Car design must be a reflection of where it is from: Tata Motor’s Martin Uhlarik



Often, data better illustrates something you perceive, but aren’t able to quantify. Here is some. Tata Motors in India registered a 66% increase in electric car sales in May this year, at 5,805 units compared with 3,505 units last year.

Martin joined Tata Motors in 2016 as Head of Design, UK and assumed the role of Global Design Head in 2020. (Vishal Mathur / HT Photo)
Martin joined Tata Motors in 2016 as Head of Design, UK and assumed the role of Global Design Head in 2020. (Vishal Mathur / HT Photo)

Total car sales for the month clocked at 45,878 units, closing rapidly on Hyundai (48,601 units sold) and up 5.85 percent (43,341 units) compared with May last year.

Impressive numbers. The backdrop, new additions to the EV portfolio this year, including the Tiago EV hatchback and longer battery range versions of the Nexon EV. Internal combustion engine, or ICE cars such as the popular Harrier and Safari twins are yet to receive a next cycle of updates.

A lot of credit for this momentum goes into a lasting visual appeal of the latest design language of Tata’s cars, something Martin Uhlarik, who is Head of Design for Tata Motors, must be given credit for.

“One of the roles that designers have is it’s you’re not just styling the car and making it look beautiful. A designer’s job is ergonomics,” Uhlarik tells HT.

Also Read:Tata Motors’ electric vehicle sales up 66% in May, sells nearly 6,000 units

As consumers, we tend to believe a car designer’s primary mandate is to make a new vehicle look as good as it possibly can be.

“A designers’ job is interface, and how you use the product. When we’re developing designs on these products, what we do is we really think about how you use it,” he adds.

It is this user experience, that Uhlarik believes, defines a car buyer’s experience. He knows about this, from his experience too, spanning over 30 years in the automotive industry.

Martin joined Tata Motors in 2016 as Head of Design, UK and assumed the role of Global Design Head in 2020. It has been in the years since, we have seen a completely new design language emerge across cars now sold by Tata Motors in India.

You’ll notice this in two parallel streams.

First, there are the cars you can actually buy, such as the Harrier SUV, the Altroz hatchback and the Nexon electric vehicle.

Second line is where the concepts sit, such as the eVision sedan, 45X, Sierra, Curvv and Avinya. Concepts do make it to the real world. The HBX concept from a few years ago, is already on sale in India as the Tata Punch.

HT had the chance to see the Sierra and Avinya concepts, in different stages of evolution, in close quarters at the Tata Motors Design Tech Centre in Coventry, as Martin explained the attempts to make a bold design and how the car being an EV gave designers new avenues in terms of space and ergonomics.

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But is it any different to design an EV, compared to a car with a petrol or diesel engine?

At the moment, Tata classifies the products as two separate generations – gen one and gen two. There are more of the latter, as the portfolio has evolved. “Those products in our current portfolio, have to balance IC engines and EV power trains. In many ways, they are a grey area, and they have to find that right balance,” he says.

For Martin, the roadmap is clear. “As we go forward with gen three products, such as the Avinya being the first, you can see that you are unconstrained from a designer’s point of view. We have the ability to create new proportions, he says. It is expected the Avinya will evolve into a car that you can buy, sometime in the next couple of years.

“We have the ability to really liberate the interior and create a completely new sort of DNA. What you’re seeing is obviously our focus, we have to deliver very competitive and appealing and attractive ICE products as well as EV products. But going forward that curve of emotion and enthusiasm creatively is going to just accelerate with the dawning of gen three products,” he says.

The Avinya is an example of how an EV design gives design more freedom. While the car, at least in its concept stage is more around 4.3 meters in length (this is roughly the size of a compact sedan, for perspective), the space in the interior is the same as the much larger SUV, the Tata Harrier.

“But it’s on a much smaller footprint,” Martin reasserts, but with the same space and comfort. “With the dawn of electric vehicles, we want to de-stress the customer. We really want to make it as a sanctuary.”

For a designer, it isn’t just about designing a beautiful car on the outside and letting someone else put something in the interior. The planning and integration, painstakingly methodical, which includes use of tools such as virtual reality (VR) headsets and complex software to visualise various points of a car as it is being developed. For instance, a driver’s view out and of the infotainment controls, from their seating position.

The VR space is expected to evolve rapidly in the coming years, particularly with the recent announcement of Apple’s upcoming headset. It is expected the likes of Microsoft (HoloLens), HTC (Vive) and Meta (Oculus) will make forward steps in the coming months. Alongside, the software and experiences, which developers will curate, are likely to improve too as headsets become more capable.

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Martin believes the availability of these tools is a good thing, and while more tech tools may speed up the process at some stage, the human element cannot be replaced. A designer’s creativity is not something machines can do.

“We’re looking at not just visually but from a sensual sensory point of view. It’s visual, its touch, materials, smell, and sound. All of that is being designed. Even the soundscape is being designed in terms of how the vehicle will communicate with you, the user or the passenger,” says Martin.

With design comes an identity, a collective personality, which begins with the car and includes the owner with it.

For Martin, the Tata’s Indian roots and heritage are not to be taken lightly.

“We’re also looking at it just from an Indian context. Our brand is from India, and it should wear that identity. When you see the interior, we see the vehicle with colors and everything should be vibrant and it should be more should be inviting,” says Martin.

“It should be a reflection of where it’s from,” that’s a compromise Martin and his design team aren’t willing to make.

Just as consumers don’t have tools to predict the future, automobile designers do not either. This is where strategy, and the good old intuition play a big role.

“We have to be strategic. When we’re designing this product and it has a start of production in 2025, let’s be honest, this car will be on the road in 2030 or 2033 and still being sold new. Then it’ll still be on the road probably by the mid 30s. In many ways, our design studio today is actually the showroom in 2025 but here we are in 2023,” Martin illustrates the need for a future vision, from the very stage a first sketch is made for a concept car.

“We are three years ahead when you walk into design, but actually we are designing for 10 years ahead,” he adds.

The need to future proof products, by strategy, prediction and a lot of data that companies have about consumer trends, is important because technology will evolve.

Martin says it is important to make it strategic which means it is simpler to upgrade and improve without completely redoing the whole thing. All this seems easier than it actually is.


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