“Competitive days are over”: Lexus hints at the future of open source design

Lexus Chief Designer and Studio Resource Manager Alex Shen explains how “collaboration is the key to faster improvement” across the automotive industry as the company targets net zero.

Automotive design history is isolated and secret, with collaboration reserved for special associations, but when it comes to sustainability, even with combustion engines being phased out by electric and hydrogen power, progress isn’t fast enough.

With automakers holding so much proprietary information and IP, Lexus (which is owned by Toyota) proposes that making research and development open source will help them achieve their collective goal of cleaning up an industry with huge debt debt. carbon and an uncertain future.

Today, car companies are engaged in thinking about the hot topic of regenerative design by recycling on an industrial scale and reusing materials wherever possible. Meanwhile, Lexus and its parent company Toyota are focusing on watching their supply chains as carefully as their new cars in a bid to become zero-carbon by 2050.

According to Calty Design Research lead designer and Lexus studio resource manager Alex Shen, collaborative thinking has always been a topic of conversation within Lexus. The company was particularly proud of its hybrid technology, which is why the design team was “willing to share it,” says Shen, adding that he thought it could “help a lot of other car companies.”

Alex Shen, lead designer at Calty Design Research and studio resource manager, with the clay model of the electrified sports car. Credit: Calty Design Research

It’s also evident from Lexus’s partnerships over the past decade that it’s no stranger to platform sharing. More recently, Lexus entered into a relationship with Mazda in 2019 to develop a second-generation Lexus RC coupe. Together with Toyota, it co-developed the GT86 with Subaru, launched in 2013, and worked on its Supra project, launched in 2018, together with BMW.

In Shen’s view, “the days of being competitive in nature” and hiding new ideas from other companies are over, especially when it comes to sustainability. He says that “collaboration is the key to faster improvement,” which is necessary to achieve carbon neutrality targets by 2050.

As with other industries, such as furniture and product design, making serious changes to become more environmentally conscious alters everything, including entire business models in some cases. Although Lexus is committed to carrying out the necessary research, Shen says, “the more we investigate, the heavier the subject becomes.”

He adds that “open source thinking is good” and believes it’s something Lexus will continue to do in the future. If open source thinking is embraced across the industry, Lexus should also benefit from the research of others.

Shen says that companies need to “move carefully but also move quickly,” explaining that the last two years have been “really focused on learning what the best solutions are.” He hints that there is currently a project related to those solutions in the works at Lexus.

“Quality is part of sustainability”

Since Lexus is the luxury vehicle division of Toyota, its users naturally expect a certain level of quality, performance and technology. From a design perspective, Shen says the Calty team is looking to make cars that “people can fall in love with” and want to keep longer. “Let’s stop thinking that you have to change your car every three years,” he adds. The result, and another sustainable solution for the auto industry, would be a decrease in the number of cars being built.

The notion of repairing instead of replacing is another point of contention within the Calty design studio. Electric motors generally have simple mechanics with most of the power in the battery, which loses charge capacity over time. Because of this, Shen says it’s possible to transfer high-performance car batteries to models “that don’t require a high level of performance” to extend battery life. He adds that there has been talk of “future-proofing” technology and designing it to be upgradeable rather than replaceable.

Tire for Lexus Electrified Sport vehicles. Credit: Lexus Newsroom

From a material perspective, Shen says Lexus is doing its best in terms of “lifecycle management and how it treats materials,” though he admits there are limitations in some areas. The choice of sustainable exterior materials is limited, and sourcing sustainable tires is “a big problem” that the company is trying to solve, he explains. This is not surprising given that more is now known about tires being a microplastic pollutant as they wear, as well as having a significant carbon footprint when manufactured.

Despite this, Lexus is thinking about longevity when it comes to choosing materials by opting for those that “don’t break easily and are durable,” according to Shen.

“Not everything is about zero”

Although carbon neutrality is a key focus for Lexus, “it’s not an easy task to address every issue,” says Shen, adding, “it’s not about zero, it’s about the best we can do.”

The Beyond Zero series seeks to maintain this mindset by adding vehicles to Lexus’ sustainable portfolio that satisfy customers in different price ranges. The costs associated with reaching net zero goals can often drive up the price of a vehicle, making it inaffordable for a large proportion of customers.

Shen says that the Beyond Zero series is about making sure that “customers are happy at every level and that they can be a part of Lexus’ sustainability direction. The challenge seems to be striking a balance between providing enough options and keeping the mindset beyond zero at the forefront of your designs.

The Takumi spirit of Lexus

The new Lexus Electrified Sports Concept, which recently made its debut outside of Japan, embodies Lexus’ vision of a high-performance all-electric future model. Its design adopts recognizable sports car characteristics, including the proportions of the rear cab and long hood, and a low ride height, with enhanced performance potential coming from its electric powertrain and state-of-the-art battery technology. solid. According to Shen, the concept vehicle is a spiritual successor to the Lexus LFA V10 supercar, launched in 2010.

Lexus electrified sports car. Credit: Lexus Newsroom

It was initially developed at the Calty design studio in California, where Shen and his team, chosen through an internal competitive sketching exercise, began with a focus on aerodynamics. “A member of the team found a cool video about aerobatic airplane racing,” Shen says, referencing the vapor trails left by planes to plot their dynamic flight path, which sparked the idea of ​​including air as the concept. center design.

The Calty team also wanted to pay tribute to the “Takumi spirit” of Lexus. In Japan, the word Takumi refers to a craftsman who is unrivaled in his field of expertise. As the founder of the company was originally a loom maker, fabric prints were designed on the vehicle. Shen explains that the front and rear of the car show examples of how “unlikely components integrate with each other through weaving,” such as the grille-textured taillight and the undercarriage with front corners.

Lexus Electrified Sport vehicle from behind. Credit: Lexus Newsroom

What’s next for Lexus?

The interior design of the electrified sports car has yet to be revealed, but Shen says we can expect to see more soon, hinting that there’s “a lot of innovation” involved.

He adds that Lexus is moving toward a “warm tech” approach to prevent the user from feeling cold or strange, especially in high-performance vehicles. “Some people like a lot of gadgets and some don’t, but you shouldn’t have to look at a manual every time you use them,” Shen says.

As for performance, he describes electrification as a “big step” for Lexus, adding that we can expect to see elements of the electrified sports concept in future products. “There’s a lot on the Lexus plate right now, so you’ll probably see a lot more in the future,” Shen says.

Lexus Shaped by Air Installation

During Miami Art & Design Week 2022, Lexus unveiled its Shaped by Air installation, inspired by the electrified sports car and designed by Reddymade Architecture and Design founder, artist and architect Suchi Reddy. The brief tasked Reddy with “highlighting the spirit of Lexus” through the installation, which he says resonated with his curiosity about “how our environment affects us and how we affect our environment.”

When Reddy first saw the car, he said it was lower than he imagined, describing it as “wide and flat with beautiful curves.” He also compared the car’s design to the work of French artist Henri Matisse, describing their “similar lines, shapes and cutouts.”

The process began with the tracing on an image of the car, which was then separated into various cutouts. Reddy says his goal was to make something “as ethereal as possible” because a car is such a solid object.

Lexus’ Shaped by Air installation that made its debut during Miami Art and Design Week at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Credit: Lexus Newsroom

Post-consumer metals sourced in the US make up the bulk of the sculpture, which was pounded into shape with a double-ended mallet, one metal side and one leather side, around wooden stencils. Reddy explains that he deliberately designed a “complete abstraction of the car” that could be made in “an analog way” that is very different from how a car is made on an assembly line.

Fog and light were incorporated into the sculpture to “represent the shape [of the car] through non-solid shapes,” according to Reddy. She says, “Even when you look at the actual car when it’s standing still, it looks like it’s moving because of the lines and aerodynamic design.”

The Lexus Shaped by Air installation at night. Credit: Lexus Newsroom

She sought to add the same effect to the sculpture through the incorporation of light, which she says pursues [the installation] like headlights in the fog.” As it gets darker at night, the effects of lights and mist become more exaggerated, emphasizing the ethereal nature of the sculpture.

Reddy believes that breaking the friction between the automotive world and the natural world “is not an easy thing.” Despite this, he says the piece has allowed him to “take an idea and bring it into the physical world to give people a different perspective.”

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