Speaking at Business of Design Week 2015, Hong Kong’s first man in car design talks about the future of vehicles, our genetic need for mobility and life in the fast lane.
He’s the guy behind the Porsche 911 Carrera (996 series), the Boxster 987 and the first generation of Caymans for the German car company. Having also worked for BMW and Ford, Pinky Lai is the first Hongkonger to make it in the world of car design.
Lai was drafting cable lines in Hong Kong when he fell into interior design. This happy accident led him to study industrial design in Rome in the 1970s – a move that ultimately led him into car design, his lifelong love.
His passion for his métier is something he’s being recognised for back in Asia: Lai just received a Lifetime Achievement Award at Hong Kong Design Centre’s DFA Awards on 2 December 2015. Here, Lai – who is only semi-retired post-Porsche – opens up about what’s next for him.
You’re working on an electric vehicle here in Hong Kong – please could you tell us about it?
It’s been changed to something of a very different nature, but it doesn’t matter which end of the spectrum it’s at, it’s going to be electric. But it’s really amazing, the nature of the project, how it’s unfolded.
It’s going to make a much bigger impact when we launch it [than we foresaw when we started out]. It’s bigger than all of us put together. Hopefully it will come out in the next 10 months. That’s already a record time-wise.
What’s your view on the Tesla?
I like the technology aspect of the Tesla. I was very impressed after test-driving the model S. I was driving it like I drive a Porsche. The girl got a shock once I took off, but then she realised I wasn’t kidding when I said I worked for Porsche.
What do you drive now?
I drive a very modest Cayenne diesel. I have to force myself to drive that car, as I’m not very good at controlling my speed. I’m always too late by the time I realise I’ve been driving too fast. By the time the navigation tells me to turn left or right, I’m already way past the turnoff.
Where do you see cars going in future?
I used to think hydrogen might be a marketing ploy. But I’ve changed my opinion on that, because I’ve observed a few big brands, they’re really investing in it.
It’s that way with a lot of alternative energy: the technology is there, it’s a simple equation; it’s all about volume. The higher the volume of production, the cheaper it gets. It could be a good alternative to electric cars.
Why do you like designing cars so much?
In general designing cars is a childhood dream for both boys and girls. Once in a while they like to draw wheels and little cars alongside their matchstick people. That’s the root of it. It’s part of human nature, there must be something in the genes. We want to go beyond our neighbourhoods, and to do that we need transport; we need to be mobile.
What’s your view of the Chinese car market?
I look at the Chinese car industry, it started in the 1980s. And I look at them today, 35 years later, it’s still flopping. They’re hiring all these European designers and all those guys care about is cashing their paychecks. And how could they do anything different? They don’t have the roots. With technology, you can buy it and turn it into something that’s part of your culture, but you can’t buy design. It needs to be nurtured, incubated.
In Asia, something’s missing, and the only way to show it is just to do it. There are a whole bunch of returning home graduates coming home from the West, they’re very talented, but there’s no leadership. A good product can only be as good as the team – and the team is only as good as the leader of the team. You really need to do something: you have to launch it, put it on the road. That’s part of what I’m doing with the electric vehicle I’m working on.
If you could design whatever you wanted, what would it be?
It would definitely be transportation. It could be a bicycle, a motorcycle, a car or a boat. But not an aeroplane – planes are too tightly constrained with aerodynamics. They have very intensive weight issues; you don’t have this with cars. Once you’re constrained with materials, you’re constrained with shape, and also finance, too.
Business of Design Week