Martin Uhlarik – Above the Curvv

Martin Uhlarik, Head, Design, Tata Motors Limited, in a freewheeling chat with TURN OF SPEED talks not just about the design of the Curvv and all the exciting things happening at Tata Motors, but also about the densities of the ubiquitous white colour and the Tesla Cyber Truck, amongst other things.

Apr 14, 2022 RACHNA TYAGI No Comments Like

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Tata Motors has introduced yet another concept – the Curvv. Martin Uhlarik, Head, Design, Tata Motors Limited, talks to us about the Curvv, telling us about their good record of not just translating their concepts pretty well but also of delivering promises. 

TOSTata Motors is taking a big leap forward, tell us about the story behind this very fresh concept – the Curvv.

MU: It was around two years ago, when we were looking at opportunities and where to develop the portfolio and considering SUVs now are the core now of our portfolio, (we offer a product in pretty much every segment, from top to bottom) and mainstream, we said that would be the basis of whatever product we do next. At the same time our EV business has really been picking up, we were doing a lot of analysis of the global market and the Indian market and we saw this as a white space – an SUV coupe. You can see in most markets its more or less an accepted typology. It started with premium but now it has gone into various segments and levels and so forth. So, we said it is only a matter of time before it happens in India, it is a compelling offer. It’s got all the attributes of an SUV, command driving position, protected, feeling of toughness, the freedom of what an SUV offers, even if it is not a 4X4 and then we said if you marry that with our EV technology, you get something pretty exciting and it makes perfect sense to make a coupe version of it without sacrificing the practicality and the functionality. We felt we’ve always been the first to market in a lot of segments. If you look at Nexon, we’ve been the first to introduce that. That was quite a bold step for us. Two years ago, with the Punch, we went into sub-compact SUV market, that’s been doing very well. So, clearly, the market always reacts positively. And of course, part of our DNA as a company and a brand is “Design.” So, we thought, well a coupe is even more of an emotional sort of impulse. That actually works very well with our sort of matrix.

TOS: How far away are you from the production car and how close will it be to the displayed concept? 

MU: During the pandemic, we were using a lot of digital tools, so we were designing the car with a number of CAD systems and design software and we made a product very fast. So, we’re showing you the concept but to be honest, the production car is more or less almost finished. And it’s exactly 90% of what you see down on the showroom floor, so if you park the two next to each other, general public, would not recognize the difference, other than obvious things. The difference is actually in the details in the concept but body wide, dimensions and everything is essentially the production car. So, we’re pretty confident. We’ve always had a good track record of delivering promises, you know, and we’ve translated our concepts pretty well, not to disappoint the public. This one I think will be even more closer, even the colour, the fabrics, everything. This was a colour that our design team found and developed. At first, when I saw it, even as a concept, I was a little bit skeptical. But then they showed me the plaque, and then they showed me the car visualized, and I started to see it more and more as an Electric. It actually communicates Electric very well. That blue is in fact, a cool colour, but actually, this one has a warm flip, so when you see the light hit it, it goes from a warm, almost a sand to a blue. I thought that was interesting and then the designer who worked on it, she called it Aurora (Which is what we call it internally), which reminded her of the Northern Lights. We thought that was a nice connection to the EV story, and then when we saw the car painted in the colour, we said this is actually really good.

TOSWere there any other colours that you considered before zeroing in on the Aurora colour?

MU: Yes, there were. You remember we introduced the Sierra in the last Auto Expo and it was a Porcelain White but it actually had a hue of green in it, maybe it didn’t pick up at the show, but you know the Teal colour which is our signature for the EV, we reviewed the Teal, we looked at the Sierra, obviously evolving those themes, and we did four or five directions where we were looking at what’s the next way to communicate an EV. This one looked fresh, again it communicates EV, it is very different from our previous products.

TOSWhat’s with the Blue obsession at Tata Motors? There is just so much Blue.

MU: Yeah, that’s true actually, now, that you mentioned it. Maybe it’s the logo as a signature. It’s a neutral colour in terms of gender, fairly conservative, and it is not just in India, it is everywhere. Every time I go to a super market in any country, I squint, because everything is monochromatic. It frustrates me. I would like to see more colour and I say, India would probably be the best market to introduce more colour because it is more acceptable to being more expressive and colourful. But, in the Auto industry, in general, globally, it is pretty conservative. But we’ve got a couple of pretty strong colours in the pipeline now for production, so probably by the end of next year you’ll see a couple of real statements. We actually did a review just two weeks ago, where we signed off a lot of our colour palate, including whites, but we have a few flagship colours which will definitely turn heads.

TOSTalking of whites… there are whites and there are whites. As a car designer, tell us about this ubiquitous colour – white in the world of Auto.

MU: It is popular in most markets and the reason is people think from a practical point of view… can I resell it? They look at it from that aspect and for a lot of people….we like to talk about design and being expressive… but there is a lot of market where there are people who say I just need a vehicle to get from A to B and it has got to work, it has got to be reliable. My Mother, she buys the same car, same model, every generation, and if she had a good experience with the first one, she’s going to come back, and most customers are like that, if you have a good experience, you return, it is as simple as that. White is a practical colour from cleaning, maintaining and reselling point of view. Not many people will buy an orange car because not everybody wants an orange car, so immediately the pool is much smaller. But white, once you get down to it, is super classic, from a designer’s point of view. There are many ways to do a white. When you’re developing a paint or a colour, it is how white picks up a reflection, is it warm, is it cool, how much depth does it have, even the paint quality, the mixture, the process, etc, are key factors. There’s a big difference between a a good white and a bad white. It can make a design shine and it can make a design look dull. The other thing is because this is a hot country, climate wise, people think of white as colour that is not going to get so hot. 

TOSWhat are the materials that have been used on the Curvv?

MU: The seat fabric and the fabric on the door, the one that has a gradation from white to blue is recycled plastic. We’re doing a lot of research now in design, looking at sustainability, recyclability, I think customers will be very interested in this especially when they’re purchasing an EV. Eventually it’ll expand to a complete net zero type product. The floor is recycled rubber-plastic. 

For the production car for the EV version, we’re definitely looking at where there will be an option where the customer can buy the complete fabric package which is all sustainable. I think that’s very important and that’s where society is heading in terms of the responsibility aspect and I think it’s a good story, and actually they create very interesting colours, patinas, it’s a different feel, a different material. If it does the job, in terms of comfort, safety and all of that, and if it offers something interesting visually, then I’m sure it is interesting.

TOSWhat’s your take on aftermarket fabrics and materials? 

MU: We need to offer fabrics and materials that look good, serve the purpose are comfortable and we also need to offer a choice where people can express themselves. It is up to us as an OEM to offer that variety so that everybody is satisfied. So, I think there is a lot of room to grow for us, where we can be offering the accessories ourselves but curated, so they don’t look like an afterthought. We can offer that through our dealer networks and make sure that they always look cohesive with the overall design and they don’t look like a colour blind nightmare. That’s part of our maturing process going forward.

TOSWhat is your style as a car designer?

MU: I’m a minimalist, modernist, in the sense that I like functionality, I like it to be very clean, nothing superficial. There’s not going to be a fender vent which is just a piece of plastic but actually doesn’t do anything. With the Curvv, for instance, we have a nose which has almost no grille…it doesn’t require one, so, it shouldn’t be having something that’s sort of Baroque and cheap but ultimately superficial. So, everything is driven by purity of design.

TOSTell us about the Curvv’s rear?

MU: The rear is very aerodynamic. So, if you notice, the lights, the horizontal light guide will be a feature going across the product range and again it’s a signature. All the lights horizontal like the front. But the rear is actually quite tall, it is really high, so we wanted to make sure it doesn’t look fat and oversized, and so a lot of that was just to manage the proportions but at the same time we wanted to offer a lot of volume in the boot and the car went through a lot of aerodynamic because it is a born EV and people talk about efficiency and range anxiety, so you want to make it as efficient as possible, and also communicate that it looks aerodynamic. Sometimes, it looks aerodynamic but it actually isn’t – mathematically. So, this one went through a lot of wind tunnel testing and then, we did a lot of push and pull with the engineers and that informed a lot of the design features on the rear because that’s where a lot of turbulence is created for the vehicle.

We said, we’re going to communicate it is a sporty vehicle, so we put four bucket seats. We thought it was interesting to have two cockpit seats in the rear. Obviously, the production car we’re developing with the more mainstream seating layout, but actually, during the last three days quite a lot of people have said that this could be quite an interesting option. I think as a company, we’re going to have a look at this. Maybe, there’s a trim level or an option which might be interesting for some people, who want to communicate this sportscar feel and who don’t need the five seats, maybe it’s a single person, a couple. Sometimes, showing it as a concept, trying it, is a good idea because we’re getting cutomer feedback here and immediately… there’s something that resonates that we didn’t think.

TOSThe interiors look sparse, with just two screens and a steering… 

MU: With the interiors, what we’re doing is digital interface. The steering wheel and all the switch gears is now preview-production philosophy and not just on the Curvv but on all the products, going forward. So, we’re replacing what I used to refer to as “Oven dials,” HVAC (Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning) switches with a gloss black, so, its now, like your iphone, and you basically touch the HVAC switches whether you want the AC or what not. Same with the screens, we’re looking at how to improve the quality and fidelity of the touch interface. At the same time, we deconstructed the screens from the IP, on purpose because screen technology in consumer electronics moves very fast and to be honest a car product has a seven-year shelf life and within that seven-year shelf life, we’ll see a number of improvements in consumer electronics. So, if you embedded it in the instrument panel, maybe its good for 2-3 years and then something new comes up and maybe you need a different aspect ratio or something and then what do you do? You’re stuck. So, we said, we keep it. 

And the other thing is with the Punch, we offer Personas now, so, that’s our trim philosophy, and when we offer this car in production, we’re going to offer our Menu, so, even if you have screens, maybe you have no screen, maybe you have small, medium, large, we’ll offer a number of aspect ratios and sizes and then the customer ultimately has a choice in the menu to pick what is right for them and that helps the flexibility.  

The steering wheel really is a preview of our next generation steering wheel and that’s’ a gloss black floating element, it is only a two-spoke steering now. Even the logo is no longer a badge on the wheel. When you press start, the logo will appear, so, there is this sort of entertainment introduction. You press the start button and all of a sudden the logo appears and the light guide lights up, all the switch gear lights up, there’s a sort of start-up sequence and even on the steering wheel, all the interface is touch – all the switchgears there, so you can interface with everything. So, that’s fundamental to the whole interior.  Everything is linear and clean and super crisp and modern.

TOSDo you see the potential for a sportscar or something along those lines for the Indian car market?

MU: Yeah, we were talking about that recently. I mean casual conversation and actually, one of my colleagues was saying like maybe you should study something along those lines and I was like “Really?” There’s a social trend called YOLO… You Only Live Once, and post-pandemic people are really going like “Come on, what are we waiting for? I’m going to travel, I’m going to jump off that bridge, something like that.” Before a vehicle was more of a practical decision, but now you see more and more people are expressing themselves with whatever vehicle they’re purchasing. Even sun roofs before were not mainstream, and now you see sunroofs, panoramic roofs, cabriolets, not yet, obviously, that’s related to air quality, but it is a fundamental challenge that everybody will be addressing, so it will get solved. The weather here is fantastic and it is only a matter of time before somebody here says I want to drop the roof, and enjoy it. I have a cabriolet, I’ve always had a cabriolet, for the last 30 years in one form or another, and it’s a very nice experience. So, we’ve introduced the coupe, it doesn’t exist in the market really, it’s the first white space product, but I’m sure that sort of expressiveness will happen with this and probably in a couple of years you will see this idea, it is only a matter of time before somebody does it. And I’m sure the market will react because it is an emotional experience whether it’s a sports car cabriolet, something you know which is not conformist sort of attitude.

TOSThere’s so much talk right now about the Tesla Cybertruck and there are such extreme reactions out there vis-à-vis its design, I want to get your thoughts on the design which appears cold to some, but futuristic to others. Your take….

MU: I think it is very good. I’m a big subscriber in being bold and taking risks. Of course, we’re a business and there are lots of collateral things that you need to think and consider but any brand that does things with confidence, the customers understand that. They may like it, they may not like it but they can at least appreciate that the company and the brand is confident and if the company is conveying that confidence, then that percolates into other things, like they know what they’re doing. 

I think we (Tata Motors) have a little bit of that when we introduced the Nexon a number of years back. That was not really the status quo interpretation of what an SUV should be like and then you’ve seen the sales are doing fine. We do a lot of internal reviewing and a lot of discussion. We even cliniced this car several times and we have had a lot of feedback that has helped influence the design in a good way. There is a method to the madness. Even in the clinics and the customer feedbacks, it was very positive, so, we’re pretty confident that people will not just go, “I like it but dot dot dot.” You have to make it bold and expressive but there’s a line, don’t overstep the line too much, and like I said, it’s an SUV coupe. People will fall in love with it immediately because of the coupe part but then they have to rationalize it before they buy it that’s why you have to make sure you offer the space, the headroom, the legroom, the boot space, the range and the reliability. People will look at it and say I love it, but then they’ll think about it. It’s love at first sight, but then you’ve got to make sure the marriage is for a long term. 

TOSBesides the Ford F-150 Lightning and the Tesla Cybertruck which as you’ve seen, are all the rage, as a global citizen, what are the latest trends that you see around you and where is Tata Motors headed?

MU: From an automotive industry there’s a big revolution happening. Over the next ten years, we’re looking at electrification – a fundamental shift. We’re doing Gen 1, 2, 3 step way, that’s really changing your priority list from a design point of view of how customers look at the vehicle. You’ve got autonomy, down the road, I know that’s a sort of very abstract sort of term an idea, but eventually we will get to that point. There are also ownership models there’s all sorts of models, you no longer buy it, you lease it, shared economy, there’s all sorts of offers on the table and then overall, from an environmental point of view, that’s driving everything. How you even make the car, where is the electricity for the factory coming from, what is the lifecycle of the product and so forth. 

When I was a student, we were always taught to design the product but now, all the students are being told to design the experience. The product is almost secondary from the consumer point of view. I always take the analogy of the iphone. The iphone is a very nice piece of product design but the business case is not the phone, the business case is the iTunes and the App store. That’s where the money is made. So, if you get people into your eco system, into your community, that’s actually the key, designing the experience. Whether you look at Ford F-150, that’s the best-selling product in North America, obviously they’ve electrified it now with the Lightning but at the same time, it stands for something, it has a value that customers who gravitate towards the product….this is me…and I relate to this product and the same thing with any successful product, people can relate themselves with a product. Of course, a vehicle, fundamentally is a transportation vehicle to get you from A to B, so if you’re using that vehicle, it is an Avatar for you. The interiors are becoming more important, sometimes more than the exterior. The interior has to be a nice place to spend time in. That’s really the shift, so, I would say, now, the big trend is the experience, it’s how you relate to the whole brand product. If I look at Tata Motors App and I just surf it I configure a number of cars, just for fun, and I decide I want to buy one and I communicate through the App or the website or I go through a dealer, then I get the vehicle, that experience has to be absolutely seamless it has to be positive all the time and the product has to be consistent with the experience that you’re having not just from a visual point of view but also the way you interact with it. Even when you’re driving the vehicle and I use the HVAC switches or use the touchscreen, it has to be a positive experience. So, that’s really the big sort of thing now. A car designer’s job is no longer just designing the car, but you’ve really got to think, I mean our department is really involved, we’ve got fingers in every pie, in terms of dealers, motor shows, website. I’m not saying we’re doing it but we’re part of the dialogue with all the people who’re doing it as well. It’s just consistency. 

TOSCan we expect to see other options like the Dark Edition being introduced in the future?

MU: I can’t tell you but we were reviewing this week a couple of new ideas that we’re going to be introducing along the lines of that in a couple of months, starting with a few models. We usually start with a few and then we see how it resonates.

TOSComing back to the Tesla Cybertruck that everyone is waiting for, since you’re from North America and pick up trucks are big in that part of the world, what did you think of it when you saw it?

MU: I think it is very impressive that they’ve been pushing EV for a long time. At the same time, they’re very provocative in terms of the boldness. I think making a pick-up truck is definitely the right business case. The aesthetics…its clearly a generational thing. It reflects an aesthetic which is very Atari, like the 80s. 

TOSYou mean the videogame – Atari?

MU: Yeah, like the fractal lines, it’s a little bit DeLoreanBack to the Future, 80s, Atari, so it appeals to the Gen X. There’s a sweet spot demographically, so there’s a certain amount of nostalgia. Reminds me of when I was a kid…I’m Gen X, reminds me of what people thought the future is. It’s the space shuttle generation and it’s also tied in with their whole Space X connection. First people are like what is that but it is so bold, again a combination of romance, nostalgia, retro futurism. That’s how I read it, that’s how I appreciate it. It’s not for everybody but people who like it will love it. For me, a kid growing up in the 80s, space shuttle and video games and all that, that totally captures what we thought back then….2000…WOW… looks like some movie, and yet, here we are, in the future!  

TOSWill you guys do it?

MU: We have the Yodha.

TOSI mean something more sophisticated – a lifestyle product – for the urban buyer, maybe? 

MU: Yeah, I think there is potential there. The pick-up truck is the new sportscar. It’s like you said, a lifestyle. Whether it’s a two or a four-seater or a three and six, it reflects a lifestyle. It’s like SUVs going mainstream. SUVs started as 4X4 and when they became urban 4X4 which is urban SUVs or crossovers. The reason why that happened is because people associated SUVs with “I can go anywhere” and that meant freedom. If I own this car I can go anywhere. Nobody goes offroad, the trucks don’t have 4X4 anymore, nobody even goes on the kerb, it is just the psychology and it is the same thing with the pick-up truck it’s like “I can take all this stuff,” but nobody takes “all this stuff.” Young people buy these vehicles because it communicates a certain lifestyle, and the older you get the more conservative you get, so the pick-up truck is more for the young at heart – the cowboy, the West, the freedom, no rules and all of that. It’s funny how the psychology of these products doesn’t do what it originally did. So, it’s fascinating.





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