DETROIT — Anthony Lo, Ford Motor Co.'s new chief design officer, says increasingly connected vehicles are turning traditional design processes "upside down."
Or, more accurately, inside out.
Lo, hired last year from Renault, said his teams now begin by thinking about who the customers are and designing an interior experience around their specific needs. Only after that do they consider how the vehicle should be packaged on the outside.
"In the past, exterior design would always take the lead; it's part of what attracts you to the showroom," Lo told Automotive News. "But because of the amount of features within the vehicle that you can control as a user, the user interface becomes more and more important."
Lo, who is 57 and spent most of his career in Europe and other overseas markets, is tasked with implementing this paradigm shift in a market that has traditionally focused on outside appearance.
"The Detroit 3 have generally not led the industry in interior design," said Karl Brauer, executive automotive analyst with iSeeCars. "But I think it makes sense when you consider the interior's where a lot of the technological change has occurred the last 10 years. Everything's much more smartphone-oriented and touch screen-oriented."
Beyond the technology advances, Lo said designers are increasingly looking inward because of powertrain changes. Electric vehicles typically sit on flat, skateboardlike battery architectures, giving designers more flexibility and freedom to craft roomier interiors and try new ideas.
"I think this is really the main change in our industry," Lo said. "We'd of course put as much love into the exterior, but it's just that the priority has switched."
While Lo is new to Ford — he last year admitted a need to become more familiar with the all-important F-150 — he's spent decades in the industry and dreamed of working on cars from a young age, after his father began taking him to races.
"This is really a dream for me, to be able to lead such a big design team of one of the biggest car companies in the world," he said.
He credits Peter Stevens, former chief designer at Lotus and one of his professors at the Royal College of Art in London, with mentoring him and says he draws inspiration from people he's close with.
"As designers, you need to always keep an open mind," he said. "I try not to focus only within the automotive world. Everything is interconnected. You need to understand what's going on, for example, in the fashion industry or with architecture — how cities will be created in the future and how we can integrate that into various systems."
Lo splits his time between Detroit and Paris, where his family still lives. His garage houses a Mustang Mach-E and a Mustang Mach 1, which he uses on the long commute to Ford's design studio in Cologne, Germany.
While in the U.S., he's made a point to get behind the wheel of the F-150 and Bronco and has been surprised by the reaction he's received from other drivers.
"There's so much love; I can see it," he said. "The biggest challenge for me is, how can we take these nameplates forward in the electric generation?"
Lo said he plans to showcase more concept vehicles at Ford to give the public a glimpse at his new design direction and help generate excitement. The automaker plans to unveil a Lincoln EV concept Wednesday, April 20.
"A concept car is not just simply a sculpture," Lo said. "It's a platform for us to test experiences and think, ultimately, how the brand design language should evolve. This is the best way to understand whether this new direction we've decided to take is acceptable and if people will fall in love with them."
Lo admitted he needs to be able to balance the heritage of popular nameplates such as the Bronco and Mustang with moving them into the future.
"We're going to have a lot of opportunity to take our nameplates and try to reinvent them," he said. "The nameplates are our equity: very, very precious and valuable, but I think some change is necessary. We're going to do our best to preserve what makes them special and mix that up with the best digital and physical experiences."
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