Lexus boss: Time for a clean-sheet approach to cars

Dave Guilford is news editor for Automotive News

March 17, 2014 - 12:01 am ET

GENEVA -- You might assume that Tokuo Fukuichi, who takes over as head of Lexus on April 1, will walk in the door with firm ideas about the brand's look.

But Fukuichi, who will remain Toyota's global design head, says that's not true.

In an interview at the Geneva auto show, Fukuichi, speaking through an interpreter, parried a question about Lexus' design future by saying, "The honest and frank answer is we really don't know."

"Mysterious," he added.

Lexus already has undergone a design transformation epitomized by the "spindle" grille -- which, Fukuichi takes pains to explain, consists of much more than the front end of the car.

But pressures on the auto industry are likely to produce vehicles quite different, and quite different looking, from today's vehicles, he says.

Fuel economy and emissions regulations are pushing automakers to use plastics, resins and aluminum -- all of which offer new freedom to create fascinating shapes and new challenges in cost and volume production.

New powertrain options -- imagine a fuel cell vehicle with four in-wheel motors, rather than a big powerplant under the hood, for instance -- could lead to a wholesale reconfiguring of the car's layout.

And why not? Fukuichi asks. Compared to many other products, the automobile seems overdue for a rethinking, he says.

"I think it's rather strange, because we have other products that we use as consumers, the mobile phones and other devices, which change and evolve in a much shorter time span," he says. "So I think it's a little weird that we're not doing that with the car."

We're in an era when everyday products like wristwatches will be supplanted by smartphones unless they offer some style, some psychological value, Fukuichi says. Mix in the prospect of self-guided vehicles, and the future looks mysterious indeed.

But Fukuichi finds it stimulating: "I think it's quite exciting if we think about the future in that way."