What if automakers could slash the weight of their vehicles 30 percent, 40 percent, even 50 percent?
A panel of top designers will discuss that as part of the annual Michelin Challenge Design contest.
Reducing vehicle weight is one of the most challenging and rewarding areas in automotive development.
Every ounce of weight you remove from a part affects all the parts around it. Those parts then affect their neighbors, and so on.
"This is about more than just styling," said Jim Hall, managing director of 2953 Analytics and moderator of the panel discussion at the Automotive Press Association this week. "It requires an understanding of where the market is going and what technologies are available or near.
"Design should be the part of an automaker that pushes the organization into the future."
This year's goal is to design vehicles that combine radical weight reduction with exciting, passionate looks and performance.
Bob Boniface, Cadillac exterior design director and design director of the Chevrolet Volt; Mark Trostle, design chief for Chrysler's SRT performance brand, and Michael Arbaugh, chief interior designer for the 2013 Ford Fusion and the current Ford Explorer and F-150, will be on the panel.
The program also includes a video about the wild-looking lightweight Delta Wing race car that will compete this June in France in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
"The notion of designing super-efficient lightweight vehicles employs a lot of different technologies," said Stewart Reed, chief juror and chair of transportation design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. "The Challenge encompasses everything from new propulsion systems to energy storage, lightweight materials, parts simplification and aerodynamics. There's been a sense that super-efficient vehicles require a lot of sacrifice and denial. That's not true. Look at racing bicycles. Their performance and light weight flow directly from design."
The Challenge culminates at the North American International Auto Show every year, where a stand displays 25 to 30 of the top entries along with designs by students at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.
"Designers have to be multi-disciplinarians in the Michelin Challenge," Hall said. "A lot depends on the materials and technologies they choose."
The Michelin Challenge Design has become a focal point for designers around the world. Previous topics included designing vehicles for megacities in the year 2046, creating America's next iconic vehicle, making ultra-safe small vehicles, and designing for specific places ranging from California to China, Germany and France.
"This is the best design contest in the world," said Reed, who got his start thanks to a scholarship from a General Motors design contest. "A lot of young talent comes up through the Challenge."
Past judges have included designers for virtually every major automaker and teachers at top design schools around the world. More than 4,300 people from 109 countries have participated since the Challenge began in 2003.
The jury starts with 250 or more design proposals. Each entry has to include sketches from at least two different perspectives and a written description of the vehicle and how it addresses the year's topic.
For more information, including videos and sketches from last year's contest, go to michelinchallengedesign.com.
The contest gives design students, companies and schools around the world an unrivaled chance to put their work in front of some of their field's leaders. That counts for a lot in the close-knit world of automotive design, where it seems like everybody knows everybody else.
For Michelin, and the rest of us, the contest and this week's panel discussion provide a window onto what the future of transportation may look like.
Mark Phelan is the auto critic for the Detroit Free Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.