Can cars be safe and beautiful at the same time? At one time, it was thought that a safe car needed to be ?built like a tank? and indeed, that seemed the case a few decades ago when automakers were forced to hang those big, ugly so-called ?federal bumpers? on each end of their vehicles sold in the US market because of safety regulations.

With vehicle safety standards on the rise around the globe, are designers today feeling a little ’70s deja-vu when it comes to meeting the challenges of making cars safe as well as more fuel efficient?

“[Back then,] we said it was the end of automotive styling,” recalled Patrick Le Quement, Senior Vice President for corporate design at Renault and one of the most influential automotive designers in the world. Le Quement was a young designer at Ford of Europe at that time when the U.S. authorities mandated those bumpers. “But we’ve found ways to make beautiful cars since the 1970s,” he added, contending “the golden era of auto design is ahead of us.”?

“Safety and design go together,” adds Freeman Thomas, Director of Strategic Design for Ford. He said that one of the designer’s challenges is to make safety an aspirational aspect of a vehicle’s design. Safety, he said, can be transparent. For example, airbags provide safety, but they are hidden out of view until they are needed. It can be the same with other safety features.

“With great design, there is the ‘ah-ha factor’ that causes people to say, ‘I want to buy that!'” he explained.

“Great design tells a good story and solves a problem and enhances people’s lives,” said Frank Saucedo, Director of Advanced Design for General Motors.? “Design shapes how people live.”

Le Quement likes to quote Charles Eames, designer of the famed Eames chair and much more.? “Constraints,” said Le Quement, quoting Eames, “are the designer’s best friend.” In other words, let obstacles inspire creativity and beauty.

Le Quement, Thomas and Saucedo are among jurors for the 2007 Michelin Challenge Design (MCD), an annual and international design competition that culminates at the North American International Auto Show which opens on January 13. “Sharing the Road” and enhancing the safe interaction among the variety of roadway users was the challenge put to this year’s entrants – more than 260 of them in all – from over 50 nations around the globe.

Several works selected by the 2007 MCD jury demonstrate that ?safe? can indeed be beautiful. For example, with his Safefoor concept, Peter Ortlieb of Germany combines the lines of a gorgeous sportscar with such creative safety features as special energy-absorbing side skirts and sensors that read an impending collision and expand the front or rear bumpers out to absorb impact forces. Ortlieb also foresees new wheel and tyre technology with air spring-loaded cleats that project out to provide traction on snow and ice.?

Safefoor

Turtle

Another interesting proposal is the Turtle, by Stefano Marchetto of Italy. This is a people-mover that, like its namesake, can pull its deformable plastic nose or tail into its skeletal safety structure in a collision. Such movement is controlled by sensors that adjust dampers incorporated into the vehicle’s body structure. The Turtle also is safe for the environment, using a fuel cell for propulsion and solar panels on its roof.?

School Minibus

Some people may never agree that a school bus can be beautiful, but Johnathan Cote of Canada designed his aerodynamic School Minibus on a versatile platform that also could be used for recreation or delivery vehicles. Features include a low floor for ease of entry and exit, especially for students with special needs and pneumatically-controlled doors.
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Le Quement remembers that in the 1970s, “everything linked to safety was looked at as less freedom for the designer.” But society has changed, he observed, and ?the design community knows we have to contribute?.

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