The Future of the automobile, a POV

This went on the front page, but thought I would post in here as well because I thought it might provoke some interesting debate and discussion:

A few of us in creative leadership at frog design got talking about the future of the automobile. As an industry going though massive change, a category we work in and an object designers love to obsess over, there is a lot to talk about. What began as a conversation turned into a POV we shared out on designmind this week. Words by Chief Creative Officer, Mark Rolston, sketch by me, based on Mark’s insanely modded 240z… click to see the full POV.

The car is 125 years old. Today, automakers are busy imagining what the next generation of cars will be. What’s different this time is the sheer number of technical, ecological, and social changes at play. It’s not hard to imagine that future cars may be very different than anything we’ve seen before. But our roads will be populated not only by these new vehicles, but also by an increasingly deep history of older cars. In other words, the car of the future will also be the car of the past.

The premise is simple: Today’s car manufacturers are working hard to build more ecologically sound cars, but despite their best intentions, the reality is that every new car made has a negative ecological impact far greater from its manufacturing process than from its use and eventual destruction. People are already keeping their cars longer, not merely for economical reasons, but because modern cars are made to last longer, and the aftermarket has become incredibly sophisticated. And like architecture, older cars can be more beautiful, unique, and personal than a new, mass-manufactured example.

This isn’t a model that benefits the car manufacturers, but they don’t need to be left out. New cars are becoming more modular. This serves their own manufacturing efficiencies, but in turn, it also creates an incredible aftermarket opportunity. Automotive manufacturers, working along with the aftermarket can be part of the lifecycle of a car–not for four years, but for 50 or more. The classic Chevy V8 and the newer LS motor are fantastic examples. Their designs have been in service for decades. They can be dropped into just about any car, and mated to more than 100 transmission variations. There are literally thousands of aftermarket upgrades for this engine. Such standardized components are the DNA of a future where a car can be enjoyed for a lifetime. Like our homes, it becomes a personal expression of ourselves.

My 1972 Pickup, like any new pickup, is about 4000 pounds of steel. That’s 4000 pounds that didn’t need to get sourced and manufactured once more. I have upgraded the interior, engine, suspension, and brakes to modern standards. I can drive that pickup for another 50 years. Like a beautiful, restored old house, it can be admired for its classic design and enjoyed as a singular personal expression. That truck is the only one of its kind.

And as newer technologies and materials come into use, our old cars can be upgraded once more. Neil Young’s Lincvolt project is a beautiful example of repurposing an old 1959 Lincoln into a modern zero emissions vehicle. While this is an extreme example, it shows just how much opportunity there is.

Not everyone wants to keep a car forever. Not all cars even deserve to last. We will have a world full of new cars, and hopefully, many more older cars sharing the road. Architecture provides us a good reference for this idea–our cities are neither uniformly new nor old. Nobody visits Rome to see the new buildings. We keep our old buildings: the ones we love or need. The others are destroyed to make room for new ones. The old buildings become new over and over in a continuous cycle of upgrades and restorations. The city of the future is built inside, around, on top of, and under the city of today. The buildings within it are lived in, and they develop a patina that reflects their longer life. Those buildings are inevitably more beautiful and meaningful to us. The same is happening with our cars.

– Mark Rolston

Illustration by Michael DiTullo

I think you guys are right on about the value of old cars & the increasing customization. I’d like to hear your thoughts on these two points:

  1. The rust belt. I would love to keep my 2002 Focus forever, but I’m better there is a limit to how long I can keep it. Both front fenders and the hatch already have surface rust. :frowning:

  2. The increasing complexity of cars is making it harder to customize. Sure, the chevy small block can be mounted into many different frames, but not a modern FWD (majority of cars sold).

The 2012 Focus that I like a lot is miles away from my old 914 in terms of retro fitting the interior. The 914 dash was two easily removed pieces. The dash on modern cars requires hours of work to take out and makes the car undrivable until replaced. Also, the unit body limits the ability to change body panels.

thanks, that helped me a lot!

@914… the rust belt… that is an issue… as is complexity. I forget the manufacturer, but there is a new Shelby Cobra inspired replica that did away with the wiring harness completely and uses an ethernet cable! Things like that will help. Containing complexity.

One thing I like about Mark’s 240 is that it isn’t a pretty show car. Some components have been obviously redone, and others are pretty raw: 240Z Mark Rolston's 1971 Datsun with an RB26 - YouTube

AS you well know, I like me some old cars and for a variety of reasons prefer them in many aspects to new.

I’d like to take a go on this subject. Cars (among consumer products) were one of the first to introduce the new product cycle (every 3 years or so), that drives both design innovation and obsolesce. I think this is one issue that needs to be questioned. At the heart, while there are innovations in safety, efficiency, handling, etc. for the most part the car has hardly changed in purpose and function for at least 60 years if not longer. There are of course new specialized needs that drive new products (larger families, living closer or farther from work, transporting bigger things), but for the most part cars take people from A-t0-B and this is not much different from when cars first came on the market.

I’d like to advocate for a slower, better product design cycle that also fits with the concept presented in the POV about modularity. Unlike other things like computers, cell phones, etc. I’d wager that the majority of bits on a car are and would be functional 20 years into it’s life if designed for it. If cars were designed to accommodate this, key parts could be more readily replaced and upgraded (ie. fuel cells, electronics modules, safety bits), while the majority of the car continued. This would also mean that cars don’t need to be “updated” every 3 years, but rather more time and effort could be made to make great designs that stand the test of time.

I have no data to prove it, but to me, it seems that in the heyday of car design (50s’/60s’) it seems like more time was put into car design. I think there were less models, put out less frequently and it seems by looking at the results that more love and care was put into the designs. Maybe CAD just made it too easy to slap some crap together and call it a new model?

Why don’t car companies keep selling models longer? VW has recently done this, calling the last gen Golf and Jetta the City Golf and Jetta, and selling it for a discount given they most likely have already amortized the tooling and can produce it cheaper.

Why don’t car companies follow in the steps of footwear companies and put out old designs with the added new safeties as needed? I’m sure if Ford put out a 69 Mustang exact to original specs with new brakes, internals, it would probably sell more than a new one. I’m not talking kit cars here, but rather NOS.

Just some thoughts.


In fact Richard, the biggest updates to new product cycles are in the HMI systems. The next generation of vehicles are meshed into systems of devices, and will be able to communicate with each other and the cloud in ways that will alter the driving experience… however, all this has little to do with the tons of metal that make up the car. Imagine if there was a kit for you vintage Bimmer to give it a 2011 level of device connectivity… not easily possible, but it could be done. A more compelling aplication of the idea might be current vehicles. Much easier than updating that old car, there is no reason we could not make a 2011 vehicle flexible enough to be able to take hardware and software updates for the next 30 years.

Imagine a car company that only would only make x number of chassis and then converted its entire business to charging for upgrading and maintaining that fixed number of vehicles for their current and future owners. It seems almost ridiculous, but it would be an interesting study.

The music and entertainment industries went through massive transformations in the last 10 years. Who would have thought in 2000 that we would be buying music from Apple, and that Blockbuster, a fixture in our culture would be superseded by highly efficient a DVD mail service who would go on to reshape media distribution?

I think the auto industry might go through that kind of change. The cost of entry into the industry is so high that the current manufacturers have a clear advantage, but I feel like they want to get out ahead on this one.

I think we are on the same page. It’s about designing thinking forward instead of backwards. It’s somewhat like the modularity of computers where you can pretty much keep a system up to date with replacing RAM, HDD, processor, etc. for quite a while before the hardware becomes obsolete. In cars, even less is tech that changes IMHO, so I think is doable.

My only add is that I think the design itself of cars and bodies needs to change in thinking. More and newer is not always better. Keeping models on the road for longer and really putting that time into creating great designs could help amortize the incredible cost of tooling and development. Taking more risk, less frequent updates and making great designs would take things further with as much or less effort over a number of years.

I’d still also like to see more “new” old cars. I’d in fact pay a premium for a OEM 63 Chrysler Imperial vs. never even consider a new Chrysler. It’s just a waste of opportunity in my mind that the car companies that are doing so poorly are the same ones that have the greatest of history of good designs and product and still resort to trying to make new stuff that doesn’t even cut it half the way to the old stuff.


Getting it right is hard, not screwing up after you got it right is even harder… lets not even get into the TT / z4 situation. They should have put those on the Porsche/Mini path of paced evolution.

I read about a year ago that Jaguar, under it’s new ownership, was going to re-create line for line, weld for weld, some of their classic vehicles (e-Type, Xk120 and such) but I haven’t heard a peep since on that.

Not sure I’m with you 100% on the tt/z4 thing but would love to see some neu jags. Porsche evolution I think is a great example of how it could be but I’d like even less evolution in some cases. Can’t stand new Porsche interiors btw. One thing that led me to my 3er coupe.


It was the other way around actually. In the 50’s especially, they completely changed the look of a model every year. Although it was really more of a reskin since cars still had a separate frame to carry the loads. The advertising really played up the annual change too. (“Come see the 1958 Chevrolet!”) But there were definitely fewer models and segments overall.

I reckon a lot less care went into design back then. Look at what Chevy did to its midsize car in 4 short years from 57-60. The designers never got a break. Now you need to be a lot more careful because you might be putting half a billion dollars into a major redesign, and it’s got to be good enough to last 4-5 years with only very minor facelifts.

I completely agree with Scott’s points. By the early to mid fifties, car companies would keep a chassis for 3 years and change the body style, interior and drivetrain nearly every year. The Mustang is the perfect example. 64 1/2, 65 and 66 same chassis but different door details or engine. For 67, 68 and 69, the new chassis could support a large block, the body became bulbous, fastbacks no longer had a truck deck and there are minor differences between the years.

But my overall question would be, if the lengthy discussion about devaluing design in the “So, this kind of upset me” thread holds true, wouldn’t reissuing old car designs fall into that category? Isn’t there a dichotomy between repurposing and professional respect? Where is the line?

This sounds like a very American, or at least, a North American POV. I can’t see the hordes of new consumers being created daily in the BRIC to sympathize with these arguments. New = Modern = Economic Security and all the ‘older’ things will remind them of, was a period when they had, in the immortal words of Kurt Vonnegut Jr, “diddly-squat”.

Ever hear the stories about how the joes in WW2 had an advantage over their German or Italian foes, when it came to auto maintenance? They’d grown up on farms, fixing the family tractor, watching as dad changed an engine. The Axis guys never did that. They didn’t have the same knowledge.

I like the discussion, just putting an angle on it.

First step in customizing a car or anything for that matter is the desire, how you view the object the second is either the ability and time or the money. You can think of the move to options from fords “any color as long as its black” as customization for the masses. In reality most of your market does not have the desire, and the few that do have the desire don’t have the skills or money. Oh I think modular construction will be big, as the move to ev’s continue the swapping out of a battery pack and plopping on a new body system ala GM’s skateboard system is only 20 years away.

"My 1972 Pickup, like any new pickup, is about 4000 pounds of steel. That’s 4000 pounds that didn’t need to get sourced and manufactured once more. " LOL steel is the most recycled material there is, and the steel his truck was made from was largely from 1950’s buicks !

Good question. I don’t think anyone got bummed out when DWR and Herman Miller re-issued 50’s furniture. I think it actually says we as a culture think this was so good then that it is still relevant now. Essentially raising the bar. There was a lot of crap furniture made then too, just like there were many forgettable cars… but the ones that impacted our culture are permanently lodged in our collective psyche.

Converse has been making the All Star for 80 years with minimal changes to the aesthetic though the manufacturing process has gotten more efficient (it had to, the price rarely does up), greener, and more comfortable (if you buy the better ones with the comfort sockliner). If they radically changed that product, and discontinued the traditional one, people would loose their minds… but we don’t treat cars that way just yet.

This isn’t to say there wouldn’t be room for new… but maybe new should be reserved for new & better, not just new & different.

Yes. Well put.


If you think about it there is that element of modernising old designs with new technology. Look at the mini and the hordes of other cars, inspired by hits from the past. The problem nowadays is these cars are now so bloated with safety, emissions and personal technology, they are fat, bloated versions of their former selves.

So this kind of upset me…

Quoting a the January 2011 issue of National Geographic, by 2045 there will be 7,000,000,000 human beings on this rock. In 2030 (only two decades away) the largest generation of adolescents in history will then be entering their childbearing years. Even if each of those women has only two children, population will coast upward under its own momentum for another quarter century.

The average human did not possess any “personal” means of transportation until Mr. Ford developed the Model T. Prior to that only the well-to-do owned carriages, doctors and traveling salesmen had their buggies and wagons, but the individual rented a horse, or buggy, from a local livery stable when one was needed. The rest of the population walked, or took public transportation.

With the cost and availability of fuel, the environmental concerns for emissions (even electric vehicles ultimately emit), the density of population, the physical space and public cost of infrastructure required to support private vehicles, I really question if there is a future for the privately owned automobile.

If this portentous image from India is any indication, then we’d better be thinking about a totally different concept of “private” transportation. You can bet it sure as hell won’t be a Segway…

And if this image doesn’t cause you to pause, take a look at the anticipated population of this planet by 2100 (nine decades ahead).

World population from 1800 to 2100, based on UN 2004 projections (red, orange, green) and US Census Bureau historical estimates (black).

That’s 14 BILLION people… The U.S. share? 1,000,000,000 (China is at 1.1B today). NYC, 25,000,000 (today: 8.5M); LA (proper), 15,000,000 (today: 4M); Chicago, 10,000,000 (today: 2.7M); Phoenix, 5,000,000 (today:1.6M) if you think your nightly commute is screwed, or finding a parking spot near your apartment is tough now.… .

Of course I’m probably tilting at windmills. It’s very unlikely that the planet even can sustain 14B people, so perhaps “personal transportation” ownership won’t be a real issue after all. Finding something to eat will be…

^ no biggie, we’ll just eat the extra people.

Well, sorry Lew,- can’t believe you are falling for one of the basic blemishes of market research here.
Taking a trend and interpolating it until time indefinite. If things went like that the stock
market would only ever go up. These graphs are quackery.

human kind may or may not kill itself, but personal private transport won’t just go away.

The car lives under many more technical constraints than a chair. So a reedition won’t do. At all.
And by the way vitra ruined the Eames collection while replacing glass fibre with PP. That one
resembles the Jaguar S-Type a lot. A bloated, irrelevant shadow of the former glory.

There have been reeditions of classic cars for more than 30 years. The Jaguar SS 100 is a prominent
Those (like Mitsuoka) catered to niche markets. BMW took Retro to a new level with the new Mini.

But it is not a pathway for the whole industry.