If your Ford had a Matthew McConaughey, it would be a Lincoln

No, Innovation is Not Dead in the Automotive Industry

After the coverage of the New York Auto Show this year, I noticed a trend in the comments of these articles. Like our buddy Zac mentioned in the article linked above, this year's auto show was a bit of a snooze-fest. It happens every once in a while because there are limitations on how often car companies can or should churn out new models. What this is taken as, though, is that design is hitting a wall, and engineers are flailing to come up with an answer. Here are a few quotes:

LJ909:

"Dont want to say it or think about it, but maybe some designers are running out of ideas. Look at the LED running light trend, which is just about on every car now. They throw those on and call it a refresh. Thats what VW did."

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TheCoolKid:

"Auto platforms are good enough now that barring some huge change in safety regs we will probably never see a true from-scratch new chassis ever again

Accord for example had the same front suspension for 21 years, with minor changes. Infiniti Q50 has platform roots reaching back to the original G35. Etc. etc. Barring updates for UHS steel and other improvements, I think most changes we will see from here will be skin deep."

There were many more like these and we've all seen these sentiments elsewhere, and it is easy to understand where they come from. Like LJ909 said, the 2015 Jetta only received modest changes, and frankly, looks incredibly boring — especially in that less-than-zesty silver they showed it in:

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See? Boring. I think we can all agree on that. But, what this does not mean is that this is the future of automotive design. Just like the pop up headlights and tail fins of old, chucking LEDs on the front of your boring midsize sedan is just a trend that has come and will soon pass. This is, after all, just a mid-cycle refresh for the Jetta (which is completely standard practice) but this particular update is a little more tame than say, the refresh the Focus is getting for 2015.

Design in almost any tech industry follows the same formula of big changes coming in waves, followed by iteration for a few years to a decade until someone comes out with a game changer again and the cycle resets itself. Rinse, lather, repeat. A particularly recent example of this is still happening right now, fighting for space in your front pocket. I happen to work for one of the major manufacturers in the smartphone industry (not Apple), and I see this same criticism in just about every tech article I come across.

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You see, once upon a time a little device called the iPhone came along and turned the entire industry upside down. Now just about every smartphone you see today is basically a big slab of glass with either plastic or metal covering the back. Now I admit that this is a much more broad example than what we're seeing in the automotive industry, but the principle is the same. Someone struck gold with a design, and others followed.

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This is the same reason why even your average housewife can pick out a car and tell you whether it's from the 70's, 80's, or 90's with pretty decent accuracy. In this particular case, it seems that Audi was the big trendsetter here with their widespread use of that characteristic LED dot strip across their product lineup, but before that the trend was big, bubbly windows and headlight shapes, and it was broad, flat hoods with pop up lights before that. These fads trace all the way back to big swooping fenders and split windows.

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As for the more practical side of design, this is where we wait longer and longer for major updates. Like TheCoolKid said, the Accord had the same basic front suspension for over 20 years, because it just works. Fair enough. How long has the incandescent light bulb been around? Some changes are more gradual than others, but there will always be changes. What will those changes be? That's the problem. No one knows yet. It's nearly impossible to predict what the next big swing in the industry will be. This is why we all get to have a fun laugh when we look back at what people predicted the future to be like in the past. Of course we can't imagine the future, because all we have to work with is what we see in the present.

I won't go into the massive changes we're going through in regards to the powertrains of current and future vehicles, because that is not what these guys are talking about. And I don't mean to seem like I'm ragging on people, in many ways they are completely correct, just more on the short term. This is just something I have seen a thousand times before, and it's an easy trap to fall into.

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So sit tight, kiddos, this "slap LEDs on everything" trend will be over soon, and we can move onto the next step. Of course LEDs in general aren't going away anytime soon, but this particular use of them is very much a fad. Once the auto manufacturers get their heads out of their asses and finally start putting exposed turbos and carbotanium death spikes on the front of our econo-boxes, we can start having some fun. Then we'll be able to sit back and laugh about this just like we laugh about the days of landau tops and big swoop-y trunk wings today.

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