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Chris Webb, GM Lead Creative Designer – Fashion and Car Design Converge

Car design has been driven by exterior design. That’s all designers wanted to do,” says GM’s Chris Webb, who is responsible for exterior colors for all GM vehicles. “But the average person isn’t a gearhead. They’re consumers of a product, and they spend more time in [their car] than looking at it. At last our industry has said, ‘Ah, we get your point now.’ Fashion designers, furniture designers, all sorts of people are being hired to help reinvigorate car interiors.

“There’s a lot of focus now on lightweight materials, ecologically sound materials, recyclable materials. There are two ways you can introduce these into the product. There are people who just want what they drive now, but environmentally friendly. They don’t want it to look quirky, like something out of The Jetsons. They just want to have done their bit for the environment. Then there are the people who say, ‘If I’m going to make a statement and pay for it, then I want people to know.’ Those people loved the Toyota Prius for that reason – because it looked different. You’ve got people who want it to be totally hidden and those who want it to be bold and in-your-face. That’s what we’re trying to get our heads around. What’s the happy medium? Do we try to accommodate both?

“If there’s any area of product design where they’re doing any sort of environmentally friendly product, they use one of three colors: green, blue, or white. That’s what’s in the customer’s psyche. So Volt green was the color of the show vehicle, and it will be the feature color in production.

“One thing we’ve been researching for some time now for the exterior is adding volcanic rock to the paint. It offers nothing to the color, but it has heat-refractive properties. So it could refract heat, keeping the vehicle cooler, requiring less air-conditioning and saving fuel.

“Another interesting pigment is glass flake. It offers a unique look to color – it makes the colors look bright, sparkly. Another thing we’re researching right now is a nanotechnology called quantum dots. You can suspend them in any resin system, like the clear coat on a vehicle, and the entire surface area of your car is a solar conductor.

“Suede finishes, matte finishes – all of these are potentially conceivable. We have production capability for matte finishes for model year 2010. A low gloss is achieved with talcum powder to flatten it out. But the flatter it is, the softer it is. If you wax it or buff it, it can go to a higher gloss, and it can never go dull again. It almost has ‘dry clean only’ requirements. You also could do gloss and matte patterning on the vehicle. You can do two-toning. If we have ten colors now, with matte finishes, you have a potential of twenty colors.

“As we move forward, it might not even be paint. We may be anodizing vehicles. Right now the colors are limited, but the finish is a chemical reaction to the sheetmetal body, and it’s incredibly durable. The big hurdle is that impurities in the sheetmetal can give you color variances.

“One-third of the surface area of a vehicle is glass, and all we’ve ever done is use that standard solar-green glass, because it has the right properties for UV [protection]. It would be nice to change immediately to solar-gray glass. There’s gray glass out there right now with comparable properties to standard solar green, but having a more neutral color would be wonderful for how people perceive the exterior of the vehicle and also how the color is correlated to the interior. On our show cars, we color-key the glass, even if it’s subtly, to tie in with the body. We make a bolder statement on the SEMA vehicles – we might have bright yellow glass; it might be totally reflective metallic glass. You look out of it and it’s totally clear, but you look in and it’s silver. Also, as we start laminating glass all around [rather than just windshields], there’s no reason why we can’t give customers a totally fresh look via the glass lamination process.

“The whole area of product design is moving to a more premium, bespoke look. The way we’re interpreting it for our more mainstream cars is by offering limited runs of batch builds. There might be anywhere between 500 and 5000 units that have a unique color, a unique seat and door insert, special wheels, so even people who can’t afford a premium product get something unique. Everyone is entitled to that, right?”

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