In today’s competitive business environment, apart from functionality, technology and economic characteristics, the aesthetic properties also play an important role in the competitiveness of buses and coaches.
Truck & Bus News talked to Stephan Schoenherr, Vice President Design Bus, MAN Truck & Bus, during the Busworld Kortrijk 2017 regarding the company’s efforts and developments in bus styling.
“There is a difference between design and styling. From my understanding, design means engineering. Styling is about applying character to a product so that it reflects a certain personality. A well-designed car versus a well-styled car; both are the result of good designs but styling makes it extraordinary. Thus, I am responsible for the styling of both MAN and Neoplan buses. This covers all styling aspects including exterior, interior, colour trim and fabrics. We work closely with the engineers and transform the extravagance into style.”
The configuration that needs to be taken into consideration, he said, would be the functionality of the vehicle, the laws and regulations of each state and country, a certain product language, fashion, the appearance and the benefits to customers, drivers and passengers.
Would they involve customers in some point during the process? He replied that they normally kept it a secret when they started on a design project. “We don’t copy each other in Europe; we want to come out with new ideas that no one has thought of before. We do a design sketch and present it to the management. Once we have decided on the design, we might involve key customers that have been with MAN for many years who are trusted to get some feedback. Of course, this would depend on the project. Our engineers would also present their work on the technical aspect. Feedback is important as it allows us to modify our design in the early stages.”
Important design aspects
On the most important aspect in styling a product, he pointed out that there were several. Durable style and a sense of timeless were the golden rules, thus they did not put too much ‘aggressive stuff’ in the design. It should be able to last for at least 10 to 15 years, depending how long the customers would use the vehicle. Or even after they had sold their vehicle to others. The buses in Asian countries had to last even longer.
“Besides that, we have to make sure that the style of the vehicle does not go too far off from each other if they belong to the same family. For instance, if it is a MAN bus, it has to look similar to other MAN’s bus family members. We call it family styling; it follows our ‘design criteria’. For the exterior, apart from aerodynamics, we have to look at how to make the appearance look robust and sound, give passengers the confidence that it is ‘strong’ and dynamic enough to go through traffic. We modify the design for a new bus or coach, but we do not make radical changes on everything and this also applies to the interior. The driver’s cab and passenger area also need attention, especially for the long haul. We have to create a comfortable and welcoming ‘look and feel’ experience through the seats, colour tone and lighting.”
Equally important is the dashboard design, in which he pointed out the need to provide a full view of the instruments and all controls being within reach and exactly in the right place. The styling has to support and provide great ergonomics.
“With the increasing demand for the fleet management system, GPS tracking and other apps, we also have to look into this aspect when we design a bus. For example, the GPS device should be hidden for security purposes so that it could not be easily removed when the bus is stolen. In future, all the apps might show up on the screen. The future Human Man Interface (HMI) has to anticipate the changes in the driving task towards full automation,” he added.
How would an autonomous bus look like? Would there be a driver’s area? Schoenherr revealed that they did a lot of studies and research with youngsters and the universities to see how they responded to the idea of an autonomous bus.
“I think the driver area would still be maintained in the autonomous bus. The authorities, bus operator companies and passengers would not feel safe with a bus that has no driver. You would need a driver or a transportation professional on board to monitor and take control, such as during emergency, when the vehicle encounters a situation that it cannot automatically handle, or when it is attacked or hijacked by crazy people. The driver in future has to assume other tasks for example, entertaining or servicing the passengers.”
Future styling trends
The latest bus styling trend, he said, was moving towards car-like automotive styling; the interior quality has gone from basic and utilitarian to comfortable and luxurious. The appearance is no longer mainly box shape, but more towards dynamic and interesting looks with improved aerodynamics for better fuel consumption. There is also a trend in optimising the size of bus, reflecting the efficiency of using smaller buses at higher frequencies.
“New design concepts transform the space, make seating more flexible, for example the possibility of sitting around as a group. Nice table, open windows as well as creating moods and atmosphere with lighting and colour tones. We also integrate the technology into the bus design and styling.”
According to him, apart from a permanent team of stylists, they also had contract stylists. “We are very flexible. It depends on the size of the project; if we need more hands, we will involve the contract designers. We also work with famous stylists in certain projects.”
For Schoenherr, the greatest challenge was to get the idea done. “Good communication between designers and engineers is the key to building great products. We have to work closely with the engineers, and for me the success is measured based on whether the final product looks close to what we had created in there. If the differences are minor, we are successful. It is important that the designers and engineers work hand-in hand from start to finish.”
Being the first is not as important as having the right timing and quality in the design and styling world. “You need to be sensitive enough to sense the right timing. If you present the idea too early, the market might not be ready. I started the Bus Design division at Salzgitter, Germany in 1998 and one year later I was assigned to design a whole bus on my own. Instead of following the dark interior colour schemes at that time, we decided to make a difference. We introduced Lions’ Star bus, which featured a distinctive bright white in 2001. Well, it was not very successful; thus having the right timing is very crucial.”
He added that there needed to be a synergy among styling, marketing and engineering for a truly successful product to come to fruition.
Hall of fame
MAN’s and Neoplan’s innovative styling and design efforts in its buses and coaches were recognised through various awards. He said although MAN only participated in the major design award competition, the company was very successful over the years. The company received more design awards for buses than other bus manufacturers. MAN has won 14 design awards to-date since its first award for ‘Coach of the Year’ in 1994. The Neoplan Tourliner was the winner of iF Design Award 2017 in the ‘Automobiles/Vehicles/ Bikes’ category’, while the MAN Lion’s Coach won the Grand Coach Award as well as additional recognition for its comfort and design. Others awards included the IF Gold award won by MAN Lion’s Intercity in 2016 and the prestigious design prize, the red dot, that was won by eight different MAN and Neoplan buses since 2002, including the Lion’s City Hybrid in 2011, and the red dot award: product design 2012 by Neoplan Skyliner.
“Buses have the capacity to carry a lot more people. It is very useful as it saves more fuel and resources. It reduces the CO2 emissions generated and is more environmental friendly. Bus is the future of urban transport; its styling and design progressed rapidly in the last 20 years, from appearance to the driver’s cabin as well as passenger comfort and safety. We see the importance of investing in bus styling and design to meet rising customer expectations, attract more passengers and for the good of human society,” he concluded.