Over his extensive career with Chrysler and Toyota, spanning over 20 years, William Chergosky has become a veteran in the automotive design space, present throughout the huge transition from iconic classics to connected vehicles on the horizon.
Before we look into the designing process itself, how did you get into designing cars? Was this a childhood passion or did you envision yourself in another role within the automotive industry?
As a kid, I always loved cars and art. I grew up in upstate New York which, at the time, wasn’t surrounded by car culture like in Detroit or the West Coast where the car studios were. I didn’t really have a firm hand on what car designing actually meant. I always thought that designing cars meant that you were an engineer, so I thought that engineering was the way to go. However, at the last minute, I read an article by Jerry Palmer, the head of design on the Corvette, which talked about where he went to school, what he did to become a designer and how art-based it all was. I was already deeply entrenched into art and it made me realise what car design was all about and open my eyes up to what I wanted to do. I then got a portfolio together and applied to the College of Creative Studies in Detroit which then led me into getting involved with Chrysler and Toyota. It’s been a fun ride!
I’ve always had a love of cars, drawing all the time in class and being told off by teachers because I ‘wouldn’t make a living off drawing cars’, but through the passion that I felt in the mystery and idea of car design, I was lucky enough to do what I love for a living.
Designing a car is incredibly complex, creating a product that is sleek and stylish, but can be turned into a production model with minimal changes. When designing both concept and production vehicles, where do you draw inspiration from and what are the differences when designing an idea and a real product?
When you are designing a concept car, you have something in mind that you create from a ton of inspiration. For me, the inspiration isn’t just from an automotive perspective, but from an oblique reference such as something that you have seen and tried to apply its philosophy to the interior or exterior. This is how you find something new and exciting. If you’re continuously inspired by other cars around you and not pulling inspiration from elsewhere, you cannot grow your craft.
I immerse myself in the car world, but also look at other creative sights drawn from other industries such as furniture. Even observing something outside, such as nature, you can grow a philosophy and theme that can be applied to the vehicle.
We are now seeing inspiration from many other industries being applied to the automotive world. Fundamentally, if we stay in one space we will not progress. How has car design changed over the last decade and where do you see it going in the next decade?
The industry has changed dramatically. When I first got into designing, we used pens, paper and chalk, and then one day somebody came in and said ‘here’s a computer’, removing all the tools we had been so used to. At first, you were just designing a car, but now, just like in the electronics space, the convergence of all the different kinds of services changes this, with a load of technologies making the car not just a way to get from A-B. Cars must now provide a holistic experience, so you have to think way beyond the norm when designing. You have to be much smarter about the way you look at a project; I think it’s more enriching than it used to be, moving away from just art to combining things from different industries into one space. It’s a really exciting time in the industry and we are only on the cusp of it as technologies move into the automotive world.
There’s been this idea of just using things because you can and, now, due to the amount of technology and innovation we are starting to see, we are getting to a point where we are having to reason more. Just because you can do something, should you? You need to think about what is the best way to present this technology and I think everyone in the industry is trying to be smarter and creative with these expressions.
How will the emergence of self-driving cars and the ‘third living space’ impact your thinking about automotive design?
When you look at our Concept I, I think that there is a lot of great thinking in how artificial intelligence, autonomy and even alternative power can affect the exterior and, most noticeably, the interior. A lot of research has gone into this and we at Toyota have bounced a lot of ideas about what it means to live in an autonomous society, looking at the architecture and the priority of things within the interior. When we start to see level 5 automation, we may start to see the removal of the steering wheel, however we are someway off this. It’s not happening tomorrow and I think that we need to take a step back and be pragmatically optimistic about autonomous software in cars. Level 5 will happen eventually, but I think we will see much more level 3 and 4 autonomy for the next few years as there are a lot of safety requirements before it becomes commonplace.
We unveiled the Concept I in CES last year, which still has a steering wheel as we believe that, as we get into level 4 and 5, it will still be necessary in the event that the passenger needs to grab the wheel quickly. Unlike other concept vehicles that fold the steering wheel away, we decided that the amount of time it would take for the steering wheel to deploy in an emergency would be too long. We are trying to be realistic to what is possible in the near future and I think that, by combining artificial intelligence, alternative power sources and autonomous driving, it’s going to lead to some really unique arrangements to the interior. It has become another living space that a lot of people see as a potential future that makes up for lost time when commuting, creating a place that allows work and entertainment when travelling. When you strip back the realities of driving a traditional car, craft is what will separate one car brand from another.
As autonomous software develops, passengers will start to spend more time in the vehicle relaxing, rather than driving and having to keep their eyes on the road. Do you think that, due to this, interiors are becoming more important than exterior design? If so, do you think that autonomous cars will start to look similar to each other on the outside, or will there be a vibrant market of all different shapes and sizes from both distinguished automakers and startups?
I think that there will always be a vibrant market for the aesthetics of vehicles as we all have different tastes. There will always be the need for people to express themselves in the vehicle and I think that, as we get into an automated future, you need to question the idea of the driving experience. We have tried to demonstrate this and I think the possibility does still exist. For example, we have played with the idea of replacing the bottom panel of the car with glass, so that you can see the road going by which enhances the experience of speed. I think that there’s plenty of room for differentiation in the market and the fundamental nature of humans means that we will continue to express ourselves. Just because the underlying technology is going to change, I don’t believe that it will create a uniform pod. I see every manufacturer doubling their efforts to find different ways of expression and create new values for their customers.
Will there be any new challenges in autonomous vehicle design or do you see a clean slate with endless possibilities?
Through the Concept I, we thought about the effects of automated driving and it really opened up a ton of possibilities for the interior. It’s more about craft and creating a space, like an interior designer where you are trying to create a mood and feeling within the vehicle. It goes way beyond traditional car design. It’s an all-new frontier when you’re not tethered to traditional architectures and I see nothing but potential. We have tried to make the technology become much more seamless through a Japanese philosophy which focuses on service when you need it. Technology can come out of the surface and then disappear as opposed to being bounded by a load of components that overcrowd the car. Today, we are completely inundated with technology and, for me, I don’t want to be overwhelmed. Simplicity and usability is a trend that we at Toyota want to follow, avoiding an obtrusion of technology for our customers, which you can see in the Concept I.
It seems that we focus on the future so much that we ignore the history of the automotive industry when we had vehicles that, although they may have not been so fun to drive, were incredibly comfortable on the inside. Do you think that, from a design point, you will start to take inspiration from the traditional approaches to luxury and combine it with this revolutionary connected car technology?
I have a teenage daughter who wears items of clothing that look like they are from the 50’s right up to the 90’s, as fashion continues to change and take inspiration from the past. This is the same case in interior design for cars as there are so many manufacturers that have been around since the beginning of the automotive industry. There is now a freedom for these automakers to capture the essence of the brand, focused on creating the ultimate experience for customers. As rules and regulations start to open up, there will be a great opportunity to have all of these different trends and expressions exist at the same time. You might get into one brand of vehicle that will express itself very differently to another, from a clean-cut modern design to a old-school 70’s American interior design. Everything becomes a possibility when you’re not tethered to all of the traditional needs of interiors. We are entering a new world and I think that these different personalities of brands will create the chance to crystallise these innovations and make them sharper and efficient. The experience you have within the vehicle will distinguish our expression that we’re trying to get across. It’s an exciting time for vehicle design!