The Rolls-Royce Phantom design opens doors for an electric future

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Rolls-Royce is in a peculiar position when it comes to imagining the future of luxury transportation. The 112-year-old motor company is the very definition of a luxury car, but much of its auspicious reputation is based on its embodiment of classical luxury, in the tradition of Beethoven, foie gras, and delectable suicide doors.

But Rolls-Royce customers expect the best, and as the brand focuses on wooing a younger customer base, tasteful, top-of-the-line technology is becoming paramount to those expectations. The look, tactile feel, and the user experience of that technology fall on its design department to imagine. Giles Taylor is charged with striking that careful balance as design director of Rolls-Royce. His most contemporary response is the brand’s flagship model, the Rolls-Royce Phantom, officially unveiled today in the UK. It is the eighth Phantom model to be produced in the history of the company.

“My job is to put Rolls-Royce into the context of special usability,” Taylor told The Verge. “I think the danger is going away from the classical materials and going to facelessness, where emotionally I’m getting nothing from you.”

The new Phantom is anything but unemotional. Sweeping curves disguise a myriad of sensors, including a touch-sensitive one on the door for valets to use at great affect. A new feature the brand calls “The Gallery” toys with the screen art of the car, featuring the work of commissioned artists as a backdrop option that spans across the dash. The instrument panel is digitized against a 12.3-inch TFT display. Rolls-Royce markets it as “the most technologically advanced Rolls-Royce ever.” The clock, however, is analogue.

While the Phantom was revealed publicly today, I first saw it in its aluminum spaceframe flesh at a private viewing for select customers and media in New York City in June. We were ushered into a dimly lit Chelsea studio, where — in a dramatic flourish — the car was revealed on a rotating stage, as if we were watching a production of theater in the round. Both Taylor and Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös were there to present the car and describe its nuances. Pageantry is essential to the presentation of a new Rolls-Royce. The brand, owned by parent company BMW, makes every effort to distinguish itself as a distinctly unforgettable British, super luxury carmaker.

“It’s a careful balance,” Taylor said. “I would never want to lose touch with that classical appreciation. There’s no way we should disrespect that tradition. I love the mission to embrace the classical nature and presence of the Phantom.”

Phantom, first introduced in 1925, is the brand’s halo vehicle. Its contemporary form is an indicator of the direction Rolls-Royce vehicles will move into during the coming years. It’s also the most expensive vehicle in the lineup. The current Phantom starts at $417,825, so the Rolls-Royce flagship literally needs to look like money. The most obvious aspects of this luxuriant design are its grand proportions that taper neatly into sculptural form. It’s a massive vehicle, lighter than its predecessor, but it still weighs in at 5,862 pounds, due to the use of lighter-weight materials like li aluminum. But it’s far from stodgy.

“When it comes to Phantom. I would like to contemporize the perception of the vehicles, so that [customers] can feel like they can drive the car. The car itself has a level of athleticism. The car has capable handling,” Taylor said. Though it is grand in proportion, its hefty V12 engine races from 0–60 in 5.3 seconds and produces 563 horsepower. Taylor cites an F16 jet as one inspiration for his vision.

Taylor attended the Royal College of Art and has previously designed for Citroen and Jaguar. For him, designing a vehicle form truly begins with the hand-drawn line. “I always believe the line comes first and the surfacing comes later. The surfaces can develop from it, but if only if the boundaries are right. That comes back to designers holding pens, whether its electric or old-fashioned pen and paper.” Taylor uses a pencil and sketches almost daily.

“There’s a fine line between a good line and something that doesn’t have it, whether it’s in luxury world or the mobility world. I sketch all the time myself to get my lines across. I talk and communicate with a pencil in my hand. There are lots of technological tools in place, but I believe in human input to develop a masterpiece of design. You have to know what that line is doing in three dimensions. A good designer would understand the contribution of those lines and whether it’s proportional.”

Rolls-Royce is not about minimalism. It goes against the brand ethos, which Taylor admits is in contrast to some tech brands. “I look at our Apple computers and you look at PC computers and you see the importance of elimination. The delight is that [it’s] cool because they’re nothing there.”

But in a Rolls-Royce, each part of the hand-built interior feels like a jewel. Contrastingly, when it comes to the consumer tech inside of the car, Taylor leans toward a conservative amount of in-car technology option, as The Verge reporter Ashley Carman noted in our ScreenDrive series. “There’s an importance of tactile feedback. I do believe something interactional is appealing when it comes to finding the sweet spot of convenience ad immediate feedback,” Taylor adds. “But my job is to plan the whole context of interior, versus the sheer aspect of convenience. I need to strike the balance. It has to have something that goes beyond the skin.”

But he is invigorated by the possibilities that new technology opens up to car designers in big picture ways. Last year, Rolls-Royce showed off the wild 103EX concept car, and a few slick cues have trickled into Phantom’s form both in the exterior and interior. It’s safe to say that Phantom is laying the foundation for what that new era looks like. Taylor offers a clue at where he and his team are looking — such as Formula E racing series.

“Formula E is leading a whole new perception around electric cars,” he said. “We’re going to move to new some aesthetic solutions. Even now we’re contemplating electric planes and solar powered planes. It’s all about space efficiency, weigh efficiency, and ergonomic form. In the next 10 years, the electric vehicle will probably prevail.”

How this translates into the modern-day eighth generation Phantom is alluded to in design elements such as the shape of the grille, which is presented flush to the car. “We wanted to start to get the grille as an expression of the car rather than a standalone piece, Taylor said. “Does it really need to be there to hide a combustion engine? Finally, the aesthetics can start to grapple with that new sense of freedom.” In a company that grapples with maintaining its classic identity, these structural changes are not made lightly. – The Vereg