Younger consumers forcing changes in car design

2009 Dodge Ram, Ralph Gilles, Joe Veltri

Ralph Gilles says many of the millennial generation haven’t yet found a need for cars, but they will. / Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

More than ever, designing cars people want is a tricky business.

Rapidly developing technology, changing demographics, emerging global markets and stricter fuel efficiency standards have forced automakers to rethink how they design cars and conduct consumer research, top automotive executives said today at the SAE 2013 World Congress in Detroit.

“You can’t use traditional research methods to ask a customer ‘do you like this or do you like that,’” said Mike O’Brien, Hyundai vice president of corporate planning and product strategy.

Instead, O’Brien said automakers must ask consumers about the forces changing their lives.

For instance, O’Brien said Hyundai had to do research a few years ago to decide if it really was going to drop traditional V6 engines for its midsize sedans in favor of only four-cylinder engines. The question was hard to research since it had never been tried before.

“It was a big risk, but the sales speak for themselves,” O’Brien said.

Ralph Gilles, senior vice president of design for Chrysler, also said the changing demographics are changing how automakers design cars.

Millennials, generally those born between 1980 and 2000, have been hard for automakers to reach, partially because they have vastly different expectations for cars and transportation than their parents.

But Gilles said he thinks millennials are often misunderstood.

“Everyone says they don’t like cars,” Gilles said. “Maybe. But I don’t buy that. They just don’t need cars right now.”

Another assumption that Gilles challenged is that Americans prefer large cars.

In 2012, sales of small and compact carsincreased 27% in the U.S. compared with 13% for the overall industry.

“I think small is the next big thing. I think small cars are finally here,” Gilles said.