Hyundai’s design chief talks complete control, Genesis, and the look for autonomous cars

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Hyundai Motor Group’s chief designer Luc Donckerwolke recently sat down with Motor Authority to talk about the future of car design with autonomous vehicles on the horizon and what’s next for Genesis after the GV80 crossover.

(Answers have been edited for clarity.)

Hyundai 45 concept

Motor Authority: Last time you and I spoke, we talked about “pure breeds” among cars. We talked about Porsche and Land Rover—utilitarian and beautiful and influential. But what’s influential among designers?

Luc Donckerwolke: For me, an influential design is something that will last a century. Like what happened with Giugiaro in the ’70s, where he basically created something, and people are still living from that. Since the Lancia Delta…the Golf from Giugiaro.

The Hyundai Pony (also by Giugiaro) was the first car from the Hyundai Motor Group and that was 45 years ago. That created the group. That was the first car that Hyundai did in mass production. His influence has lasted, and you can take the genes of this vehicle like we did with the 45 Hyundai in Frankfurt Motor Show. That car is going to come in production and is basically taking this DNA and projecting into the future.

Walter Maria de Silva

Walter Maria de Silva

MA: What about anyone in the 21st century?

LD: (Walter) De Silva is a brilliant designer because he’s the only one, in my opinion, that could manage 12 brands. He’s the only one that could look at a Bentley, look at an Audi, look at a Porsche, and each time switch on his brain into each brand and not try to make Audi and Volkswagen and Porsche in the same suit. I know no designer that can do that.

MA: Now you’re the top man at Hyundai Motor Group design, responsible for several brands. Do you look at all of your vehicles together like De Silva?

LD: Once a year we have all the products of all the brands, of the three brands, Hyundai Motor, Hyundai Kia, and Genesis, plus the Hyundai commercial vehicles. We look at the differentiation between the brands, between segments, between continents, because we have a different situation in all the brands.

We do specific cars for India, specific cars for Brazil. We have to look at continents, brands, cannibalization between all brands, competitiveness against other brands, so we do that.

2020 Genesis GV80, 2020 Chicago Auto Show

2020 Genesis GV80, 2020 Chicago Auto Show

MA: You said you look for things to give a brand a future like Giugiaro and the Pony. What’s going to give Genesis a future?

LD: Well, for Genesis is clear. We have created a young brand. The first thing was to compete for differentiation in what we have in the group—and what we have outside of the group. This is why we created the new DNA. We have the chance of being a Korean brand, which means that we have great opportunities in the sense that we have all the technology we need.

We have all suppliers that are delivering our parts as part of the Hyundai Motor Group so that we have complete control of what they do.

We can specify the parameters of each project and this is what has basically defined the new design DNA of Genesis.

MA: That sounds like complete control.

LD: Yes. Complete control. For instance, headlights. The quad lights that we are going to talk about and that you’re going to see in the next, let’s say, several months up to 2023 with all the cars that we have finished. We have a unique concept of lighting which nobody else has because it’s only done for us and by us.

2021 Genesis G80

2021 Genesis G80

MA: That sounds like enough rope to hang yourself.

LD: Yes.

MA: Not only that but also you become siloed. You live within your own structure. If you can control every aspect, how do you not go crazy? Where do you start?

LD: For me, it’s fascinating because you don’t have to adapt to other things. You don’t get something (from a supplier) and then you have to say, “What do we do with it?” This is what happens when you work for Hyundai. You don’t hear, “No, we can’t do that.” I can say now, “No, you can do it.”

MA: With that much freedom, it sounds like you can make your pure breed?

LD: We’ll see. I don’t want to be arrogant like that at the moment. Yes, the main thing is for me it’s clear that we have a lot of potential. This is why I love to work on this.

(Hyundai Motor Group) Executive Vice Chairman Chung (Eui-son) has an incredible vision. He’s a visionary. He’s young, he’s 49 years old, just now. He’s extremely young, he’s extremely motivated and he doesn’t have the narrow-minded vision of being the CEO of a car company. He is the CEO of a Hyundai Motor Group, which is this big thing.

Hyundai self-driving car prototype

Hyundai self-driving car prototype

MA: I want to ask you about autonomous cars and the future for automotive design. Hyundai just opened an office in Silicon Valley—others are doing the same. What’s the future look like there?

LD: When you imagine that you have autonomous vehicles—basically robots—that can allow somebody who is not yet able to be mobile because he doesn’t have a driving license or, somebody that does not have his driving license anymore because he’s too old, he can still have a social life because he can stay mobile. This is what the beauty of the new mobility is.

MA: But when you say robots, there’s also a connotation or there’s a feeling that’s impersonal, dispassionate, disconnected, and fairly inorganic. Do you see it as your job to inject personality into whatever autonomous vehicles you might produce?

LD: Don’t you think that that started with the automatic gearbox?

MA: Maybe.

LD: For me, an automatic gearbox is the first robotization step that happened.

Suddenly, there’s a robot doing that for you. The gearbox has been robotized so that’s already the first step you say, “Is it really going to change gears when I want?”

MA: So, was that the point that cars started becoming disconnected?

LD: For me, it is. It’s the same thing with steer by wire. Steer by wire is basically sending a signal which is not mechanical to the steering components.There is no more this mechanical link. Why should we trust that? If you take a certain distance, you notice that actually this robotization has already started a long time ago.

Do we want to trust it? To be honest, I don’t like an automatic gearbox. I hate the automatic gearbox, whether they are PDKs or CVTs or whatever. I hate them. But unfortunately, this is what everybody wants.

MA: Do you think that has manifested itself outside in the way that cars look?

LD: Yes.

MA: How?

LD: Well, the fact that it’s already the first step of disengaging you as a driver from the car. Before you had the car and you had to, sometimes you even have the lever outside of the car.

MA: Like old Grand Prix racers.

LD: Exactly. The man was the interface. Now he’s not the interface anymore. There’s so many, for me, steps into distancing you from the mechanical elements of the vehicle. That has happened a long time ago.

MA: And?

LD: Now, nobody would ever consider getting his hands dirty in the car. It’s a black box where nobody understands. To be honest as well, most of the industry around the car has not understood it yet.

We have basically distanced ourselves from the action of driving the car. We still have some movements that we do: steering, which is assisted, and we don’t have the feel. We have to actually introduce a feel, an artificial feel, into the steering to create resistance because otherwise, it would be too easy.

We have to create engine sound because the engine sound is gone. It’s not as good as it was.

We have actually separated ourselves from the action of the car. To me, the autonomous vehicle is just the next logical step.

2019 Hyundai Veloster N - Best Car To Buy 2020

2019 Hyundai Veloster N – Best Car To Buy 2020

MA: But there has to be an equal and opposite reaction, right?

LD: Of course. The luxury will be to drive your car as it was before. My luxury is to go back to my cars, to my vintage cars, and drive a really unsafe, at any speed, unsafe and loud car that is telling me the whole time, “Man, are you sure what you’re doing there, driving that fast?” There is no traction control or whatever that is going to save my life. But that’s the luxury. My luxury is going back to a car that is not treating me like I can’t drive.

MA: Let’s take out the risking your life part. Can you make a new old car?

LD: I guess that now will be the time where we can go back to the minimalistic solution where we know our safety will be covered. All the essential needs of transporting our family in a safe way somewhere, without maybe even having us drive them to the school because the car can do that, suddenly we will need to enjoy driving again.

That will be, in my opinion, a pure analog experience.

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Saurabh Shukla

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