How Are Cars Designed?

Unfinished painting of a car

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As you sit behind the wheel of your car on your daily commute, have you ever wondered how the wonder of modern engineering you’re driving was actually designed?

Whether you have wondered or didn’t start wondering until we posed the question, you’re in luck — we took a deep dive into the world of car design to figure out where these ideas come from, including how they start life as scribbles on a page and evolve to become a working mechanism.

Clean Sheet vs. Upgrade

With so many car models on the market today, it’s hard to imagine each one of them started as a clean sheet of paper. We’ll get into car upgrades later, but for now, we’ll be talking about “clean sheet” designs — brand-new cars that have never before seen the light of day.

Design is a lot more important than it used to be. In the early days, manufacturers would create the chassis and then build the car around it. Today, new car designs all start on paper. A team of engineers, stylists and designers must all sit down together to come up with original sketches for the car’s design.

They might have some criteria to work with — for example, if the manufacturer wants a new 4-door coupe, the designers must know and follow that protocol. Outside of these requests, they are typically left to their own devices.

Once the possible designs are completed, they are evaluated for suitability and narrowed down to one or two choices. Then, it’s time to make some models.

Traditional vs. Modern Modeling Techniques

Traditionally, clay models were used to display the new car. A full-sized model of the car was crafted out of clay and painted to resemble the finished product. Car manufacturers could also create similar models out of plastic. These were harder to perfect in some cases, but they were lighter and provided a more realistic model for the public to observe.

Today, these models can be made without any additional materials by building the car on a computer. This tool is useful because it can be easily modified, rotated to be viewed from any angle and colored as needed. Once the design is complete, it’s fed to a 3D printer or milling machine that cuts the car out.

Both types of models, once complete, are used for more than just showing off how the car looks — they can also test the design for aerodynamics.

One benefit of using a computer is that it can also predict how the designed car will respond in the event of an accident. This information can be invaluable — you don’t want to start building even a prototype if you’re sure it will fail horribly under stress.

Interior and Exterior Modeling

The exterior of your car was modeled first — it’s easier for interior designers and engineers to figure out how they’re going to design the inside if the outside is already in place. Once the exterior is complete, designers start creating the interior of the car, choosing everything from the seat and dashboard styles to the upholstery and other accouterments.

This is also the stage where the chosen materials are tested, tested and tested again.  Everything that makes up your car will repeatedly be examined to determine which elements work best for the vehicle and engine assembly. They’ll be subjected to temperature changes, environmental changes, hands-on use and anything else your car would experience on a regular basis. If a particular material fails, it will be replaced with something else that can withstand normal wear and tear.

Model Approval and Engineering

Once the model is complete, it is presented to the company’s board of directors, who have the final say on whether it is sufficient for their needs. If the model is approved, the board and other internal departments will begin marketing, while the engineers start production on the car itself.

This is the stage where you will start to see things like crash safety testing, as well — once they’ve got a complete physical car to work with, safety specialists can begin tests. The computer models we mentioned earlier can be a great tool, but they’re no replacement for actual physical tests.

Once the engineering is done, the car is built and the tests have been completed, the manufacturer can start full-scale production of these new vehicles. It won’t be long before you see them rolling off the assembly line and showing up on the showroom floor of your favorite car dealership.

The Remodel Circuit

Some car models change from year to year, but most don’t. Those that don’t change quickly are on what is known as a remodel circuit. This circuit usually lasts four to six years, meaning your favorite car will likely be redesigned every half-decade or so.

Once a car is up for remodeling, we find ourselves back at the beginning of this process. Many remodels are minor, but some end up sending the entire car design back to the drawing board. The changes made are dependent on a variety of things, including market feedback, customer complaints and even recalls that have been completed during the remodel circuit.

How Cars Are Designed

It’s almost romantic how a drawing on a piece of paper can grow and change to become a full car.  Aesthetics are nearly as important as performance and safety these days, so it’s up to the designers to create a vehicle that provides security, performance and visual appeal. If you don’t like what they’ve done to your favorite car model, just wait a few years — chances are, it’s on a remodel circuit and will be changing again soon.

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