Marek Reichman is the architect of Aston Martin’s modern-day form language, the basis for what is arguably the world’s most beautiful car brand. The 104-year-old company has a legacy for vehicles that have sinuous bodies and enduring cool, and has long been a particular point of British pride. Look no further than the romance of James Bond’s original DB5 in the 1964 film Goldfinger. When Aston Martin celebrated its centenary in 2013, thousands gathered on the green lawns of Kensington Gardens in central London to fawn at 550 historical and posh cars including elegant coachbuilt Zagatos and the iconic Bond car collection, in total worth well over a $1 billion dollars.
It might be surprising then that a company so steeped in its heritage would be enthusiastic about how technology is impacting its design plans for its second century.
I sat down with Reichman, design director and chief creative officer, in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, to talk about how new technology has made car design a more exciting gig in the last few years. Reichman joined Aston Martin in 2005 after serving as a designer at Ford Motor Company. He also had a hand in the Rolls-Royce Phantom and the Range Rover MKIII in past designer roles. Aston Martin has introduced the V12 Vanquish Volante, a DBX Concept, and the Vulcan under his watch.
Tall and lean, with spiky red hair, Reichman has the enthusiasm of an earnest professor — he also teaches car design at the Royal College of Art. Reichman spends between much of his time in Gaydon in northern England, where Aston Martin is based, and in many ways represents the way Aston Martin is hedging its fine pedigree with edgy advances into sports cars of the future.
Its lineup of new products starts with the DB11, which is now on the streets and its next feat, a highly technical collaboration with Red Bull, AM-RB 001. “This is the car that sets the tone for the next century in terms of technology and our competitive nature. The one thing we’ve never been recognized for in the past is being the outright fastest,” Reichman said.
How do you make technology tasteful in a beautiful car? What do you put inside?
If there’s anything Aston Martin lacked in the past people might argue that it’s technology. Now, we might add that we have the best technology in the world. It’s Daimler-based electrical architecture. It’s your Intel chip. It's the connectivity. It’s the driver control units. It's the safety units in the cars. It's how the car talks to the outside world. It’s how you become autonomous and that’s embedded in our cars.
Technology allows you more freedom. It’s not constrained. In the past you were constrained with a screen because you had to put 12 buttons inside of the the car, and initially there was no screen. But now these devices will be so much more with voice recognition, recognizing retina, noticing your movements, and gesture control. All of those things are giving design more freedom in terms of beauty of the object. We make beautiful cars and it’s allowing the cars to have more beauty, to be unconstrained by technology.
No one quite knows how the introduction of autonomous cars will unfold. You kind of have to plan for every scenario. How do you do that?
The whole idea of autonomy doesn’t mean it has to look it from the outside of the car. Potentially it will look different on the inside of the car, because you’ll have more free time in the inside of the car. Maybe it’s more like an airline lounge or your living room, but for us the object is something of desire. Customers want desirability even if its autonomous or a drone. That’s part of the ingredients to feed a designer. What a designer is really good at is finding an application for technology or finding the technology to get the idea into production. For example, designers will google “hyper bendable material,” and find that there’s one funky college in Princeton that makes nanostructures. Designers will find a way to make something happen, the more you give them an impossible task, the better the solutions.
I think the car industry is incredibly innovative. Silicon Valley might argue, but when they think about developing cars they are hiring car people. Other than airplanes that are made in smaller numbers, there isn’t a more complex product that exists. The car is so complex, when you add connectivity and software and hardware, it becomes a hyper computer that can do so many different things. You’ve got to make it repeatedly with quality and it’s got to save your life. If you launch something and your software isn’t fully developed you destroy your business.
Do you have a relationship with different tech companies?
One of the reasons we partnered with Red Bull Technologies and we’re now doing a car together, is that they have material science technology, aerodynamics and Adrian Newey is probably the world’s greatest aerodynamics engineer stroke designer. He’s won more F1 championships than anyone else. Through material science, it’s through big data and how it drives and how it feels. It’s connectivity. We have a huge relationship with Dow on the chemical side of things. Dow is important because they make materials, they make chemicals, they make bonding solutions. Making something lighter and stiffer means you can be more efficient. Daimler, the reason they have 5 percent shareholding in Aston Martin, is that we have an open door to their future technologies. Daimler, just in terms of electric and architecture that sits in DB11 is probably 2 billion euros worth of investment. They have engines, future technology, autonomous technology, and camera technology. And Bosch engineering who are software developers. It’s not heavy engineering in terms of mechanical parts, but it’s really important in terms of stability and activity and electrification and electric propulsion. Because we’re small and independent it means you can pick and choose as well.
Is it getting more difficult to focus on form when so much of design is about integrating technology?
No, because the form has to support the function. No other Aston Martin has done it. Aluminum became the choice over steel, and they responded by making a thinner steel structure. And then carbon fiber and composites came in the game. Everything becomes lighter, easier to produce. Technology moves on and the cost base moves down. Carbon fiber composites will do the same. All the costs are coming down. The first autonomous cars used four camera units and they were hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are about $800 now and once they come down to $200 mark, you can have all those cameras in any car. As technology improves and becomes much more mainstream, you always find a way to make it more cost efficient. That’s why the industry is so exciting right now. Who would have thought the car industry would be interested in Silicon Valley right now, but because of Google, because of Apple, because of Microsoft, because of Uber that’s happening. Change is great to inspire great design.
Do you have to go to Silicon Valley to get that inspiration?
The UK used to have only one region the old automotive world and that was the Midlands. But now we have north of England, the south, and different technology and different supply bases. The UK is renowned for hi fidelity and some of the best high-end micro chips. The Formula One and aerospace industries are feeding into our world. Marine technology has been building carbon fiber boats long before F1 technology.
Are you designing with autonomy in mind?
We are not testing. How much do we employ it? Should an Aston Martin be autonomous? We have to design and innovate for a future we’re not quite sure of. We’ll be a fast adopter, but we're not going to innovate in that way. Our innovation is in car control and driver control in terms of feeling and feedback. It’s about making sports car more effective, efficient, capable, comfortable. We’ll be a fast follower with something like an autonomous car, something that has 360 adaptive radar. The core of what we are is to make handbuilt luxury sports cars that are highly competitive. You don’t necessarily want a sports car to be autonomous. It might someday be important, but right now it’s more about the language of design, the technology that’s there and with DB11, it’s a grand touring sports cars. It’s about the driver being alert and being relaxed and comfort on a longer journey. The more relaxed and comfortable you are the more you can enjoy the journey.
Photography by Julia LaPalme for The Verge