Having owned both a 2001 VW Golf and a 2019 VW Golf, I’ll say the experience of driving basic-transportation cars has not changed much in eighteen years. Aside from the nav system and some minor refinements, my current car feels much the same as my 2001 did.
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Trucks, however, have changed a shit-ton in the same time period. They’ve become more capable, more comfortable, easier to drive, safer, and have been lavished with the design attention a highly profitable object deserves. When I reviewed the full-size GMC Sierra last winter, I found it a tough vehicle with sophisticated features, and it was perfect for doing work around our farm. It does things that a car can’t, and that a truck from even ten years ago couldn’t.
Dodge, Ford and GM have been competing ferociously for their respective shares of the massive full-size truck market (2.4 million sold in 2018), and in this market, design is a big differentiator. As one example, look at the innovations in tailgate designs across the different manufacturers. The modern-day truck owner wants to maximize the utility of their purchase, and the designers are listening.
Honda’s two-way tailgate (admittedly not a full-size pickup, but an innovative tailgate nonetheless)
Ford’s tailgate step
Dodge’s two-way split tailgate
GMC’s MultiPro tailgate with step and loading stops
And just as the desirability of trucks has grown among consumers, so too have transportation designers’ desires to work on them. “I’ve been here almost 28 years,” says Carl Zipfel, GM’s truck studios Design Manager, Exterior Design, “and when I was hired, most car designers coming out of college wanted to work on a show car, or something like a Corvette. Back then, if you got put in the truck studio, it was almost seen as a punishment,” he laughs. “It wasn’t as glamorous, right? Designing this utilitarian tool, while the Corvette gets all of the attention.
“But now,” he says, “the truck studio is the biggest, busiest studio in the building.”
So what are all of those designers working on, what problems are they solving? As with the design of most things, the first thing that needs to be done is research: What problems do the end users need solved?
The Research: Needs and Wants
“Feedback is super important,” Zipfel says. “The architecture of the new Heavy Duty Sierra, for instance, is larger and completely different than the architecture of the Light Duty; this is the first time we’ve done that, and it was completely driven by heavy duty truck customer feedback.”
2020 Sierra AT4, Light Duty at left, Heavy Duty at right.
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I ask how that feedback is gathered and transmitted to the designers. “In all of the design programs in our building, whether it’s car or truck, we go through a process, and it starts with the customer,” Zipfel explains. “If it’s an all-new vehicle, where we’re designing it from the ground up, we meet with customers–owners of our vehicles or competitors’ vehicles–at these events that we call clinics.”
What goes on at the clinics? “In the beginning, basic questions, and things like putting them into seating bucks to ask ‘Is this enough legroom in the rear seats, do you want more?’ For the exterior design, we show them a lot of stimuli, our different trim levels, for instance. Part of the challenge is that there’s not just one formula for us; we have a lot of different trim levels, so we’re taking input from folks who have different tastes.”
Zipfel explains that this all-important customer interaction is a multi-step process. “We hold these clinics three times during the design process. The first one is held early on, then we have one in the middle, then a final one that we call ‘Confirmation,’ by which time the design’s pretty much locked up. That final one is to confirm that we’ve got it all together and got it right.”
Design changes, however, can still be made after Confirmation. “As I was doing my design lock on the Heavy Duty, we added a step in front of the rear wheel. That step helps the customer get up to the front of the box, so they can hook up a gooseneck trailer, or slide cargo to the front, or just reach the tiedown hooks from the outside. And that step was added from direct customer influence.”
Aside from prompting the designers to develop specific features and tweaks, the clinics also help the designers connect the dots, so to speak, by understanding how the customer’s mindset and experiences drive their purchasing decisions. “Especially at the clinics for the Denali brand, we’d try to get to the root of, ‘Why are you willing to pay $80,000 for a brand new pickup truck?’ A lot of these folks would say ‘I love my truck, I spend more time in it than I do my house.’ These guys are earning a living in their trucks and they’re in them all day.
“Others have said ‘Yeah, my truck might be 80 grand–but I’m pulling $250,000 worth of value on the trailer behind it.’ When you hear some of these stories, you totally get it right away. They start describing how they’re hauling a couple of show horses in a 30-foot-long trailer. They’re hauling out of Texas and heading to a high-end equestrian show in Colorado. So they’re relying on their truck to safely transport their prize possession, and passion of life, to a place far, far away from home.
“And the truck is also going to be their base camp for the whole time they’re there. So we incorporate power outlets, USB ports, all kinds of convenience features that you’ve come to expect. They need the power to pull a heavy trailer up and down a Colorado mountain pass road, so we’ve got the DuraMax engine with the diesel set-up and the ten-speed Allison transmission. Hearing those kinds of stories is why we develop all of these features.”
Up Next: To check out these features in person, Core77 traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as part of a contingent of primarily automotive journalists. Stay tuned!