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Design is the key

January 12, 2010

How important is automotive design in a world that is placing ever more significance on environmentally friendly propulsion? Deutsche Welle interviewed Audi's chief designer, Stefan Sielaff.

Stefan Sielaff
Stefan Sielaff says that it will take time before electric and hybrid cars find acceptanceImage: AUDI

Deutsche Welle: Mr. Sielaff, when people buy a car today, how important is the design?

Stefan Sielaff: For Audi it’s the primary factor behind any purchase. I think that the entire decision-making process has shifted from the head to the heart in the last couple of decades. That is certainly connected to the increasing level of affluence. Customers can now afford to pay for aesthetics and they're not just looking for a car which drives them from A to B. And that’s because a customer always makes a statement about themselves with their choice of car – who they are or how they would like to be.

To what extent must design take into account national preferences? Do Americans like the same designs as Germans, for example?

We certainly put a European or even German statement into our designs at Audi and that is what an American or Asian customer is looking for when they buy an Audi. I mean, when you go to a Japanese restaurant, you don’t want imitation food but authentic sashimi or sushi like you would eat in Kyoto or Tokyo. And I think that is our strength and that is why all Audis – except for the small regulations in some countries which force us to make small changes – are the same. Whether you see an Audi A4 in Vladivostok, in Hong Kong or here in Detroit, it is always the same Audi A4.

At the start of the motor show here in Detroit, the experts were very optimistic about the US car industry in 2010. Do you share this optimism?

The Audi concept car e-tron
Audi has presented its e-tron as an environmentally friendly concept car, but it will never go on sale.Image: AP

I think we have to be careful that we don’t fall back in past ways of thinking. As a designer, I have to say very clearly that our aim must be to break the mould. We can’t continue like we have done in the past. When I talk to the younger generation, the attitude towards the automobile has changed drastically, especially in western society. We have to consider the environmental aspect very clearly now. To bring about a change in propulsion cannot happen overnight. Even electrically-powered cars are not the magic solution as long as the electricity comes from traditional power sources. We have to look at the total energy footprint. I think the competitive edge in the future will be found in the ability to deliver a technologically progressive product with a high aesthetic value.

On the subject of electrically-powered cars: what chance, what future has the electrically-powered automobile in your opinion?

There definitely has to be a combination of environmentally friendly propulsion and emotion. At the present time, I don’t think that electrically-powered cars can be sold on the basis of rationality; they have to have an aesthetic appeal as well. I always compare that with the subject of cooking. Twenty-five, thirty years ago, no one wanted to eat vegetarian or organic food and the few that did were derided. Today, you can go into restaurants selling this food and order a top-class dish that looks great - but, most of all, tastes great. And such an acceptance of something new requires time. It will be the same with the propulsion of a car, whether it be electric or hybrid. But these are all plans for the future.

Interviewer: Christina Bergmann/as
Editor: Michael Lawton