw power.

But de'Silva preserved Audi's classic attention to perfect proportions and form-follows-function simplicity. De'Silva, now sketching the next generation of cars for Audi, spoke with BusinessWeek's Senior European Correspondent Gail Edmondson about the future of auto design from his unadorned office at Audi headquarters in Ingolstadt. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Edgy concept-car designs never intended for the market are now increasingly found cruising down the street. Why is that?
The investment in a concept car is so high, they [almost] have to be used as a base for a production model. In the technology, architecture, design, and construction, concept cars are made with the same attention as making a car for production.

When it comes to car design, everyone is producing more dynamic-looking cars with lines that evoke greater emotion -- even Opel. Audi was a market leader with its new, expressive design. But what do you do when a "new look" has been copied by many others?
We are a premium brand, and we have to follow our own design philosophy. Our only motto is to be a leader not a follower in technology, quality, and design. The evolution of design is constant. What Audi did over the last three years in introducing new models and new design no other auto maker has accomplished in the same amount of time.

I see a period of consolidation ahead. But we are already working on the architecture of the next platform. It's a huge step forward -- the architecture is even better and the cars will be even more beautiful. The proportions will be even better.

What are the most important design trends affecting next-generation cars?
In the future I see a huge improvement in car interiors. We have to work a lot to create a kind of internal architecture and environment that is even more oriented to the customer. We are studying new seats that are more ergonomic. We can do more to enhance the simplicity of the cockpit, the dashboard, and the instruments.

And we will focus on materials -- that they are distributed in the right way and that they create the perception of quality. Information systems are another important area for interior design. The telephone, radio, and all the other buttons have to be clear and intuitive to enhance safety. Interiors will change a lot.

You shouldn't confuse luxury with prestige and exclusivity. There is a different way to interpret each. I see evolution on the exterior of cars and revolution in the interiors.

What about interior lighting?
We will see a combination of the use of music and lights in new features. We also want to study microenvironments, like dividing the front and the back of the car when it comes to noise. That would allow kids to watch TV while a passenger in the front is on the phone.

The interior of the car will be treated like the architectural space of a museum or house. That's my vision.

Audi sets the benchmark in interior auto design, but everyone is racing to copy you on better materials, intuitive information systems, and buttons with delicate feedback to the fingertips. What will the next generation of Audi's cars have that the competition won't have?
Perfection, absolute quality, the right materials. Soon we will see a more studied environment inside the car -- to give it more visible and tactical quality. It's not decoration, but architecture. It will be totally new.

What is your dream project?
I have the fortune of working for a company with projects in 360 degrees of direction. That is a dream job. Since we are in the premium segment, there are no limits.

In the future you will see families of cars at Audi. The field from the A3 to the A8 is huge, but in the future there will be even more.

For more information on the Audi/Microvision relationship, please see the following posts and press releases:

Audi Plans to Use Laser Projection Head-Up Display Soon

More of Audi's Microvision HUD

Volkswagen of America Continues to Support Development of Microvision Head-Up Display; New MicroHUD designed to meet size and performance specifications for future car generations

Microvision and Electronics Research Lab of Volkswagen of America to Develop Advanced Automotive Prototype Display


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