roewe550.jpgThe death throws shaking Detroit and the problems facing other traditional automotive players leave the road clear for Chinese upstarts to move up and maybe one day overtake established carbuilders from Asia and the west.

But to get there, China is first going to have to brush up on its automotive design skills and build vehicles that buyers – both in China and elsewhere — actually take pleasure in owning.

Design innovation, so neglected in the recent past, is maturing fast in China. It is a key theme of next month's Auto Shanghai show which will hold a conference dedicated to design.

Among speakers at the event are design chiefs from leading OEMs such as Harmut Sinkwitz, head of interior design at Mercedes-Benz, Chery design director Li Chuan Qun, and VW China design boss Simon Loasby, together with leading influencers like former head of global design for Toyota Hideichi Misono, and Li-Chih Fu, former design director of Nanjing Auto.

Conference director Abel Sampson said:

The explosion in contemporary architecture, fashion and product design in cities like Shanghai has made Chinese consumers much more design literate. The challenge for carmakers is catering for this awareness by creating more contemporary and harmonious designs for the Chinese market.”

Even the most enthusiastic fan of Chinese cars would have to admit that home-grown models rarely stand out for original designs.

Remember the Roewe, which sounds suspiciously like Rover, the now-defunct UK marque? SAIC acquired the rights to use the engines and other components of Rover's models but did not get the right to use the name Rover.

So instead it is now making its own cars that, unsurprisingly, are heavily influenced by Rover. They bear strange design flourishes — such as weird body-lines and odd-shaped headlights — presumably to prove to sceptics that they are not just re-badged Rovers.

At least SAIC paid for the rights to the Rover designs. Many Chinese cars are visually derived from better-known models of Asian and western carmakers, which are often unaware that their designs have been copied until it is too late to do much about it. This propensity to “borrow”designs from other better-known brand manufacturers is pretty widespread in other areas of Chinese manufacturing, of course. Its not hard to see why.

The practice slashes product development costs and if, as is usually the case today, the copycat car is only going to be sold in China , the foreign company that has had its IPR infringed will probably not object too strongly.

Nevertheless, no manufacturer got to be a major force in the industry by copying other people's designs, so China needs to build much closer collaboration with established designers and also encourage more home-grown design talent.

Details of the Interior Motives China conference here

More on the Roewe here. More EngagingChina stories on automotive design here.

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