Stanford students will use 'design thinking' to judge vintage vehicles at elite auto show

A Stanford course led by founder David Kelley has primed students to look for 'the differences that make a difference' in the cars on display at the Concours d'Elegance at Pebble Beach.

Kimball Studios; courtesy Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance 1961 Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato Green

At this year's Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, Stanford students will choose from among vintage automobiles like this 1961 Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato the one that best embodies five design criteria they established in a mechanical engineering class.

Automobile enthusiasts from around the world will gather at Pebble Beach Sunday for the Concours d'Elegance, an annual event at which some 200 vintage cars go on display to compete for favor before a select panel of judges.

This year, for the first time, the lineup of judges includes 18 Stanford students who will choose the car that best embodies five design criteria the students established while taking a mechanical engineering course led by David Kelley, founder of Stanford School of Engineering's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, commonly known as the

Kelley, a professor of mechanical engineering, conceived the course as a practical exercise in "design thinking" – the interdisciplinary approach he has pioneered to teach the art of creating products that are functional, economical and aesthetically pleasing.

The trip to Pebble Beach will allow the students to apply what they've learned, according to Reilly Brennan, executive director of the Revs Program, which aims to weave automobile studies into the university's curriculum.

"They will be looking for the differences that make a difference," Brennan said, reciting a design-thinking mantra.

To prepare for Pebble Beach, the students were led through exercises in evaluating and ranking other products such as phones and clocks. The assignments were deliberately general. Each exercise was designed to make students think about what was important to them as individuals, and also to the team – blending personal insight and collaborative skills in a way that companies find increasingly valuable in every activity from product design to corporate efficiency, Brennan said.

After weeks of discussion, the students came up with five criteria upon which to choose the vintage car that most deserved the Revs Program at Stanford Award:

  • Aura: How does the car make the individual feel and how broad might that appeal be?
  • Inflection Point: Did the vehicle represent an innovation in the way automobiles were produced or perceived?
  • Uniqueness: Was it a radical departure from cars that proceeded or followed it?
  • Lasting Impact: Did the car serve as a model for subsequent vehicles?
  • Provenance: Does the vehicle have a unique story?

Brennan said the students narrowed their choices down to a handful of vehicles by studying photos of entries before the event itself. The idea was to make the final judging manageable. On Sunday the students will inspect these select vehicles and vote for the winner by rating each semi-finalist, using all five criteria on a sliding scale.

Brennan, who was part of the teaching team, said the plan is to offer the course again in time for the next Concours d'Elegance.

Also co-teaching the course were Jon Feiber, consulting associate professor at the and general partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures; communication Professor Clifford Nass, director of the Revs Program and the CHIMe (Communication between Humans and Interactive Media) Lab; and Michael Shanks, a professor of classical archaeology.

Tom Abate writes about the students, faculty and research of the School of Engineering.

Tom Abate, School of Engineering: (650) 736-2245,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,