“Normally, we design something and then we go into the wind tunnel for some detail changes. Now, the overall shape is influenced by aerodynamics,” says Philipp Romers, head of Audi’s exterior design on designing electric cars
With the Audi e-tron GT having just been launched in India, we had a very interesting conversation with Philipp Romers, the head of Audi’s exterior design who oversaw the entire design process of the e-tron GT. He talks about his journey in design and how the world of car design is rapidly changing. When he joined Audi in 2014, electrification and EVs were on the distant horizon but now it is very much the present, and a whole new revolution is coming with autonomous cars. Philipp talks about his role in taking Audi in to the new age, while retaining its traditional legacy. He also touches upon sustainability in car design, his inspirations over the years and where he sees the future of car design heading.
Aatish Mishra: Tell us about your journey with Audi. How long have you been here and what are some of the projects that you've worked on in the past?
Philipp Romers: Okay. I have been with Audi since 2014. I actually came from Volkswagen and at this time we started to take the next step of our formal language. This is clearly visible in the A8, A7 and we started with the Q8. And I was the studio leader at this time. So I had a team of about 20 people with me. In the exterior design, it is like this – we have three creative studios with all the designers, one in Malibu, Beijing, and the other one in Peaking. All these studios are working together on design. Since the beginning of this year, my predecessor left for Bentley Design, he is now the chief of Bentley design. So, now I am the Chief of Audi.
AM: You spoke about this new design language that you've helped formalise. What is this design language?
PR: First, I would say that we wanted to do the most attractive and the most progressive in all segments, independent from the drivetrain. That's our task. And at the same time, we wanted to go with the technique. When we created the design language, we had a slogan for it "aesthetic intelligence". This is our claim and it is very important for us to connect both. Because Audi stands for progressive technique and we want to visualise it. And maybe to visualise a little of what we're doing, when I started in 2014, we did this evolution of our combustion engine car – we implemented our Quattro design language with the four muscles on all four wheels. And that is still visible in the A7, A6, Q8, and the A8. And then step by step, the revolution started. We worked on the e-tron. We changed our front design philosophy. We developed our single frame towards our inverted face where the single frame is still visible. But it's really an electric car and then step by step, we developed the e-tron, e-tron GT and now step by step electrification becomes standard. Of course, we're already working on the next step, which is automated driving, which we displayed in our show car in Munich. So big changes within these years working at Audi.
AM: You spoke about this change from internal combustion to electrification. As a designer, how has that changed your approach towards designing a car?
PR: In the world of electrification, aerodynamics plays a big role. So for example, when we started with the e-tron, there were three studios that were working on it as I mentioned before. And each studio had a design that was quickly modelled in CMD, then we built it in a quarter-scale and certain measurement. Then we directly put it in the wind tunnel and then we optimised the shape. For that, the e-tron has a drag coefficient of 0.24, which is very good for an SUV at this time. So the process changed a little bit. Normally in the past, it was a bit different. Normally, we design something and then it is more or less finished, and then we go into the wind tunnel for some detail changes. Now, the overall shape is influenced by aerodynamics. And the reason for that is that aerodynamics is very important for the range of electric cars. So this is switching in the process. For the e-tron GT, it is very attractive but is also very efficient because of the aerodynamic shape of the car.
In terms of the process, that changed completely and also in terms of the design language as I mentioned already, the front is changing as the electric cars need less air than IC engine cars. So we had to do something with our front end and this is reflected in the e-tron GT and all the electric cars for example. So where the function is changing, we show it. That's our philosophy.
AM: You speak of how aerodynamics defined the design of these new electric cars. Do you think that limits your creativity as a designer on what you can do to a car?
PR: No, not at all. Because as I mentioned that I was coming from Volkswagen to Audi. We always developed the predecessor from the car before and it was very evolutionary in development. But now a revolution started with the electrification process. And of course, the next step is coming with autonomous driving, then again a revolution starts because the main architecture is changing again. So for us designers, it is very good. So a crazy and very interesting time for us.
AM: Currently, electric cars look very similar to ICE cars. Will autonomy free you to do absolutely radical things?
PR: We also asked ourselves when we started with the e-tron. Because yeah, some people will say that it looks like a modern highly attractive Audi SUV, but in the second glance, you will see the things that we did on purpose on the car. We have the philosophy that also in the electric world, cars have to look very attractive. We don't want to scare the customers. I mean going into electrification already puts thoughts in the minds of the customers like "I have to think about it whether I want to do it or not". But when the car is attractive and it doesn't scare you, it is easier for the customer to grab an electric car. And this was always our philosophy and I can tell you already that as electrification gets more and more standard and it becomes the new normal soon, the proportions will change and it will clearly be different from the IC cars. So there will be a process. But like I said, it was an evolutionary process and I think it's a good way to go.
AM: What are the challenges with building an electric car having a rich history with internal combustion engines? Something like a Tesla or a Lucid, they don't have that history. They can start on a clean sheet of paper. But you've got a legacy to protect. What are the hurdles that come with that?
PR: It's good and bad. But I would say for us this is better. Because the good thing is, as I said earlier, electric cars need less air. So that's why you see a lot of start-ups with no face. Or a very clean face with no grille. But some of them, the character is missing. You don't know what it is now. That's good and while we have the face and the history we also wanted to do something with the grille. It should not look exactly the same in the combustion engine world but the idea is to develop it in the electric world. So we did this inverted face so that the single frame is still there but it's brightened up with colours surrounded by the black mask that you see in the e-tron GT. I think it's an advantage as you can clearly see from 200 meters that it is an electric car but it's also an Audi. I think that's a chance for us, as we've already shown the Skysphere concept this year. So, we always want to keep our history, the single frame, because it's a typical Audi. So I think it's a big chance for us to change things but to be clearly recognisable as well. And then the second point which is also tricky is of course the overall height of the car. Due to the big battery pack in the floor, and this is not a problem for the SUV because of the height but for flat floor cars, it is kind of tricky. And we have brilliant engineers, who have developed packages which still keep the low heights with the battery in the floor.
AM: Now the e-tron GT is a brilliant-looking car. Design-wise, what's your favourite part of the e-tron GT?
PR: There are many parts because this car has striking proportions. It looks gorgeous on the roads. The overall proportions are fantastic. The car's low and has a slim cabin, wide track. Actually, all that you need to make a car highly attractive. My favourite perspective is always the three-quarter rear view because you can see this slim cabin that sits on these haunched muscles and this looks highly desirable and this is my favourite part of the e-tron GT.
AM: In the past, the RS models have differentiated themselves from regular cars with a lot of functional features that also look very cool. Vents, scoops, that sort of thing. How will this translate to performance cars in the electric world?
PR: That's also quite clear because we want to be honest about this. Our RS models in the combustion engine world need a lot of air. So we had huge cooling services in the front and that's why they were looking so expressive. We still need the cooling systems for battery-electric cars, but not in this amount anymore. So we sat for the RS for the future and this reflected in the e-tron GT aerodynamics and it played a huge role in making the car more efficient. So you will see in the e-tron GT RS that we play with air curtains and all these things which makes the car even more efficient and fast. Because when the air coefficient is low, we are also faster. So that's our guideline for the RS models in the electric world of the future. Also the wheels for example, are covered. They are designed in a more aerodynamic way and all these are the design elements for RS models in the future.
AM: Now let's talk about interiors. When you move from an internal combustion car to an electric car, does the interior architecture need to change a lot or can you keep it familiar? Is the familiarity intentional?
PR: I mean I am not the expert in interior design. You should ask my colleagues about it because we are all designers and we worked closely together. Of course, it is changing because you have more freedom. Because you have no tunnel in the middle and now you have more space. And this is something you will see step by step in the further platforms we are developing at the moment. So to create freedom for the passengers. And actually when you follow our Grandsphere concept again, this is electric of course and you can see that when we change the architecture of the car, just for this reason, the interior you will have even more space around and this is really a new feeling in terms of driving. So, there's a radical change, especially with alternative driving because that's what we said in the Grandsphere world premiere that we designed this car from the inside out. So there was a huge interior space that we had to do an exterior around it and this was also a new process that we did when it came to alternative driving.
AM: Sustainability is a new thing. Tailpipe emissions aside, can sustainability be designed into a car straight from the drawing board? Do designers look from that perspective?
PR: I would say we can help a lot. First, I would say aerodynamics which is definitely the point. The way you can bring down the CO2 and make the car more energy efficient and sustainable. This is number one for us in terms of exterior design and this includes lots of details. Like I said already, you can cover up the wheels and make it more aerodynamic.
Then it's about materials in the interiors and the exterior. When you save some parts when you make it more sustainable. For example, materials which are coming from recycled plastics there are hundreds of ways to make the car more sustainable. And this is something we need to do more out of it. I think you won't see an Audi in the future and say this is sustainable but it is not looking good anymore. We want something more out of it and now coming back to the e-tron GT we have modern materials in the interior which are made out of recycled materials which looks premium and looks modern. With this new tech you can do something out of it and I think this is something that aligns with Audi and our progressiveness. I think times like this need a lot of creativity and for us a chance to be creative.
AM: To you personally, what's more challenging? Is it designing a big car or a small car?
PR: Oh. Honestly, I think it depends on proportions. Normally Audis have good proportions, independent of it being a small car or a big car. We are in a lucky situation because small cars with good proportions can be fun to design. I think everything can be fun to design and there's no difference I would say.
AM: Where do you go for inspiration? Is it other cars, is it other products? Is it nature? Where do you get your inspiration from?
PR: Inspiration comes from everywhere I would say. I mean, when you open your eyes and walk through the world, you get inspired I would say. I mean I am going to car events, I like to travel everywhere, and big cities are very inspiring. So I think you have to keep your eyes open and I think then, you can get influenced from everywhere. Today we have the internet of course. So you can be anywhere in the world. It might have been a little bit different 20 years ago where you really have to go somewhere to be inspired. Today, it is kind of easy to be inspired.
AM: So my last question, where would you see car design heading in 50 years from now in the far future?
PR: Oh, that's a good question. It's very funny because when I was ten years old, I remember I had to work for a school newspaper and they asked this exact same question – 'how the car would look in the year 2000' and I said after being influenced by some movies that the cars would definitely fly. And well, that's not happening yet. So it's critical to really predict the future in this case. But yeah, when I look back in the last ten years, the times were changing completely and the cars were changing completely, so it's really hard to tell you what's expected. And I hope the products will still be very emotional and highly attractive and yeah, that's our goal.