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Martin Uhlarik, Tata Motors

Driving Impact

Meet Martin Uhlarik, the new head of global design at Tata Motors

October 2021     |     1399 words     |     5-minute read

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"It is work, but for most people in the design world, it’s also a hobby and a passion. Getting paid to do it is a perk because, to be honest, I would probably be drawing or designing cars in my spare time regardless,” says Martin Uhlarik, who took over as the head of Global Design at Tata Motors in April 2021.

Mr Uhlarik, who was involved in the design of successful nameplates with leading global original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) over a 27-year career, came to Tata Motors in 2016 as the head of Design for Tata Motors European Technical Centre (TMETC) in the United Kingdom. TMETC provides research and development for Tata Motors to develop vehicle technologies in the world of autonomous, connected, electric and shared mobility and plays a pivotal role in creating design concepts for the company’s expanding vehicle range.

Here, he led the development of the Impact generation of vehicles like Tata 45X Concept, Tata eVision Concept, Tata H2X Concept, Tata Sierra Concept, Tata HBX, Tata Altroz EV and the forthcoming Tata Hornbill.

“Ultimately, design needs to work with engineering to create competitive products, and TMETC is an impressive facility with competent capability across many cross-functional areas,” says Mr Uhlarik, who will continue to operate from TMETC as he leads the three Tata Motors Design centres in Coventry (UK), Turin (Italy) and Pune (India).

In this conversation, Mr Uhlarik opens up about his new challenge, his design language and his excitement about the next generation of vehicles from Tata Motors.

After working in many countries and with many OEMs, what drew you to Tata Motors?

My whole career has been global, from North America to Europe to Asia. Experiencing different companies and their cultures has been interesting. But I was at a point where I was looking for a long-term engagement to make a lasting contribution. I knew the Tata Motors portfolio, studio structure, and people; during conversations, I quickly realised we had similar principles. My instincts told me this project had the potential to be mutually good.

The scale and management style appealed to me. The company has a presence across several brands, and its custody and mentorship of these brands has been excellent. Over the five years with Tata Motors, I have grown to appreciate the maturity with which our senior management approaches challenges. Whenever there is a problem, it isn’t confronted with a top-down viewpoint. They appreciate recommendations and proposals coming from the design studio. They are always constructive and optimistic; there is always a solution to be found. I enjoy that as a culture. It’s a reflection of the fact that it is a very human company.

"The forthcoming Tata Hornbill (is my favourite car I've ever worked on) because it represents our latest and most accomplished design work. It was a production programme that required vision, perseverance and brought great satisfaction. The final product is of an extremely high level of design. As a concept car, it’s the Tata Sierra. It represents everything we believe in — emotional name in a modern, holistic, and progressive design. It ticks many of my design principles."

What is unique about the Tata Motors design studios?

The people. We have a supremely talented and experienced global design team. They all have good taste, considerate perspectives, and fantastic enthusiasm that is reflected in our design output.

Also, having studios in three different countries reflects Tata Motors as a global company. The three locations bring different design perspectives, global experiences, and capabilities that work together seamlessly to create our products.

You have taken over at a time when the world is in unprecedented turmoil. What kind of challenges does that present?

Yes, we are experiencing a number of challenges, but design is about solving problems. How does a user use a product? What is the experience? How does this product contribute to society? Designers need to be optimists and find inspiring solutions that benefit society at large.

How do you view the role of design in building an automotive brand?

I believe good design has a higher calling. Our designs need to inspire customers and users and enhance their experience. One needs to create an experience between them and the brand, which not only includes the product but all touchpoints. There needs to be a confident consistency, so the customer understands and sees the design narrative.

What are your design inspirations?

I take inspiration from all fields in the creative world. I’m a great enthusiast of architecture due to its timelessness. It has a completely different timescale in terms of product lifespan and a human approach to design. I take inspiration from the works of personal favourites like Mies van der Rohe and John Lautner. I’m also a big fan of modernism.

I look at art, fashion, graphic design. I am a big cinema fan. I listen to music non-stop; it’s the soundtrack to my profession. I listen to pretty much any genre depending on my mood or the mood I want to be in.

"As a young aspiring designer, I was a great fan of the Italian Carrozzeria in the 70s, and Pininfarina, Bertone and Italdesign for obvious reasons."

Having led the development of the Impact generation of vehicles since 2016, how do you view this design philosophy’s role in heralding change and success at Tata Motors?

Design has a very high value for Tata Motors, and our Impact design philosophy has been the touchstone globally for the brand. We have had a very successful couple of years with the products we have launched.

The Tata eVision Concept was a statement of intent in terms of our long-term commitment to electric vehicles (EVs) and where we will take the brand from an emotional quality standpoint. The Tata Sierra Concept was a great showcase in investigating the ‘experience’ of good design from the name Sierra and what it means to people to the interior space, emphasising well-being and creating a sanctuary. The Tata H2X and HBX are part of a story previewing the forthcoming Hornbill. We intend to accelerate that vocabulary into existing and new products.

How is the Impact 3.0 design philosophy — introduced during the pandemic — expected to change the future generation of Tata cars?

Impact 3 is a natural evolution of the successful Impact design philosophy. It’s an acceleration to the next level. It will bring our products into the digital era, whether in interiors, where the interface and the UX (user experience) will be enhanced; or in exterior design, where our technology and design aesthetic will reflect this new philosophy.

The Impact design philosophy is an evolutionary process, and we will see further acceleration. There are several exciting projects in the works.

How has the pandemic changed the approach to car design?

The pandemic has compelled society, industries, and people to think differently. We have adopted digital tools in design such as working cross functionally online, reviewing designs with data, and using virtual reality tools instead of making physical models. These changes have opened new opportunities and will influence the aesthetic. Our future designs will reflect this new digital era.

What synergies do you see with the Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) Design Studio?

We have very good dialogue and exchange of ideas with our counterparts at JLR. There are always opportunities as a business to leverage our capabilities, while maintaining the individual integrity of our brands.

How important is the design language for commercial vehicles (CV)?

Design plays an important role in our CV business. Our design language conveys trust, reliability and quality. We need to continue to develop this.

A transition as big as combustion engines to EVs is not an everyday phenomenon, and by 2025, Tata Motors aims to launch 10 new EVs. How do you view your place as a designer in these times?

It’s very exciting. Electrification is a big upcoming movement from a sustainability and social responsibility point of view. It fits very well with our brand and what we are heading towards.

From the design perspective, we have to create a vocabulary that’s going to mirror this new world. As EVs become more mainstream in the consumers’ conscience, we will need to reflect that without the products becoming generic. At the moment, we brand our EVs uniquely, but electrification will unlock new packages and dedicated aesthetics. We are already working on these exciting products. They will be inspiring.

—Monali Sarkar

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