After 130 years of visual and technological evolution, the car is accelerating towards a genuine revolution in terms of aesthetics, uses, powertrain and capabilities. So much so that it could lead to the sort of creative free-thinking not seen since the swinging sixties. But the results may not be to everyone's tastes, especially as China overtakes Europe as the market that dictates global automotive styles.
"The 1960s was a huge moment [of change], and cars represented the most visible and tangible aspect of this progress," explains Fabio Filippini. An automotive design veteran with 30 years' experience, he's currently taking a break to reflect on the industry after six years as Pininfarina's chief creative officer.
"All of this excitement and passion in an era when men started going to the moon came together to create a very futuristic [automotive] design vision."
It was the decade that elevated the car from a form of personal mobility to a piece of rolling sculpture, an automotive object of desire, but all of that creativity came crashing back down to Earth in the 1970s when increasing safety regulations severely clipped designers' wings.
So much so that, according to Filippini, it took car companies and their design teams until the first decade of this century to finally hit on the right way of meeting safety standards without compromising on style.
"It is a challenge, it has been a challenge for the last 10-15 years," he says. "Safety has a huge influence on design, especially at the front of the car. It is still difficult now -- designing the front face of a car is almost like joining the dots and watching the picture appear. Nevertheless, if you look at cars today, they all look different."
Yet, with the move towards electric drivetrains and the constant development of technologies that will one day take over responsibility for driving a car, could we be about to see a second automotive design renaissance?
"We are on the verge of a big change," agrees Filippini. "It could be a huge transformation in terms of what we see or know today. There will be certainly an opportunity to [have a renaissance of design] again but it depends on how car companies handle it."
For instance, designers will no longer need to make space for things like engines or driveshafts and will be able to tear up the traditional floorplan blueprint. "You can displace every component in a free way because they are digitally connected. Eventually the front of the car could be very different from it is today," says Filippini. And that's just the start. As autonomous driving becomes a reality, then every familiar aspect of a car is open to change.
"If the car is driverless, people have much more freedom. You can imagine the interior totally differently with people sitting in totally different positions. But that poses questions."
For instance, how can you provide safety systems such as airbags and seatbelts, if no one knows where or how the passengers will be seated immediately before a collision?
If you are sitting in a traditional position, you can calculate exactly how the airbag and seatbelt will work. But if you give people the freedom to change position, you have to think how the safety has to react in many different positions. How can one test for so many eventualities?
The definition of a driverless car along with a battery pack that can offer gasoline-equivalent range is still some way in the future, but designers and car companies are going to start their visual adventures now. "We have to experiment," says Filippini. "Little by little, but enough to open up our vision further and further."
Because to move too quickly could actually alienate consumers. Despite the democratization of industrial design through companies such as Apple and via mainstream car companies employing the sort of creative brains that a generation ago could only be found at Mercedes, Lamborghini or Pininfarina, of course, new designs on the car could drive people out of their comfort zone.