Few designers get the opportunity to define a brand as prominent as Ford, but for the last 16 years, J Mays has been the driving design force behind the vehicles coming off the car company’s production line. With more than 30 years of experience, and a considerable number of car designs credited to his name — including the VW “New Beetle”, Aston Martin DB9, and the Ford GT, Focus, and the Fusion — J has led a quite a career. While we’ve spoken to Mays in depth about his journey as a designer and his life as Ford’s VP of Global Design, we thought now would be a fantastic time to catch up with the auto design pioneer. This Thursday, October 3rd, Mays will be taking part of our ‘Design With a Purpose’ panel being held at the AIA Center for Architecture in New York City (something we’ll also be webcasting live right here on Inhabitat). In anticipation of this event, we chatted with J about some of the topics he plans delve into this week, including resilient design, new vehicle safety technology, what’s in store for Ford in the coming years, and of course, New York City architecture. Keep reading for the scoop!

nyc building, building ornamentation, nyc architecture, art deco architecture

Inhabitat: So, I want to start this conversation off by focusing in on the idea of design resiliency. On Inhabitat, we’ve been talking a lot about design resiliency in terms of landscape and architecture, and it’s become a very hot topic in the wake of Hurricane Sandy last year. When you think about that term ‘design resiliency’, it’s really about durability. How do you see that in relation to automobiles?

J Mays: That’s a good question. I suppose I think about it in three ways. In a literal sense, you’re absolutely right about durability and — be it a building or a truck — it’s designed to do whatever that truck or building needs to get done, so we think of it in that way. We also think about it in a visual sense, so not only does the vehicle need to be tough, but it needs to communicate toughness, so tough materials very often will equal tough looks. And then in the broader sense, toughness becomes legendary sometimes, and a design – be it a building or a truck – can become iconic depending on how many decades people have perceived it to be at the top of its game.

Inhabitat: Why do you think the truck has been such an enduring vehicle form for so many years?

J Mays: Well, that’s a pretty easy one to answer. I think because what a lot of people sort of forget is that if you think of a world without trucks, it’s almost inconceivable because trucks have been the sort of engine that built this entire country. So you have heavy construction trucks, highway maintenance trucks, and in New York you have law enforcement and emergency vehicles that are trucks. I could go on and on, but trucks have been sort of the engine that everyone uses in order to build other things. So we’ve got a couple of facts that are kind of interesting. Without sounding sales-y, the F-150 is the first choice of tradespeople who just are looking for really durable trucks, and 55 percent of heavy construction vehicles that are on the road are F-series trucks. Seventy-five percent of highway maintenance vehicles that are on the road are F-series trucks. Sixty-eight percent of emergency vehicles like the ones you might find in New York are F-series trucks. So those become something quite different than, say a car that you would buy out of desire. Very often, people are buying these because they’re built for purpose and they help people get the job done that they happen to be doing.

Ford Atlas Concept, ford, ford trucks, truck design, ford f-150, f-150 trucks
Ford Atlas Concept

Inhabitat: So what do you see as sort of the truck of the future? What’s the truck evolving towards?

J Mays: Well, it’s going to have to have a lot of the things that has sort of done the F-series so proud over the last 31 years. You have to think the F-series has been the best-selling truck in the world. In fact, it’s been the best-selling truck for 36 years and best-selling vehicle for the past 31 years, and so, since we started selling this thing, there’s something like 33 million of these on the road. People have a high expectation of the durability to your earlier point, and so we use a lot of high-strength steel and we would anticipate that we will continue to do that, but we will find ways to do that in a lighter way so that we’re able to create more fuel efficiency. We’ve got the delicate balance of creating a durable, tough truck that our buyers expect combined with the fuel efficiency that you might find a customer these days would also expect.

So to use one more example, there’s a lot of truck customers that we have today that are concerned with fuel economy, and that is a reason to buy. So when you look at a particular engine that we now put in our trucks, it’s become the number one reason that people that are interested in fuel economy buy our trucks. It’s called the EcoBoost engine and it’s improved the fuel economy of our trucks up 20 percent. It’s reduced CO2 emissions by 15 percent, and we’ve already – and this is, I think, a really big proof point – already sold 360,000 of these that are equipped with this eco-boost engine. So that’s a V6 that has the performance of a V8. This is one aspect of the future of trucks, which is the balance of great fuel economy together with the durability that one would expect. And you think well, okay, but truck, really? Fuel economy? What I think is important to kind of remember is you have to think of what that fuel economy savings is on something that fills as many as the entire fleet of Ford F-150 products.

Inhabitat: On the subject of both lighter vehicles and fuel economy, what about materials? Would something like carbon fiber or another really innovative material be useful in a vehicle like a truck?

J Mays: Well, we look at all kinds of materials and I wouldn’t suggest to you that we’re committed to any type of particular material, but I would tell you that we’re looking at a variety that help us with strength as well as light weighting.

ford, ford trucks, truck design, ford f-150, f-150 trucks

A 2011 Ford F-150

Inhabitat: I know trucks are heavy and they have to haul, so therefore, to create a battery for an electric truck is probably much more of a challenge than for a small, four-person car, but is that a possibility in the future? Having electric trucks?

J Mays: I would never say never, but I think the way we see our company is the entire portfolio. So we very often have what we call “the right horse for the right course”. So trucks, as we just discussed, are there as a workhorse. They’re there as the building block for what people need to get done with their business in everyday life. Keep in mind we have, at the other end of the spectrum, a variety of hybrid vehicles, electric vehicles, that are also correct for the particular use that that customer. So although we may not be studying electric trucks—though I’m not committing that we are or aren’t—I think our portfolio that’s currently on the market and also the new vehicles coming to market should be looked at as proof positive that we’re interested in that technology.

guy texting while driving, guy texting, texting while driving

Image via Shutterstock

Inhabitat: There is something else I wanted to ask, and this may seem a little tangential, but it’s certainly a hot topic of late and it’s a big interest to me. When we talk about resilience and durability, one thing that’s very important to consider is safety. When I start thinking about safety in cars and trucks, I start thinking about this growing problem of people being very distracted and using their mobile phones while they’re driving. How are you improving on the user interface of the dashboard and do you have any particular thoughts on how design might address that problem?

J Mays: I share your concern about people talking and, more importantly, texting while they’re driving. I’ve only been back in this country now about four months. I spent the last seven years in London where there’s really a stiff fine if you’re caught talking on your phone and an even stiffer fine if you’re caught texting. That doesn’t seem to be the case for the attitude of a lot of the drivers here in the U.S. so we’re studying this very closely at Ford, and a lot of the work we do on user interface addresses exactly the point you’re making, which is how do we redirect the eyes as well as the attention of the driver back onto the road. Just to give you one example, voice activation is going to be a huge help because we can, through voice activation, start to manage a lot of the controls that you would normally have to manage by looking down at the controls on an automobile. So now you’re not trying to drive down the road poking buttons on your cell phone or poking buttons trying to text someone. You can actually do that by voice activation, and that will be a huge significance in terms of safety.

Ford, Ford voice activation, Ford SYNC, SYNC, SYNC automobiles, Sync Cars, Sych UI, Sync dashboard

Ford’s Sync System

Inhabitat: Do you guys have that in cars already or is that something you’re working on?

J Mays: We have quite a lot of voice activation. We don’t have everything out that I just described, but we have a heck of a lot of it. We have a voice activation system that recognizes well over 10,000 commands. It’s a system we call Sync, and it allows you to take your smartphone and integrate it into the car. You can receive incoming phone calls, as an example, and they come right through your car speaker system and you can talk to people while driving without actually looking at your cell phone and, more importantly, you can keep both hands on the steering wheel as opposed to one on the wheel and one on the phone. I’ll even use it in really simple ways. If I feel like hearing a song—and I’ve got thousands of them on my MP3 player—and I’ll just ask for a specific song and it’ll play it.

barclays center, barclays center brooklyn, brooklyn stadium, brooklyn concert hall, brooklyn architecture

The Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York

Inhabitat: We are hosting a panel discussion this week, Design With a Purpose, which you are a part of. Were you involved in selecting the panelists? I’m really interested to speak with them.

J Mays: That was done by AIANY, so the American Institute of Architects has selected the panel members. I don’t actually know any of the panel members, so that should hopefully create a more interesting dialog so that we’re not all just looking at each other and agreeing.

Inhabitat: I noticed that Erik from SHoP was involved in the Barclays Center. I don’t know if you’ll get a chance to go out to Brooklyn at all, but there’s this really amazing new building out on Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic, right in the middle of Brooklyn. It’s the new sports stadium, so that might be worth taking a look at for you. And another panelist, Steven Colletta from Sciame, was involved in the World Trade Center Memorial construction. I was just thinking it might be interesting to talk about the World Trade Center Memorial, which is also something worth seeing when you’re here and have a moment.

J Mays: That would be excellent. In fact, I’ll probably have a chance to see that before the panel event. Related, and I think some of this will come out in the discussion on Thursday, we were saying earlier that it’s interesting to talk about—and I know iconic’s an extraordinarily overused word—but every time I think of New York, I think about iconic buildings that have been so famous over the decades. And those kind of buildings somehow end up transcending the building and sort of captivating a city or a nation in a way that others don’t because they’re so instantly recognizable.

911 memorial, world trade center, world trade center memorial, world trade center fountainThe World Trade Center Memorial in New York City

That’s sort of the same thing that happens when we design a car or a truck when we get it right. So you have something like on the F-150,where quite a few design cues make the vehicle instantly recognizable—and it doesn’t matter if it was the first one from back in the ‘40s or the current one. It just sets, I think, a very high watermark for what a truck ought to be in the same way that iconic buildings set a high watermark for what other buildings ought to be. So that’s probably gonna be one of the thoughts of discussion that we’ll have on Thursday.

nyc building, empire state building, nyc skyline, nyc, new york skyline,

The Empire State Building in New York City

Inhabitat: What would you say are the most iconic buildings for you of New York?

J Mays: I’m a big fan of dead architects, so I think the Seagram Building is a wonderful building. I think the Chrysler Building is a hugely romantic building, and I think the Empire State Building, obviously, is a great building. I could pick newer ones, but I just think in terms of how those buildings resonate with the larger general non-architectural audience. Those are the buildings that sort of work because there’s a lot of meaning behind them, as opposed to their appealing just to an architectural crowd that would have a completely different measurement system for why they felt the building was important.

Inhabitat: Right. I think those buildings also have been around for a long time, so there’s been time for them to become famous and sort of soak into the culture. Out of the newer buildings, I’d be interested to know what you think has the chance of becoming one of these iconic buildings like the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building.

J Mays: That’s a very, very good question. I’m not sure that any do at the moment. Would you point to one?

barclays center, barclays center brooklyn, brooklyn stadium, brooklyn concert hall, brooklyn architecture

The entrance of the Barclays Center

Inhabitat: Well there are definitely new buildings that I like. Since I brought it up before, the Barclay’s Center is an unusual building that I think is on its way to becoming an icon for Brooklyn. It’s not a skyscraper so it doesn’t necessarily have the same kind of visual effect as that type of building — namely being able to see it from everywhere — but it’s pretty remarkable and packs a psychological punch when you approach it from Flatbush Avenue. It really focuses the eye and is very unusual in its design. So I would say possibly that structure.

J Mays: I agree with that, and because I very often also extend the idea of architecture well beyond buildings, I kind of think of icons in terms of landmarks. The London Eye is a piece of architecture, although it’s not a building, but I think that’s got an iconic status about it. And in its own way, I think the High Line has an iconic status about it. I think that will be something that people resonate with for decades to come, assuming it’s kept in the same condition it has been. So it’s a good question. It makes me want to go off and think about that a bit.

nyc high line, nyc architecture, the high line, nyc highline, adaptive reuse nyc

The High Line Park in New York City

Inhabitat: I think you just made landscape architects everywhere so happy with your choice of the High Line.

J Mays: I’m a huge fan of the High Line. I just think it’s a spectacular space and I’ve got friends flying in from London and  a couple of them haven’t been there yet, so we’re going to spend Saturday morning walking it and we’ll find a nice place to have lunch.

Inhabitat: Well, I will be at the panel next week, so I look forward to seeing you guys and taking part in this conversation!

J Mays: It’s been really good talking with you. I look forward to seeing you next week.