When Porsche introduced the Cayenne CUV in 2002, many thought it was a desperate move that would dilute the hallowed brand and destroy the company. But as crazy as it sounded at the time, the Cayenne Ute took sales and profits at Porsche to new heights, just like Mercedes-Benz and BMW luxury utility vehicles brought success to their respective brands.

The search to exploit new vehicle segments, called “white space” is becoming an obsession in the auto industry as OEMs struggle to continue growing sales as consumers lose interest in traditional sedans in all sizes and price ranges.

This dilemma led to the idea for WardsAuto’s latest student design project, our eighth collaboration with the Transportation Design Dept. of Detroit’s prestigious College for Creative Studies, which has graduated many top designers.

The assignment is the basis of a semester-long class at CCS. The students compete for recognition and special scholarships. The competition is done in conjunction with the 2017 WardsAuto Interiors Conference, which takes place May 9 at Detroit’s Cobo Center.

The student design competition is sponsored by interior suppliers IAC and Lear and it may be the most ambitious yet. With Bentley, Lamborghini and other ultra-luxury brands bringing new types of utility vehicles to market and Mercedes-Benz rolling out a pickup truck, we are challenging students to find even more unexploited white space and create interior designs for new vehicles that believably translate the design language of the brands into something that looks appropriate for a utility vehicle.

There is an award for best overall design and Lear and IAC also give special awards for the most innovative design feature and most eco-friendly interior concept.  

After kicking off the class in January with a visit to the North American International Auto show for inspiration, students now are hard at work dreaming up interior concepts for Tesla and Lexus pickup trucks, a fullsize Volvo SUV, an Alfa Romeo minivan and other provocative ideas.

Instructor Brian Stoeckel, a designer at General Motors, asked each student to sketch out three concepts and then choose one for a final project.

The design brief, developed by WardsAuto, challenges students to understand a brand’s interior design vocabulary and then transform it into something that is different but still recognizable. We also want students to learn about the importance of fine materials and craftsmanship in all design.

Previous WardsAuto/CCS design projects include interiors for a self-driving sports car, a future family sedan, a fullsize 2025 pickup truck and a self-driving CUV.

As in previous years, a panel of top automaker designers will judge the final projects.

Winners of the grand award and special awards from IAC and Lear will be revealed at the WardsAuto Interiors Conference May 9. Stay tuned for updates on the students’ progress.