I met with Callum at the Ford GT studio in a shiny, white sequestered area of the company’s Dearborn enclave. Callum was responsible for signing off on the exotic GT, but also for the design of the driverless society. His personal garage includes a 1967 Mustang Fastback, a Jaguar E-Type coupe, and a couple of 1930s Ford hot rods. But he’s clear that his affinity for cars might not reconcile with our autonomous future.
What is the biggest challenge for contemporary car design?
The big challenge is the user interface, in terms of how much technology we’re putting into the car and that we’re mandated to put into cars. How does [technology] interact with the customer in a seamless and comfortable way? It’s the biggest challenge in the car industry at the moment.
Good design is all about problem solving, but the problems change. [It’s not just about] creating solutions to problems, but it’s creating attractive solutions. Not just attractive aesthetically, but in the usability sense.
You’re designing for a future that’s unpredictable. How do you identify design talent that can anticipate what’s coming?
I think we’re still learning. I don’t think there’s any ideal class out there that’s teaching this. We’re still going to the traditional design schools, but we’re going more in depth [in] how we’re interviewing the students and how they’re explaining their designs. It used to just be through sketches, but now it needs to be a lot more visceral, a lot more understanding of the customer interaction point. [The car] is a place where people spend up to two hours a day. The traditional aspects of exterior design have stayed the same. The taillamps have expanded dramatically. When I started, it was a five-inch lamp and that was it.
The interiors are where we’ve really changed in terms of the type of designer we’re looking for. The user experience — we’re doing a lot more storyboarding: How are people going to use the vehicle and what situations are they going to be in, and where are areas we can fit into those experiences.
But a lot of people are not using that much technology. We need to be more cognoscente of what people want to use and how they can use it. A lot of technology is intimidating. Sometimes we need to take our engineers and designer’s hats off as well and put on the customer’s hat and see what they see. Our expertise can be a hindrance sometimes.
How do you plan for autonomous cars when it’s unclear when they will be embraced by the general public and how consumers will use their time in the car at this point?
I think we have to also plan for how we can update [cars]. The same way gadgets do. You can’t just say put an iPad in the car and let that become the user interface. By definition (an iPad) is supposed to be engaging and entertaining, but it can’t be that (in a vehicle) because we need it to be non-distracting as well. There’s a different set of rules there. And then when you get to autonomous vehicles, it could return to be entertaining again. We need to come up with solutions that guarantee people’s safety and security before we can say that we can do something else. People are concerned with allowing the customer total freedom. But I think we’ve stopped saying it’s never going to happen now. With the autonomous car, there’s been drawings of that for 50 years. It’s around the corner now and the amount of data you need to drive it is coming to a point where it can come to fruition. The next 10 years in this business is going to be the biggest change and challenge since the turn of the last century when cars took over for horses — to me it’s that dramatic.
When do you think we'll see autonomy impact our society?
It’s not going to happen overnight and there will be some hiccups along the way. You’re already seeing where people can misuse it, too. I think a lot of people are concerned whether we should do it. I’m a great car enthusiast. I love driving cars, but I can still see the benefits of the fully autonomous car. I think there will be drivable cars for a long time. There may be areas where you will only be able to drive autonomous cars. We’ll need some support from infrastructure, not just cities but government. It’s a lot of hype just now. But probably rightfully so, it’s a major change and it’s going to affect all of our lives.
What happens if car-sharing and ride-sharing phase out car ownership?
That’s the more worrying thing. We always thought people would want cars as a reflection of themselves. I still think there’s going to be an aspect of that in ride-share — the type of vehicle you want to get into, the type of vehicle you want to be seen in, the type of vehicle you want to ride in. It’s a difference in getting out of a metro car or yellow cab. I still do think there’s going to be this class of social awareness. I think it will still reflect luxury. I think the brands will be part of that as well. I think that it will revert from the aesthetics of the car to the experience being delivered in side of the car. Hopefully, you are going to want to get in the car and enjoy your time in there. I think Apple is pretty good at engaging the customer, in terms of getting that infrastructure right. That’s part of the expertise we’re having to learn, not only just the design and the physics of the hardware, but the software and the infrastructure of it as well. We’re used to building the hardware and handing it over to the customer, and the customer uses it. It’s going to be a brand-new relationship as the customers start using cars in different ways.
It's logical then that the Ford GT might represent Ford’s last great super car.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work on a car like this. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get another opportunity like this; I’m not sure anyone is going to get another opportunity like this. This is all about why people used to buy cars, and it’s still there, but it’s there in smaller ways. I think it also shows there is still a passion for cars. Again, that may change.
Are they going to ban cars someday? They are already doing it in some places. Paris is already banning cars over a certain age a few days of the week. That’s a sad aspect of it to me. From a safety and security aspect it’s probably the right thing to do. It’s like what happened to the horse.
You grow up wanting to be a car designer, you draw the outsides of cars. Very few people draw the insides of cars. You realize it’s a different design problem to solve. It is all about user experience. You need to make sure the experience grabs people. And it communicates what the car delivers.
Do you still draw cars like you used to as a kid?
A lot of the sketches are digital. I still sketch. You won’t see any of mine; I hide them. I sit in my office and doodle. I test out ideas first. I have a pen on me most of the time, in most of the meetings you’ll find me sketching.
Photography by Doug Coombe.