Automotive Prototype Camouflage Edition

On Erkling, dazzle camo, and easter eggs

Ryan McManus (RMM) is a longtime friend of WITI, dating back to our time together at The Barbarian Group. He is currently the Design Strategy Director for Connectivity at D—Ford, Ford’s human-centered design lab.  HIs last contribution to WITI was on the subject of SecuriCode.

Ryan here. A few days ago I was in the parking lot of my local Whole Foods when a strange sight appeared—an unreleased Rivian R1T electric truck, completely wrapped in a bright, psychedelic pop-art pattern. For those unfamiliar with the practice, this might appear an attention-seeking act of an outlandish owner. But for those who know about prototypes, test mules, and Erlkönige (or Erkling), the Rivian would have just been the latest manifestation of an automotive subterfuge-by-design approach that has its roots in World War I.

Why is this Interesting?

Back in 1918, a sailor and artist in the British Royal Navy named Norman Wilkinson came up with an idea. While the open sea provided little cover for more traditional camouflage tactics, using alternating black and white geometric patterns broke up the outlines of the ships, thus making them harder to target by German subs (BMW unironically recounts this tale in their corporate blog here). The idea was if you couldn’t hide through camouflage, you could at least confuse your enemy. Wilkinson dubbed his invention “dazzle camo.”

Automotive companies would face a similar (though far less lethal) challenge starting in the 1950s. This saw the rise of the very first “spy photography” for automotive prototypes when some German photographers captured images of these vehicles out testing and published them in a magazine in a section called Erlkönige (named after a Goethe poem which contained the line “Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?”). This was a new threat to auto manufacturers—suddenly, the proliferation of spy photography meant that their precious IP would be revealed to the public (and their competitors) much sooner, giving away a competitive advantage in the market. Something had to be done.

(A quick aside here on why test mules, or prototypes, need to test out in the open: these vehicles tend to be fairly far along in development but their engineering and design needs real-world validation. Test vehicles need thousands of real miles before a manufacturer can feel confident about signing off on a release. Sometimes this might be durability testing, other times it might be performance at altitude, in extreme climates, or even for NVH—Noise, Vibration, and Harshness. Wind tunnels and test chambers are used extensively but can only tell you so much, and even private company test tracks are not immune to spy photography. Further complicating things, the closer a vehicle got to release the less disguised it had to become—bulky fake roofs and added geometry would foul the test.)

So the automakers found themselves in a similar boat to the Royal Navy: if they can’t conceal through camouflage, maybe they can confuse. Thus the reintroduction of dazzle camo in an entirely new capacity. Starting in the 1980s auto manufacturers would paint high-contrast, geometric patterns on their erlkings to break up the shape and design of the vehicle to make them harder to discern. This embraced a paradox: By covering the vehicles in this camo they would immediately signal to anyone paying attention that it was, indeed, a prototype. But the risk was mitigated through the camouflage—if it did its job, the damage of exposure would be minimal. 

Enter back to the present day, and back to that Whole Foods parking lot, and we observe a new mutation of the classic automotive dazzle camo—one that seeks attention, rather than hides from it. The spy photography of the 1950s pales in comparison to the proliferation of camera phones and video and social media—suddenly, a prototype’s exposure is far more likely and far more constant. So while subterfuge and disguise still have their part to play in the early development of new vehicles (like when Rivian disguised their trucks as F150s), these late-stage prototypes embrace the spotlight. The dazzle remains and does continue to mask minor details, but more often than not it will also include a QR code or an Easter-egg packed pattern or even color to draw attention. Since now more than ever people recognize an erlking as a thing worth capturing, why not use the attention to generate interest instead of slinking away, into the dark? (RMM)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Ryan (RMM)

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