2013 Ford Mustang
The 2013 Ford Mustangs more blunt front end is the product of a shift in car-safety in recent years that has lead to raised hoods and lower bumpers, an attempt to mitigate injury in collisions with pedestrians. Notice that the grille is more prominent than in the 1985 Mustang GT. Ford Motor Co.
A Mini Cooper on a Manhattan street. Moran Zhang / IBTimes

Do you associate the front of a car with a face?

Who doesn’t, right? It's easy to see the eyes in the headlights, the nose in the hood or the grille, and a mouth in the grille or the bumper.

The practice of assigning human characteristics to cars goes back before the late 1960s “Herbie” Disney film franchise about the anthropomorphic Volkswagen Beetle, a cultural icon among American hippies following a decade of marketing by the German automaker that pushed the car’s cutesy, cartoonish, friendly front profile. And the look worked. With a few minor changes, the Beetle's design remained largely static for more than seven decades even as other cherished models, like the Chevrolet Corvette, went through major facelifts.

“We’ve done studies that specifically look at how people are anthropomorphically connected to car designs,” Sam Livingstone, automotive design strategist for U.K.-based Car Design Research Ltd., told International Business Times. “Consumers are reading to some extent the face of the car as the face of a person and therefore will infer from it an attitude, be it aggressive, benign or friendly. We’ve done a lot of work with face design because we think it’s a massively important thing. Even if people don’t consciously read the face of a car, they certainly do it subconsciously.”

Subconsciously or not, a car’s look matters a great deal more than whether the design features actually serve any function. Nobody in the auto industry really believed the giant rocket fins of a '50s Cadillac did anything to help aerodynamics; they were there because for some reason Americans at the time wanted large tailfins. And today, the so-called feature-lines – those distinct side panel creases and hood panel ribs – are there not because they serve any function but because consumers like the look.

The Ford Fusion's hood ribs serve no functional purpose. These lines (hood ribs, side panel creases) is what Ford and other automakers think consumers want, aesthetically speaking. Ford

“Broadly speaking, the appearance of the car is dictated by the designer’s hand, not the wind tunnel,” said Livingstone, whose firm has worked with Volvo, Audi and other major auto manufacturers in determining future design trends.

Aesthetics might not bow to aerodynamics, but they must serve the interest of safety. New, tougher European regulations that went into effect this year, aimed at improving protections for pedestrians struck by vehicles, are having a profound effect on front-end design; the hoods of passenger cars are getting higher and bumpers are being lowered to mitigate injury to legs and heads. It’s part of a global initiative by the United Nations that automakers support.

Tom Matano, executive director for the School of Industrial Design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, points out that even before these rules went into effect, automakers were planning ahead so that by now most mass-produced cars are employing these design changes.

“Everyone has absorbed the European safety bumper rules, and along the way designers realized you don’t need a safety bumper going across the front end and the grille could be situated directly above the bumper area,” Matano told IBTimes. “You no longer needed a strong, visible safety bumper across the front of the car.”

The 2014 Mercedes CLA45 AMG. Mercedes has joined other European automakers, such as BMW, in turning the front grille into a brand embellishment. Daimler AG

So gone is the “grinning” chrome bumper, which has now been replaced with an interesting trend in automotive design: the grille as what Livingstone calls a “brand embellishment.” What was once a function of automotive engine cooling that allowed air to enter the front is now largely superfluous for most modern passenger cars. So what once served function is now form. BMW has its distinct kidney grille. Mercedes recently enlarged its badge and planted it in the middle of its relatively uniform grille design across its models. Now you now see mainstream automakers embellishing this concept innovated by the luxury brands to give their cars immediate recognition. Ford’s recent uniform front-end design for its latest sedans is a good example of this.

Compare the 2009 Ford Focus to the 2014 model. The 2009 front end is less blunt than the 2014 version, but the headlamps have started their evolutionary migration to the sides of the hood hatch. By the 2014 model, the bulk of the headlight is practically on the side. Like the 2014 Mustang above, the grille of the Focus has become more pronounced in part to abide by new global standards that require cars to have blunter front ends.

So what about the car’s “eyes?”

Matano, who helped design cars for Mazda, General Motors and BMW, said that for a long time the rules governing headlamps required round or horizontal rectangular front-facing lights. But that’s no longer the case. Now lights have sleeker wraparound forms. Designers have long wanted to diminish the noticeability of the thin gap between the hood hatch and its adjoining body panel. One way to do that was to move the grille up to meet the hood and to situate the headlights to the sides of the hood hatch rather than below it. The 2014 Chevy Malibu is a good example of this.

The 1981 Chevy Malibu and the 2014 version of the same model show many of the changes to front-end design. Notice how the trunk of the car is more rounded and more integrated from a design perspective than the square hatch of the earlier model. Headlights have changed radically as plastic extrusion technology has evolved. The grille is still present, but notice how it's used to frame the Chevrolet badge, making the entire grille area a kind-of logo for the manufacturer and the brand.

Headlight evolution is one of the more profound changes among vehicle components going in car design right now. The invention of the high-brightness, low energy white light-emitting diode – first invented by the Nichia Corp. in 1994 – is quickly being adopted in car design. And for good reason.

“There’s a packaging issue behind the headlamp,” said Matano. “Behind the lamp is about six inches of space you need for the typical headlight. But now with LEDs this depth is shallower, freeing up more design latitude. The technology gives you a different look.”

The advent of LED technology is still nascent, thanks largely to the price. But as LED lamps become more affordable they will certainly be adopted by mass-market automobiles and the changes could be profound, as seen in the upcoming 2015 Volvo VC90, where LED lights are incorporated into the front grille and the Volvo badge.

The 2015 Volvo XC90 has some LED lighting that is indicative of where external lighting is headed. In the future will there even be headlights as we know them?

It will be a while, if ever, before people stop looking at car faces as actual faces, but unless people demand cutesy, round-eyed and grinning cars again, it’s likely cars will continue to evolve until their front ends take on other less human associations.