Interview: Nissan’s Executive Design Director, Satoru Tai

Addressing why the car of the future will be box-shaped and how vehicle-sharing impacts the industry

By Michael Frank

A few years ago one of Nissan’s more outspoken designers penned an homage of sorts to the Datsun 510 sports sedan, the IDX. This was shown to the public at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show, but it had actually been in the works for a while, Satoru Tai told us recently. It was drawn from a place of inspiration around what a sporty car like that meant to his generation and to several generations of sports car fans, but he admits, his heart had already moved on in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. As a designer, he says, you’re often looking to many sources of influence at once, backwards as well as forwards.

In the wake of the Fukushima quake Tai says he looked at what he drove, a sports car, and realized if such a calamity struck his home he wouldn’t have room to carry his entire family. “I was watching TV and I saw what happened when the tsunami came and I was imagining if I was driving one of those sports cars with my family, who can I save? My child? My wife? Who? What can you do?”

That thought made him change his habits. And he looked for broader design influences, especially from current and future generations of automotive consumers. He also looks at how an autonomous car might unlock an entirely different design focus—it’s not at all about the exterior of the car, unless that exterior signals an interior oasis.

What are you driving now?

I have an NV350 [a Japan-market van that’s about three feet shorter than the US-market NV 2500 cargo van]. We modified it to carry bikes, camping equipment. With my son we enjoy climbing mountains, or fishing or cycling, so those kind of things are in my car, and food, maybe for five/six days, a refrigerator, and so on. We made sure there are shades for privacy, we have a generator for electricity and heat.

A car means something different to different people, but now I see it more socially

What does driving this kind of vehicle, after you were a self-described “sports-car person,” change about what you see in the automotive space?

A car means something different to different people, but now I see it more socially. Maybe I need a kind of a room. A nicely equipped room, something with enough space for friends or family for your hobbies. I’ve become a kind of “box car” person.

Scale that down, since not everyone wants or needs a large van. How does this apply to a smaller car?

I created the Cube 13 years ago, and that car then went global. Even then, although that car wasn’t my kind of thing, young people were not interested in the sports car type at all, they needed something with room, especially in Japan, but really now everywhere when they don’t own a house. That was then, and you might say that universally young people want something sexy, to show power, energy, but that’s not really true. Now even older people buy sports cars, not younger people, because it’s not practical.

How does this play out in a world of autonomous cars, or even before that, in a world of car sharing?

Freedom. When I say this I think of the Stealth bomber. You might think it’s strange that I’m saying this. But the Stealth was made to be undetectable to radar, but that shape was only possible for flight because computers advanced far enough to fly it. It’s too unstable for humans to control it. So there you see a shape designed for a purpose that’s free of traditional limits. So what I am saying is that maybe I want a shape like a box, but it doesn’t have to be the shape we’re limited to. A round shape is possible, aero is possible. We might even be able to change the shape a lot faster, maybe the customer could do that.

Does that mean present styling norms will expand then, and a traditional “three-box” shape or something won’t matter?

What I say does not represent Nissan’s way of thinking. It’s me thinking as a designer. If a shape can change, if you don’t have to look out of the car, why would you shape the car the same way as before? You’re looking in, at each other. So wouldn’t it be strange to do that in a Ferrari shaped car? I explained this to people and they laughed. They don’t believe a caravan [what Americans would call simply a van] is the future. Maybe you’ve seen the Minority Report? That kind of thing is a box.

How many of our design norms are based on perception vs reality? Meaning, if we’re afraid a car will be unsafe we buy a big SUV. But that shape is threatening to people on the outside.

In the future, not soon, I don’t know when, there’ll be a perception that spreads that cars will stop, always, and then this kind of notion will disappear, and then the shape will matter less. Then people won’t think cars are dangerous. The car is aware, it will stop. It will be common sense.

Between now and then we have a problem, which is that even now cars will automatically stop, even if the driver isn’t paying attention. Not all cars, but this technology is spreading. How does the design world signal, “Don’t worry! This car will automatically stop!” to pedestrians?

We have to come up with a standard, and it has to be a rule. It can be a cool design, but maybe we agree that a red light on the front of the car means it’s stopping. But all manufacturers and countries will have to agree. Last year we toyed with this idea but scrapped it. We wanted to design a feature to communicate a situation that strikes you everyday as a driver now. You don’t wave the pedestrian through, you don’t let cross traffic in. You’re in a hurry. You want to go through; but people might be expecting you to stop. But you will not stop. How do you communicate, “I will not stop! Sorry!”? We need a sound, a pattern, something we can agree on as a symbol.

If the box or other forms usurp the sports car or the shapes we know now, where is the place for Nissan’s brand DNA?

I’m not a mainstream type of person. Why do we have to show brand identity through the shape? There may be other ways. That’s a bit touchy subject for a car designer to suggest, but if we’re going to think about true function, and appealing to people who are looking inward, not out the windshield, we have to think about changing how we communicate “brand” and what we mean by it.

NV350 images courtesy of aftermarket outfitters and, all other images courtesy of Nissan