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Auto People: A super brain for supersized cars

Japanese designer focuses on bigger cars for North American customers

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

Car people generally have one thing in common: they’ve loved automobiles for a long time.

When he was a child growing up in Japan, Taro Ueda would regularly chase exotic cars as they drove into hotel parking lots so he could get a closer look at them. Today, he’s the vice-president of design for Nissan Design America, the company’s design studio in San Diego.

“My father had a Volkswagen Beetle, which was a unique car in Japan,” Ueda says. “This was 1966 and the Japanese industry was still coming up, so he looked for a German car rather than a Japanese one. I was maybe five or six, and there were a lot of cars in Japan at the time, and I knew the names of all of them.”

In his position as vice-president, Ueda works with about 60 people, some 20 of whom are directly involved in creating new designs.

“I don’t design anymore, but I talk about design every day,” he says. “Everything comes through me, and it’s two-way. I manage the final output from Nissan Design America, and I encourage the designers to do more interesting work.”

Initially, Ueda wanted to be an engineer, and specifically wanted to work for Sony, since he liked the company’s radios and cassette players. But he switched his focus after his father introduced him to an industrial designer at Fuji Film.

“He said that design is the interface between the engineer and the customer,” Ueda says. “The design faces the customer, not the technology. I think that’s a very interesting aspect, not just thinking about the details, but how to show the technology to the customer. So I went into industrial design, rather than a technical school.”

He worked as an exterior designer for Honda’s research and design department in Japan for several years, and then went to Germany to work with global industrial company Frog Design before joining Nissan in Japan in 1989.

He worked with several design departments before being named president of Creative Box, a Nissan design studio in Tokyo. He moved to the company’s California office in May 2012.

His San Diego-based designers have to think about creating global products, and their designs regularly compete with those from Nissan’s studios in London, Beijing and Japan. But Ueda always has to consider the North American market, where he has to think about challenges that he never had to face when living in Japan.

“The cars are big and the usage is different,” he says. “The highways have five or seven lanes, and there are huge SUVs that we cannot imagine from the Japanese point of view, where you drive a small car or you don’t even drive at all. There will always be someone in the passenger seat (in Japan), but here you see one person in a vehicle. It’s amazing.”

One major result of this, Ueda says, is that vehicles are visible at much longer distances on the highway, and he has to use the car’s proportions as a way of branding it as his company’s product.

“In Japan it is tight, and you can’t see the vehicle in the distance. So how do we design the Nissan uniqueness? If you’re 50 metres away, you have to recognize that this is a Nissan car, and not another company’s car. It’s not in the details, but in proportion, and that’s a totally different aspect from what (designers in Japan) are doing.”

He also strives to look beyond the design and see how the vehicle fits into the buyer’s daily routine, especially since Nissan is looking at ways to integrate its electric Leaf into the household’s power source, storing and feeding back electricity as well as simply charging from the grid.

“We’re looking for ‘connecting’ vehicles, rather than just isolated products,” he says. “Maybe the meaning of the car should be changed, so it’s not just buying the car, not just driving, but how to extend and enhance the lifestyle. We want to look at the final product, the car, as more like a whole picture.”

  • Auto People: A super brain for supersized cars

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