Designing a future car

Car enthusiasts in Hong Kong can finally visit a major motor show right here in the city. Among them is automotive industrial designer Alan Tam, who is just as excited as anyone about the upcoming International Motor Show Hong Kong 2020 in July – the first-ever large-scale global automotive event in Hong Kong.

It is not just a show, as it will be held concurrently with the “Design the Future” automotive design competition. The competition, part of the event’s design initiative, is open to all university students in Hong Kong, offering a chance for them to design their own vehicle regardless of format and style.

As one of seven judges, Tam is looking forward to the work of up-and-coming Hongkongers, as his career also began with a similar contest.

Tam’s interest in design and cars began when he was a child. By secondary four, he was determined to become a car designer.

The turning point came when he was studying industrial design in Australia with an inadvertent submission to a competition run by the German Association of the Automotive Industry in 2007.

“I was just trying to build my portfolio and didn’t have much hope of winning, so I finished it in a very short time, two weeks, and sent it in on the day of the deadline. Then I just put it behind me,” he recalled.

Unexpectedly, he became the only Asian among the eight winners. Looking back on it, he thinks he didn’t just win by luck.

The competition had called for the design of a car in the year 2020. Tam’s design, a solar and electric plug-in vehicle, has a range of more than 600 kilometers on full power, reaches a speed of over 250 kilometers per hour and can self-drive – remarkably, not too far off the mark given current capabilities.

“We are problem solvers, not artistic designers. Therefore, the design must consider not only the aesthetics and user experience but also whether the technology can meet current needs,” Tam said.

During his six-month internship in Japan’s Mercedes-Benz studio, which was offered by the competition organizer, Tam came to realize he didn’t have enough skills for the industry.

“I chose a smaller studio because I thought I could learn more in each department, but since I was not a major in car design, what I learned through the internship was still limited,” he said.

One of his solutions to this problem was to get further education. Besides knowledge learned at school, he also found communication with classmates and industry experts important.

At the suggestion of his director, he went to Pforzheim University, which is known for having one of the top transportation design programs in Germany.

His class, which was in German, only had eight students, all from famous automotive design schools around the world. From them, he was able to learn a lot of creative ideas and solid skills.

Tam also did a three-month internship at Shanghai’s Volkswagen studio and got the chance to exhibit at the 2011 Shanghai Autoshow with the Volkswagen eScooter he designed himself. This experience broadened his vision as he communicated with people in the industry.

“My internship and participation in the Shanghai Autoshow were door openers,” he said.

With a great deal of early-career experience, he has a lot to say about the design competition.

Back in 2007, Tam was asked to design a car for around a decade later. This time, the show’s competition’s theme is to create a vehicle for Hong Kong in 2050, which Tam thinks is good for inspiring creativity.

“As a designer, I think a car in 10 years is ready for the market, a car in 20 years is an improvement on the former, and a car in 30 years is a radical innovation.”

But the work can’t just exist in a vacuum. Those taking part also have to consider the reality of Hong Kong’s future.

For example, there are bottlenecks in engine development, such as the tightening of traffic restrictions due to environmental problems, the rise of electric vehicles and the long-standing land problem.

“I expect a design that is both creative and functional,” he said.

The champion will be offered a scholarship and the opportunity to fly to Italy for a three-month internship at Zagato, one of the most prestigious car design studios in the world. He or she will be the first intern from Hong Kong.

All winners will exhibit their works at the show, while all participants will be invited to attend the event for a chance to meet and talk with industry insiders.

Online applications close on November 29, and entries must be submitted by January 24.

Tam says he is pleased to see that some non-automotive design majors have registered for the competition.

“Car design in the future will definitely require designers to have a broad range of knowledge and not be limited to a certain professional field,” Tam said.

“The competition is not only a stepping stone to enter the industry, but can also be an inspiration for applying knowledge and skills to other fields.”

(This article was published at The Standard on November 5, 2019: Education: Designing a future car )

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