No reason Hongkongers can't become leading car designers

Ford designer Chelsia Lau says technology drives innovation

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 11:39am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 April, 2015, 9:54am

Chelsia Lau Ka-po sees no reason why others can’t follow in her footsteps and become the next big Hong Kong name in car design. The Shanghai-based chief designer of the Ford Motor Company’s Strategic Concepts Group, who grew up on Lantau Island, is one of two Hongkongers who have risen to the top in the world of car design. She shares the accolade with former Porsche chief designer Pinky Lai Ping.

Lau attended Lee Wai Lee Technical Institute (now the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education) before furthering her studies in the US, at the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, California. In 1992, she joined Ford in Detroit as an intern, and eight years later was named chief designer.

Over the years, Lau has been involved in a number of important design programmes for Ford, and has picked up a number of awards. Projects she has worked on include localisation of the Fiesta for the China market, the Explorer and Explorer SportTrac concept, the FC5 fuel-cell concept and the Mercury MC4 concept.

Lau describes Hong Kong, with its East-meets-West cultural mix, as the perfect place for design students, who can apply the uniqueness of both cultures in their designs. The city is also reputed as a hub for world-class design and creativity, with a wealth of resources for young designers to take advantage of, she says.

Lau shares her views on opportunities for budding Hong Kong car designers and factors to drive car design trends of he future.

What higher education options are available in Hong Kong for aspiring car designers?

Car designers come from many different backgrounds and disciplines. There are several institutions that offer industrial design programmes, such as Polytechnic University and the Design Institute, while University of Science and Technology (HKUST) is well known for its engineering programmes. Both kinds of education and training opportunities provide a solid foundation for a career in car design.

There are also many opportunities outside the classroom. HKUST, for example, offers students the chance to participate in the Ford-HKUST Conservation and Environmental Research Grants programme, which provides HK$1 million annually to support MSc students from the School of Engineering with their environmental, conservation and sustainability projects. This direction is particularly relevant these days, as society is becoming more eco-conscious, even in car design.

What advice would you give budding young car designers?

Know your strengths and what you want to accomplish, and simply go for it. Push yourself to the limit and demand from yourself the best; with passion, determination and perseverance, we can all realise our goals.

I was offered a rare internship by Ford’s Detroit headquarters 20 years ago, and the internship changed my outlook and gave me a vision of working in the vehicle design industry upon graduation. I always maintain optimism and curiosity, and believe learning is a life-long journey. I am constantly reinventing myself, and that is a very important aspect to being a designer.

Do you see talent emerging from mainland institutions?

With China’s large population, there are definitely many talented designers emerging. Tsinghua University and Tongji University offer transportation design programmes.

We have a tailored mentor programme to help new designers when they come to work for Ford. One of my priorities is to groom and nurture local design talent, so we regularly evaluate quality graduates’ portfolios from local and international design schools.

With new technological breakthroughs, the idea of transportation will be redefined. Without a conventional engine, the new architecture configuration offers more design and package flexibility

Are there identifiable car design trends on the mainland?

Consumers, especially those from China, are always after new innovations and new design, but it’s difficult to predict future trends since things are changing so rapidly. In the past, it may have taken five to 10 years to form a generation gap; now, it takes three years or fewer. A group of teenagers who look similar in appearance may actually have very different preferences and habits; they may use different apps and have different ideas about what’s cool.

Longer life expectancy gives rise to an aging population; it prompts us to think of how we can use technology in our designs to enhance the driving or in-car experience for the elderly. For example, the Human Machine Interface (HMI) allows drivers to control a series of screens via a simple keypad on the steering wheel. It’s a great opportunity to offer a unique and intuitive interaction, while ensuring the occupants a stress-free, safe and enjoyable journey.

Do you foresee dramatic changes in design in a world of electric and driverless cars?

The autonomous car is a hot topic nowadays. With new technological breakthroughs, the idea of transportation will be redefined. Without a conventional engine, the new architecture configuration offers more design and package flexibility. It enables different silhouettes and vehicle proportions. Some of the required features today will be eliminated; a car in the future could look totally different than the car we are familiar with today based on its function and usage. These changes won’t happen overnight, but will be made progressively to meet customers’ needs and wants.

What design trends will be foremost in the near future?

Firstly, technology continues to be the key driver of innovation, and drivers will continue to demand increased safety and a technologically smarter vehicle. That means more connectivity, more automation and safer cars.

Great design and safety can work hand in hand, blending seamlessly together. Take our new Mustang, for example- which will be available in Hong Kong by the end of this year. It comes equipped with five airbags for driver and passengers, and has two side-curtain airbags for the fastback model, among a myriad of standard safety features. It also has MyKey - a program that promotes good driving habits, such as seat belt use, and limiting the vehicle’s top speed and audio volume. Vehicle owners can choose to programme it for themselves or for when their teenage children are driving, for example.

Secondly, the rise of middle class in emerging markets will see more sophisticated customers with increasing purchasing power. This group of customers has high expectations and is very discerning when buying a car.

Thirdly, millennials and the post-'90s generation need to be addressed. The young generation wants and needs to express individuality; they will drive more personalisation in car design and special offerings.

Lastly, sustainable design is essential. Lightweight construction, recycled materials and breakthrough manufacturing processes will have an impact on car design. Visual lightness and efficiency will be conveyed through car design, proportion, form and surface execution. New sustainable materials that are not available to us today will present many new opportunities and possibilities for fresh, innovative design exploration and application. New manufacturing technologies and processes will allow for greater design flexibility and freedom.

So the future is nothing short of amazing. It is an exciting time and great to be a part of the creative frontier to lead the next wave of great design.