Hyundai’s lead designer says new tech is forcing the industry to get out of its comfort zone — and that’s a good thing

Peter Schreyer, Hyundai's lead designer.

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Peter Schreyer, Hyundai’s lead designer.
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Hyundai-Kia

  • HyundaiKia design director Peter Schreyer isn’t quite ready to give up on human drivers.
  • He said electric and autonomous vehicles present great design challenges and opportunities, and that cars have always been defined by technological progress.
  • Schreyer designed the Kia Stinger, one of the best cars Business Insider has tested in 2018.

If you’re casting around for a European car designer who defines the profession, look no farther the Peter Schreyer.

The native of Germany, who now directs design for South Korea’s Hyundai-Kia partnership, sat down with Business Insider for an interview at the New York auto show in late March. Schreyer was, as always, dressed entirely in black, save for a polka-dot scarf. This is exactly what a car designer is supposed to look like.

Schreyer, who arrived at Kia in 2006 after a very successful run at Volkswagen and Audi, designed the Stinger sport sedan, a car that I’ve now sampled twice and would like sample again and again. (Schreyer created the Stinger with Gregory Guillaume, chief designer at Kia Motors Europe).

After I told Schreyer that while driving the Stinger I had been stopped in traffic by people demanding to know how such a cool car could be a Kia, he confessed that the German police had stopped him in his Stinger, ostensibly to check his license, only to later admit, Schreyer said, “they stopped me because they wanted to see the car.”

“We get a lot of this kind of reaction,” he said, with winking modesty.

According to Schreyer, the Stinger – a challenger to established sports sedans from BMW and Audi and, when it was introduced in 2017, a shocking addition to the Kia brand – was a “dream to make, super-rewarding for a designer” and ultimately, “something special.”

The Kia Stinger.

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The Kia Stinger.
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Matthew DeBord/BI

The future of the automobile

That said, the Stinger is a throwback of sorts, a modern grand-touring car that evokes the great GTs of the past, from legendary marques such as Alfa Romeo and Maserati. The inspiration for the Stinger came from the romantic motoring image of a well-heeled European couple setting off in a stylish car for a weekend jaunt from city to shore.

So what did Schreyer have to say about the future of the automobile – and in particular electric and self-driving cars?

Unsurprisingly, he sees both challenges and opportunities.

“You can make different proportions when you don’t have a combustion engine,” he said. But he also commented on a trend of car companies using out-there concept vehicles to showcase their commitment to a high-tech future.

“You don’t want to show off the technology,” he said, “but present it in the right way.”

He added that “what has always moved us forward in the development of cars was technological progress,” noting that designers once grappled with windows that couldn’t be made flush and later had to deal with steering wheels that were required to incorporate airbags.

The driver stays in the picture

Hyundai's designer said human drivers will be around for awhile.

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Hyundai’s designer said human drivers will be around for awhile.
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Thomson Reuters

As for autonomous vehicles, Schreyer thinks that it will be more difficult to manage taking the driver out of the picture. He highlighted a scenario in which self-driving cars share the road with human-driven cars, calling it a major hurdle to overcome.

“That’s why we’ll have a steering wheel and a driver’s seat for a long time still,” he said.

Schreyer was born in the early 1950s and grew up, as he put it, “in the age of drivers.” But he recognizes that the auto industry is in a transformative moment.

“We were making small steps in the past, but now new thing are coming in very fast, and the speed of change is getting a lot faster,” he said.

He isn’t intimidated, however. Rather, he’s embraced his role, even if he couldn’t have fully envisioned it decades ago when he started out.

“It puts you out of your comfort zone and forces you to come up with new solutions,” he said. “That keeps it exciting.”