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It sure feels like AI is coming for us all now. Even car designers aren’t safe. However, the part none of us were expecting was that “artificial intelligence” would hit creatives first. I am far from anything resembling a tech person. I won’t pretend to understand how it all works or disrespect you, dear reader, by trying to explain it poorly. But now that we have crowded the internet with all the best of what we humans could create through joy, pain, humor, suffering, anger, sorrow, celebration, or anything else learned through our shared experience of being alive, these AI programs (is that what they call them?) are stealing from the best and giving us the rest. Frank Stephenson – famed McLaren, Ferrari, and Maserati designer – has a sobering message for us.

An AI car design showing what a car designed by Van Gogh might have looked like
AI design | AI

Can AI design cars? 

Stephenson’s claim to fame was being the hand behind designing the legendary McLaren P1. He also recently came up with the design language to take McLaren from a race car to a street car. He now hosts a YouTube channel where he brings up this issue of AI designing cars. As was wisely noted by The Drive’s article on this subject, “​​When Stephenson says that AI will change the industry, it pays to listen.”

“It took me over a decade to learn how to design my own cars,” says Stephenson. “If you were to go back and tell me as an eight-year-old that all I needed to do was imagine something, and a computer would create it… my head would have exploded.”

The majority of what Stephenson talks about is these new text-to-image engines. We’ve seen programs like DALL-E and Midjourney “creating” images based on inputted text. “If you’ve ever wondered what a Frankenstein of a Mini Cooper and a McLaren P1 could look like, well, imagine no more,” says Stephenson. 

But are AI cars any good? 

Unfortunately, yeah, they are. Stephenson’s warning is that AI could easily reduce the number of designers employed by carmakers.

Stephenson mentions other scenarios like a car designed by Ikea or Pablo Picasso. He even shares some of the images with his YouTube viewers. What sucks is that some of these designs are cool. Like, you’re telling me you wouldn’t drive the “1980s car designed by Picasso?” It’s a Pontiac Fiero mixed with a Superbird. I didn’t know it before now, but it turns out that’s the sports car 10-year-old me would have died for. 

So, what do we do with this stuff? 

Could AI help car design? 

A red Ferrari hatchback design made by AI
Ferrari hatchback mockup | AI

It makes my skin crawl to entertain the idea, but as we said from the jump, the wise would listen to Stephenson on this matter; I guess that means me too. 

He shows some images of an AI “fixed” BMW grill. His point is that AI could be a helpful tool to tweak already existing car designs. This is clearly an efficient tool. It just might come at the cost of human employees. Now, this is a part of the YouTube video where he is clearly poking a bit of fun at BMW. He asked the AI to generate photos that show a “BMW GRILLE THAT ISN’T HIDEOUS.” Although he was playing around a little, the results are impressive. Granted, it doesn’t take a futuristic AI to see that answer to BMW’s grill issue is simply to make them smaller, but I’m not being a hater. Stephenson explains that AI’s ability to focus on details is probably the most likely application. 

Good or bad, do we really want AI designing our cars? 

The major flaw in text-to-image programs is that they rely on existing images to build its designs. As we said earlier, this keeps them from coming up with truly unique and original designs. 

Ultimately, AI programs could certainly be useful tools in a real designer’s toolbox, but real design requires a human with emotions, memories, fears, hobbies, lovers, and all the other things written about by poets. 


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