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This designer-led EV company could finally challenge Tesla

We interview Thomas Ingenlath, the designer-CEO of Polestar, the company behind one of the most beloved electric cars on the planet.

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Tesla isn’t the only company that can build a great electric car. And that’s a point proven by Polestar—the Swedish car company that was born as a skunkworks racing team for Volvo and spun off to be one of the most promising, premium electric vehicle companies in the world.

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Whereas Tesla delivers unparalleled numbers in range, acceleration, and value, Polestar is building electric cars for car lovers, by balancing performance with the full design package of a highly polished vehicle.

Thomas Ingenlath [Photo: Polestar]
The company made its first splash in 2017 with a $150,000 premium hybrid with a full carbon fiber body. But 2020 was the company’s banner year, when it began selling its fully electric Polestar 2 “fastback” (think SUV crossed with a sedan) to rave reviews. As Top Gear noted, this $50,000 vehicle “is a sensational-looking machine in the metal, crisp and fresh and clean-cut, loaded with presence but wonderfully unadorned with fake vents or dummy-aero nonsense. It looks like the car the future promised.”

Polestar’s design prowess shouldn’t be surprising. Its CEO, Thomas Ingenlath, is an accomplished designer by trade, who spent decades designing Bugattis, Lamborghinis, and Volkswagens. Then he took over as Volvo’s VP of design in 2012, ushering the company into a new golden age. As Car Magazine put it, “Ingenlath has taken all that’s good about Volvo—solid, safe, functional—and sprinkled a heavy dose of Scandinavian styling magic dust.” That success led him to become the CEO of Polestar in 2017.

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[Photo: Polestar]
Ingenlath has settled in as CEO, but during our expansive, hour-long interview, it’s clear that he still has the heart of a designer. He’s also remarkably outspoken for a top executive. Read our interview to hear him dish on everything from how he leads to his bets on the radical future of vehicle design.

Fast Company: Why did you become a car designer? Were you always a huge car fan?

Thomas Ingenlath: My design interest was indeed somehow rooted with cars, but I was always very skeptical about that myself—it felt too much like the boy’s dream.

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I discovered there’s actually a profession like that when I bought a car magazine that had a portion from Ford’s design studio in Cologne, and I realized, it’s actually a profession! And they had this cover story on the Ford Fiesta, also called the Bobcat.

I was like, wow, they have a clay model with all these people working on it!

Wait, you’re telling me a Ford Fiesta got you into car design? I have to say, that’s pretty shocking!

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Well, Fiesta taught me there was a design profession [laughs]. That intrigued me about car design.

What touched me, where I said, “Wow, this is a piece of art”—that was a cover of a car magazine. It was covered in little squares. You could not recognize what it was. And it was a [Lamborghini] Countach. And they’d photographed all these angles of this Countach. It was so artistic and abstract.”

Ha, that makes more sense. So your fate was sealed by a Lamborghini and a Ford. How’d you get started designing cars?

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In Germany [where I grew up] there was a good design education, but not for cars. There’s the Bauhaus history and all that. So I did industrial design as the first foundation; it gave me a lot of ability to talk about design and analyze it.

I did that for two years, and I said, “It’s exactly missing what I like about car design—the more emotional, enthusiastic approach.” That’s when I gave into that boyhood dream. “Okay, I’ve been so rational about it, now let’s go for the dream.”

I went to car design college, supported by Porsche, Audi, and Mercedes. I have to say it was amazing. It was a combination of being passionate about it, and on the other hand, having so much time to do the design job thoroughly.

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Polestar 2 [Photo: Polestar]
Car design didn’t feel as rushed as industrial design?

That’s what I love about car design. It’s long-lasting. It’s not something you launch for two years and it’s gone. You spend so much time designing it because it’s out there for eight years. That seriousness of designing toward perfection . . . it wasn’t superficial!

That was always my passion. I never knew each and every car from every year. I was always like, “I like this car,” but I could not take part in that expertise talk. But then after all these years, Jesus, I spent 20 years doing car design and running different companies!

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Polestar 1 [Photo: Polestar]
How do you want the public to feel when they see a Polestar vehicle?

The dream is to create an ethos of desirability, and personal, really attached feeling to it. I’m not shying away from that romantic relationship between you and your product at all. I hate if things become too anonymous, and it’s just a car to get from point A to B. An electric car does not just have to be a car to get from A to B in an environmentally friendly way. I want a car that you’re as passionate about as a Porsche 911.

Were you worried about stepping into the CEO role after decades of design?

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I had been part of the executive management team at Volvo for years by that time. I was never shy of an opinion of lots of things, so people knew I had opinions beyond design. You cannot shy away then when you finally have a chance and go, “Ehhh, no.”

How much different is your role different now? Do you still feel like a designer?

It’s different. [My] being a designer first has a big influence on the company, because certain things are clearly driven by design thinking. When I meet with my project managers and engineers . . . design thinking is always driving my decisions. I say, “We can do that, but did you consider it would have this effect?”

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And design is one of the strongest profiles of our company. When we do a show, it’s clear [our cars are] not a mediocre compromise because lots of opinions came together.

Of course, I had to prove and have to prove I can run a company with wise economic decisions. But I could almost make the point, “How could a modern company be led by anyone else but a designer?” Because, today, so much depends on what you actually deliver to a customer.

[Photo: Polestar]
How so?

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By now, we know the success of a car is not dependent on whether the combustion engine is a great engine or not. In the past, of course a car company was dependent on the tech working . . . and now we know that is not the differentiator. It’s about all the interfaces you build, the way that technology is communicated . . . that technology becomes a user-valid thing. And that is where I think our profession is trained to do that the best, to find the best use of technology, and communicate it to a customer.

Polestar was born at Volvo, so how much of Volvo design is in Polestar?

The model range we had planned at the beginning was very much within the premise and team of the Volvo design nucleus. And slowly we developed the two teams. Still there’s a high synergy because it’s a great team working together.

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The Polestar 1 was clearly a Volvo transformed into Polestar. Then for the Polestar 2, there is no Volvo version of it. It’s clearly the start of our electric age. But Polestars 3 and 4 will drive that separation further and further, to the point we say, “This is how far we want to be differentiated.”

[Photo: Polestar]
Now that you’re CEO, how much is design still your jurisdiction?

Maximilian Missoni clearly drives the design. When I was the boss of design [at Volvo], I was so into the details, and in the daily work driving perfection and detail. That I can’t do anymore. That I leave up to Maximillian. [But] I try to spend time together with Max in the design studio. He very much appreciates my opinion. He knows that’s how we can be better together making decisions. And it’s still a high involvement.

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How much involvement in hours a week? Can you say?

I can easily break it down! I spend six hours of my week in the design studio, and that’s it. Not more but also not less. Probably the same as some design bosses spend in the design studio! [laughs]

But it’s natural. I go in there, and after all these years training, I’m so connected to it. Even if I’m not in the design studio, I’m thinking about it. Being able to judge a product because, over the years, you’ve learned how things will end up, is helpful.

[However], this doesn’t help me in the factory. There, I have to rely on expertise and judgment [of others] a lot.

[Photo: Polestar]
What is the car industry getting right, and what is it getting wrong, as we transition to electric?

There’s this phase of uncertainty. That’s what’s very, very uncomfortable. If you’ve been developing cars for 25 years, to suddenly come into this phase not knowing how fast the industry will switch to electric, it’s such a difficult time.

Having said that, we are beyond that point now. Some brave companies did it already last year, some companies are doing it now. Now it’s full power ahead.

I almost feel like it’s a relief, now we know, now just go and put the money into it. I think the second that this is the clear direction, it will be easy again, and then you will see traditional [manufacturers] catching up of course, and [electric] being a successful thing.

Do you want to compete with them all? And release a Polestar at the $35,000 average price of a vehicle?

We will not be that mass market, like how I see Tesla is going mass market. Our journey is to stay much more premium. The Polestar 2, and single-motor variant, will be our base [for around $50,000]. It’s certainly not a cheap car, fair enough, but it makes it possible for a lot of people to own such a beautiful product.

You recently announced a plan to build a carbon-neutral car by 2030. Isn’t that risky to do now, as so many other car manufacturers are entering the market and building inexpensive electrics?

You’re totally right, it’s very much a contradiction, doing that and having it on an economically good scale. To start with, we don’t know today how to do it at all. This project is to find out what are the ways to get to truly CO2 neutral. It’s always that this will not be cheap to start with, but once you know how to do it, you can bring it to scale.

We know we have to solve it! So we cannot shy away from it. Let’s take that as a target to start with. And why is it any more dreamy or strange to drive for than to say, “Let’s fly to Mars and start living on Mars!”?

If you compare that, I think [zero carbon cars are] a much better goal. Fair enough, it will not be a mass-produced car in 2030 that we can offer to the mass market, but if we make that product, and have learned how to do it, then it will be the next step to scale it.

[Photo: Polestar]
You’re purposefully working under uncertainty.

It’s about setting yourself a goal, and then learning along the way. Clearly, this seems exotic now. I tell you, in four to five years, this will be the common goal for everybody. Today, the state government is clearly setting emission targets for cars. The zero-emission code is set. Tomorrow, there will be the next law implementation: how much of a CO2 burden do you allow a car to have when it’s leaving a factory gate. And I’m pretty sure the race starts there. But there’s no focus on it today. That focus will shift.

And when it does, you’ll have a four-year lead?

Yes, exactly!

We’ve seen a lot of designers imagine how cars might look when they are electric and autonomous—more like rooms on wheels than cockpitted vehicles. So far, Polestar’s design is premium, but not radical in this way. Are you thinking about that?

AV has its two sides to it. On one hand, it will integrate into this more conventional-looking car, because it will be used as an additional status, when you’re on the highway and you want to switch off, lay back and sleep and the car takes over the driving. But there’s only certain periods [this works]; it’s very difficult to handle all the situations when drivers have to take over.

Then you have the other element, what you could call robo taxi. It’s a capsule. And that is a big question. They will come, definitely, but it requires that [self-driving cars] can handle all the situations, excluding that you need to take over at some point. Only then are you free to design that UFO look. I don’t know when it will be possible to do that.

Sometimes, people think that cars have this big front hood that’s been determined because of the engine. But there’s a lot of ergonomics [to consider], like the driver looking through a window, and pedestrian protection from the outside. Volumes in the front of the car will only change if you can 100% guarantee there will be no accident. That’s why electric cars have not changed the look of the car. And how much a robo taxi has to do for crash protection, we will have to see.

[Car design] will definitely change. People sitting in a circle in the car, playing cards as they drive? I’m looking forward to that as well.

But you know, when cars can drive themselves perfectly, a lot of people think that will kill the experience of driving. Because a human driving a car could be deemed unsafe.

My god, you live in a country with so many kilometer stretches. I cannot imagine you will forbid mankind from driving cars [laughs]. You’re still wearing guns!

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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