handelsblatt exclusive Golden Age of Cars Just Beginning

In a wide-ranging interview, Michael Mauer, the head designer of the Volkswagen Group, discusses the revolution in self-driving car design, which may see vehicles turn into mobile offices, bedrooms, or even gyms.
Michael Mauer is on a mission to reinvent the car.

The chief designer of the Volkswagen Group, Michael Mauer, thinks e-mobility and autonomous driving will open a new era in automotive transportation and a revolution in car design. In an interview with Handelsblatt, the 54-year-old spoke of the great new liberty that electrification granted the car designer. “This is truly a golden age for designers,” he said.

The restrictions of the combustion engine had meant cars saw only slow, evolutionary change in the last 30 years, said Mr. Mauer. But with engines and associated technologies now becoming much smaller, possibilities are expanding at an unprecedented rate. There is a chance for a wholesale redesign of the car. “We are at the point where we can transform the car’s interior, more than in the whole of the last three decades; in fact, we are now beginning to change the proportions of the entire vehicle,” he added.

Mr. Mauer cut his design teeth on Mercedes vehicles in the 1990s, helping to design that brand’s SLK, SL and A-class models. After a stint with Saab, he moved to Porsche for twelve years, where he was responsible for models including the Panamera, the 918 Spyder, the Macan, and the Mission E.

Last year he was appointed head of design for the entire VW Group, taking overall responsibility for all of the company’s twelve automotive brands. With VW showing clear signs of recovery from its Dieselgate scandal — it remains Europe’s largest car company and outgrew rival Toyota in 2016 — Mr. Mauer will have a particularly powerful voice in shaping cars’ form and functionality for a decade to come.

A native of the Black Forest in south-western Germany, Mr. Mauer said he no longer had to focus on details. Summing up his role, he said: “My job is to make sure that the overall design direction fits with how the brand understands its market position, and that this position comes across in its design.”

We can transform the car’s interior more than in the whole of the last three decades. Michael Mauer, Head of Design, Volkswagen Group

Above all else, this means advising executives on design questions, articulating clear reasons why one visual conception is better than another. He agreed that designers’ voices were becoming more important as technology changes radically, since electric cars and autonomous driving meant senior managers could rely less on their own past experience.

But automotive design is so complex, and has so much at stake, he said, that it is always a very collaborative process, not just about designers. This means communication is central to Mr. Mauer’s management style: he has no desk in his main office, only a large conference table.

He said design teams have a radically creative role in the changing industry. “We have to fill the vacuum. It is about visualizing, imagination, turning our vision far into the future” he said. Specifically, the bulk of car’s technological systems would move from under the hood to underneath the floor. “In the future, we’ll have something like a big skateboard, on which we can rearrange the layout.”

Although early autonomous driving experiments have prompted safety fears, Mr. Mauer sees long-term gains in safety. This too has implications for design: “If there are no more crashes, we won’t need bumpers,” he observed.

But the specifics of the new design paradigm remain hazy. When driver guidance becomes unnecessary, the enlarged interior space could be an office, a bedroom or a gym, suggested Mr. Mauer. Whatever the final outcome, aesthetics would play a role: the car would never simply be a box on wheels, he emphasized.

Designers and technicians haggle at the drawing board.

Branding would continue to be a key factor in the future of car design, he said. Different design and functionalities would appeal to different brands. For Porsche owners, for example, the ability to drive the car was crucial, so it was unlikely that brand would ever go to the highest level of autonomy: a car without a steering wheel. Likewise with Lamborghinis — another VW brand — “customers want to be able to steer and drive as much as they want.”

Mr. Mauer said the Volkswagen Group benefits greatly in this from its broad stable of brands. Within the group, he said, brands had responsibility for their own design, but there was “intensive communication” across the group as a whole, and directly with other brands. Another layer of input came from VW’s “Future Centers,” set up to “develop visionary ideas — absolutely removed from the limits of today’s production.”

On the level of individual brands, he said, designers are more focused on the immediate future, but the wider Volkswagen Group could range further and freer in its thinking. “We try to imagine longer-term scenarios, further still into the future, when autonomous driving is as normal as taking the train,” he said.


Martin-Werner Buchenau reports from Stuttgart as Handelsblatt's Baden-Württemberg correspondent. To contact the author: [email protected]