Imagine you’ve just been hired as a design engineer at a major automotive manufacturer. Your boss introduces himself and says “Hey, are you ready to design the most innovative, mind-blowing, original car you’ve ever seen?” Now stop imagining that, because your boss isn’t going to say that. Maybe Elon Musk says that to his new recruits as they walk through the door. Then he probably mutters something under his breath about tunnels in the parking lot.
My boss, on the first day of my career as a design engineer, said “Mr. Car Designer, we’re considering removing the dampers on our glove boxes. I need you to benchmark other manufacturers to make sure our cars won’t be seen as lower quality compared to the competition. Prepare a presentation, and then we’ll start training you on how to fill out the paperwork necessary to make the change.”
Now you’re prepared for the excitement that is design engineering for a major automotive company. This is my job, and as a car enthusiast, being a part of the design process has been an eye opening experience, if not the experience I expected. I’d like to impart to you some of the things I’ve learned.
I, like you, am a Jalopnik reader. We come here to learn what’s new in the car world on any given day. Often, this means seeing a new car for the first time. And sometimes, we car enthusiasts find something ugly, boring or just incomprehensible. When this occurs, fingers tend to be pointed at “the engineers.” We imagine this faceless mob of dorks in polo shirts and pocket protectors sitting at their desks all day, contemplating new ways to actively deny us the fun, cool, beautiful, fast, luxurious, cheap and interesting cars we deserve. But while engineers certainly play an integral role in the car design process, there are other players in the game that have just as significant an impact on the final outcome of a car.
I’ll start with the three main groups that exist within any automotive company short of Hot Wheels: engineering, styling, and accounting. And then there’s the government they all must deal with so that their cars comply with regulations.
Here’s the role all of them play in shaping the car you might end up buying—or snubbing your nose at.
Engineers are responsible for designing the clips, ribs, brackets, frames, hinges, wires, supports, springs, shafts, and anything else that comprises the structural or functional parts of a car. Good engineers can make your $20,000 car feel high quality. Alternatively, bad engineers can make your $80,000 car feel like a drunk toddler made the dashboard out of papier-mâché.
If you’re interested in seeing the work engineers like myself do, remove a plastic part from your car. You might notice the curved, styled surface or the way the grain of the plastic feels. Now forget about that and flip it over. You see those ribs that run across the surface? The little clip towers adorned with those Christmas tree clips everyone hates? That’s what I design. My life is awesome.
These elements of a part are critical to the durability and reliability of a car. Engineers are responsible for ensuring that your A-pillars don’t melt when it gets hot out.
“Well sure,” you say, “That’s your job, but what about the people who design engines and transmissions? They’re doing true gearhead work!”
Yes, but at the end of the day, their job is similar to mine in that they don’t decide they’re going to throw an 11,000 RPM V12 in the next generation Kia Rio. Some guy out there has spent months of his life designing a dipstick. Maybe at a place like Koenigsegg they break the mold a little and engineers are more involved in the actual decision making process, but unfortunately, they declined my application.
We’re tasked with reducing the mass of your vehicle. We make sure it doesn’t rattle when you hit a pothole. One thing engineers are generally not responsible for, however, is the shape of the parts you see. Which brings us to...
Styling is probably the closest profession to what we all imagine designing a car is like. You draw some pretty shapes, make it swoopy, boxy, low, or aggressive, add some unreasonably large wheels and then *poof*, out of nowhere springs the car of everyone’s dreams. Designers decide what the exterior and interior of the car will look like, how it will make the customer feel. “Design language” is a term you’ll hear them toss around a lot. They’re responsible for concept cars and shaping the future image of the brand.
You might assume then, that these are the men and women you should direct your angry mob toward because your Chevy Malibu doesn’t look like a rocketship. Here’s the problem: everyone wants to design the most beautiful car in the world, but nice things cost money. Economy cars have an extremely tight profit margin compared to say, Ferraris.
Thus, anything considered “unnecessary,” such as brake cooling intakes, fancy aero tech, trick suspension, or even crazy shaped, difficult (read: expensive) to produce body panels are nixed. If you find these goodies, they’re likely to be on a high-end, optioned out model. Options give manufacturers more room to play by loosening the purse strings a little. Because of this, “cost” at a car manufacturer, especially a manufacturer that designs economy cars, is a four-letter word.
Critically, an important part in any car design is aerodynamics. In a lot of cases, it is aero that leads designers to compromise their “ideal” design. Cars would look great if you could ignore aero implications. Don’t forget pedestrian safety standards too, that’s a big one.
It also makes sense that this next group does a lot of cursing:
Now this is the group you can blame for those blank buttons and switches you all love so much. “Why does there even need to be a hole there?”, you might ask. The answer is simple: money.
For example: say your car is available with a sunroof, but you bought the base model (so really, you brought this on yourself.) The car with a sunroof needs to have a hole in the dashboard for a sunroof switch. Your car does not. Seems easy enough, right? What you may not have considered is how a dashboard is manufactured. There is no employee whose sole purpose in life is to drill holes in dashboards for sunroof switches. Almost all dashboards on the market today are injection molded plastic, meaning a mold has to be designed and cut from a large piece of metal for every single variation of a part. A mold as large as an entire dashboard can easily cost millions of dollars.
So, in order to have two variations of a dashboard, one with a sunroof switch hole, one without, you need two tools, and that means that you’ve just paid millions to fill in one square inch of material.
Accounting’s job is to make sure this doesn’t happen. An engineer would present them with two options: make two tools, or insert a two cent blank switch into the dashboard of all non-sunroof cars. And then accounting would laugh at the funny joke this engineer has made, and use the blanks.
If these guys could save ten cents a car by zip tying a meat cleaver to your headrest, they’d do it. Luckily for you, there’s an organization that frowns upon people being decapitated:
If you were to build a car in your garage out of a shopping cart, a lawn chair, and a motorcycle engine, you would likely discover that making a vehicle is not very difficult or complicated. If you then took this vehicle to have it crash tested, you would discover why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was created. NHTSA is responsible for making the rules that dictate what a car needs to have and do in order to be considered safe. Their list of rules, known as the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), contains hundreds of regulations ranging from airbag tests and standards to flammability requirements for vehicle interiors. These regulations play an enormous role in the design of a vehicle.
You might notice that a new car’s headliner material feels cheaper or looks worse than the last generation’s. You might think an engineer chose it because they had no taste. You might think an accountant chose it because it was cheap. But what you probably don’t consider is how FMVSS leads to this material being used. This material is now 50 percent less flammable than the headliner in your old car. It may look worse, but it’s going to save you money in the event of a cabin fire, because you won’t need to buy a wig after your head gets burned.
These requirements are constantly being updated and new tests are developed regularly. For example, the small overlap frontal crash test was introduced a few years ago. This test involves crashing a vehicle at 40 mph into a barrier that overlaps 25 percent of the front of the vehicle. (If you’ve ever been driving down the road doing 40 and thought it felt slow, watch one of these tests in person).
While this test isn’t mandated by the government—yet—it’s an example of what we have to deal with.
It was a challenge for chassis engineers because all of a sudden, the body needed to be strong in a direction and position it had never needed to be before. It was a challenge for airbag suppliers because in this crash, occupants’ heads moved in a diagonal line within the car, as opposed to just front-to-back or side-to-side.
When airbags alone are changed, hundreds of parts need to be re-evaluated—parts you probably wouldn’t think about airbags affecting. If the sunroof switch that the accountants loved so much is near your knees, and you install a new, bigger, stronger knee airbag to help catch the people moving sideways in the small overlap test without knowing how it will affect the parts around it, the airbag could turn that switch into a deadly projectile in the event of a crash. The modifications that the chassis engineers then need to make to the frame of the car could cause it to grow ugly tumors on its bumper.
For example, if frame reinforcements are added that protrude through the current front fascia, it will need to be modified in order to accommodate the new structure. Because the rest of the styling of the car won’t be changed for financial reasons, this could cause the bumper to look out of place or misshapen on the current vehicle.
The best example I can think of here are the Mitsubishi 3000GT “hood blisters.” They were originally caps added to cover holes in the hood for strut tower clearance, and were later incorporated into the sheet metal of the hood as bumps. Changes such as these are usually incorporated better into the car’s design when the next major model rolls off the line and new tools can be purchased.
I know of at least one vehicle—a certain off-roader, let’s just say that—that was discontinued entirely because changing curtain airbag regulations would have meant the entire shape of the vehicle had to be redesigned.
So next time you get in your car, look around. Think about the things you do and don’t like about your car. Realize that nothing in your car exists because one engineer didn’t get enough sleep and decided to put that USB charger just out of your grasp. Designing a car is an immensely complex, exhausting process and each part has its own story. Try to understand how all those stories come together to make one coherent, attractive, quality, affordable, safe vehicle, and you’ll understand the challenge of my job.
Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s 2 a.m. and I have to wake up early tomorrow and decide where to place a particularly difficult USB charger.
Mr. Car Designer works at a major automotive firm. Because of the nature of his job, he’s staying anonymous here, but think of him the next time you see those little Christmas tree plastic clip-things.