} ;

The Designers Pt 16: Michael Robinson, ED Design

05 July 2016 | by Guy Bird

Turin is changing really, really fast. First Italdesign Giugiaro sold 90 percent to VW in 2010 and then the last 10 percent in 2015. Bertone went bankrupt in 2014, and Pininfarina was bought by Mahindra in late 2015. So the ‘big three’ sexy, iconic names are disappearing.

After that there were a bunch of very small, four-to-15-people operations trying to make their way. The biggest question is: is Turin as a centre of design excellence falling apart, or is it just changing names?

The older ‘big three’ had really expensive, heavy overheads, because they were built up in a different, golden period of car design and ended up being fat companies. My friend David Pizzorno met me one evening and asked whether I would be interested in bringing the ex-Bertone design team over to his engineering company to create a powerhouse group in the automotive industry.

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Michael Robinson with the ED Torq

We started to put together a much slimmer group of people for ED. I brought the design group in and there are now seven companies within ED, the majority of them engineering, but we also have manufacturing companies that produce testing equipment. For example, all the keys for FCA are made with machines built by ED. It’s not a sexy business, but it’s worldwide.

At the time Bertone dropped a lot of its clients and I went to each one of them and said, ‘you have a big problem. I’ll take on your projects, and make sure the things I started are finished properly.’ So we started with a bunch of clients right off the bat. It’s the first time in my life I changed from being an employee to an entrepreneur. It’s a different kind of responsibility, not just to yourself but to your clients, projects and employees.

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ED Torq

In the early summer of 2015 David bought this old factory and gutted it, and we redesigned the whole thing. There will be a second floor and about 600 people inside, eventually. We’re looking forward to having our clients working with us in the building, and investing in Italy, with joint venture-type stuff. We want a few long-term clients. Most are Chinese right now.

It’s a 12,000 square metre site, with eight plates, internal and external viewing areas, and a virtual reality theatre that can house 150 people for press conferences and other events. You might as well add some extra cheese! It’s a €20m investment. You either decide to stay small or go big, you cannot sit on the fence. If you’re going to stay small you might as well have 15 people, and if you go big you might as well have 500 people. We’re still recruiting.

One of the difficulties we have is a lack of history. We have this amazing place but only a bunch of confidential production cars we can’t show anybody else. Until we have some turnover of products it’s hard to explain what we can do.

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ED design team

In my design team of 40 people just over half of them are from Bertone. Why should any budding designer consider working for ED? Being a ‘design 2.0’ company we were founded within the convergence of IT and design. All the IT companies are going towards transportation and all the carmakers are going towards IT and those two worlds are creating autonomous vehicles (AVs) like our Torq concept. By working for a company that’s already made that jump into hyperspace, you’re ahead of the game.

Many carmakers are saying they’re working on AVs but that’s one percent of the company. The rest are working on analogue with traditional tools. Coming to a company like ED you’re already in the next generation. It really is different.

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ED Torq

Having worked for Bertone, which is old-school, I know what I don’t want to do. The old school was just exteriors, what I call ‘fender-isms’ and the new school is experiences, experiential design. Artificial intelligence (AI) and sustainable AVs are our thing.

I’ve always considered myself a researcher first and a designer second. Research means reinvesting the money we make into new concepts (as we can’t invest in production cars). Self-funded concept cars mean you can install your ideas into them. We’re looking to get venture capital to put the Torq on the track. This is a research project, we’re not selling it to people, we’re doing it for ourselves.

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MAAL transportation concept

Every year the goal is to make a concept car; we won’t do one for 2016, because of our studio build, but the Torq needs sisters. The next step will be to make a full AV EV with no windows, a drivable racer, and give it out to research industries around the world, carmakers, Tier 1 suppliers and universities, and have these people experiment with them, to redefine HMI and other experiences, and all those changes will then come back into the ED database.

I’ve only got one pair of hands so I want these other influences to help me make Torq a street car. The ideas I have seen so far are too timid. This mobile laboratory and experience would then lead to a giant semi-autonomous truck EV. We want to take an open architecture approach, unlike Google or Mercedes.

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ED Torq interior visuals

This year I designed seven production SUVs for three different brands, but no-one’s seen them. I’d like to do more Torqs but the reality is I’m doing piles of these production cars so I can do more concepts. I’d love to get to a stage where we could have an ED badge alongside the car’s own brand, that would be a dream, but right now we’re concentrating on trying to build trust.