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Are Chinese OEMs still copying western car design?

At the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show, Chinese OEMs displayed much more innovative design concepts than in the past. Constantly accused of ‘copycatting’ western OEMs’ vehicle design, China’s car manufactuers have finally proved their design prowess. This effort has been compounded by a recent wave of foreign car designers being hired by Chinese companies. This is … Continued

At the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show, Chinese OEMs displayed much more innovative design concepts than in the past. Constantly accused of ‘copycatting’ western OEMs’ vehicle design, China’s car manufactuers have finally proved their design
prowess.

This effort has been compounded by a recent wave of foreign car designers being hired by Chinese companies. This is no doubt a virtuous trend but it may still take many years before the copying of car designs will reduce. Meanwhile we have been left to ask whether design theft is over for good: are Chinese companies moving into a new phase of R&D?

Taking a more critical view of things, it is true to say that what happens at motor shows does not necessarily reflect what is subsequently seen on the roads. Although it may well be true that full copies of another car’s outer design are not as frequent as before, other vehicles do remain a major source of inspiration for domestic OEMs. By simply observing what is driving on the Chinese roads, it seems that the creativity of Chinese car makers is more focused in engineering patchwork copies, i.e. cars which are a ‘patchwork’ of different existing designs.

So why are Chinese car manufacturers still copying the body design of western cars – and how can this new trend be explained?

This question must be contextualised: the vast majority of Chinese OEMs produce and sell cars for the Chinese market only. Few have ventured, and will venture, in the next few years into other more economically and legally complex markets such as the EU and the US. At present, Chinese consumers are not technically as mature and demanding as western consumers, cars are first and foremost a status symbol, the gateway to the middle class. Therefore, these purchasers focus more on the outer design of vehicles than technology, safety and performance.

Given that not all buyers can afford foreign brands – and half of all purchasers are first time buyers – most consumers seek something from the domestic market which may still recall the glamour of western brands. Culturally speaking, a Chinese consumer does not feel ashamed by driving an ugly version of a renowned car brand and model.

Pushed to imitate

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but Chinese OEMs do not perceive this as being in any way a bad thing. They do not necessarily copy in order to trick consumers; often, the company website states with pride that their designers had conceived the model after having diligently absorbed and digested technical learning from western companies. For the original designers, it is a blatant admission of having been copied, for the secondary OEM, it is a statement of their business philosophy


Download your free copy of Megatrends Q4This is an excerpt of an article which was first published in the Q4 issue of Megatrends magazine, to continue reading, simply download your free copy now, and turn to page 22.


Paolo Beconcini is a Partner at Carroll, Burdick & McDonough LLP

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