Here’s a question: why do cars have to look so much like ... well, cars?
No, really, it’s a serious poser. One that is being given a lot of thought by the world’s leading car designers.
The subject came to the fore at the recently-staged Detroit Motor Show, one of the world’s most important annual car fests.
Car shows always feature plenty of concepts that are often true flights of fancy when it comes to styling, so by that standard the Volkswagen I.D. study that revealed in MoTown was quite subdued: though eminent futuristic, it clearly took its cues from one of the Wolfsburg outfit’s most famous past stars, the Kombi van.
However, this neat proposition is actually I.D. number two, following on from a hatch that the brand unveiled at the Paris motor show a couple of months previous (it also showed at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, just the week before Detroit).
The hatch car is a lot more adventurous ... and it needs to be taken more seriously. Whereas the modern ‘hippie van’ is still under consideration, the ID seen in France’s capital is definitely coming into production. It’s also very likely to come to New Zealand, because the local distributor sees real potential for electric vehicles.
This I.D. is the pathfinder for a radical range of purpose-built electric vehicles that are going to ultimately define VW’s purpose as a car maker just as much as anything it has had now – or in the past.
The production edition is very likely going to be just like the one that piqued Parisian interest.
Okay, the tomorrow-today leap only goes so far. For instance, it still uses wheels in the most orthodox count. Some cars in the past have had six wheels, some still occasionally get by with three but the ID maintains century-old tradition by taking a quartet, one on each corner.
It also maintains a steering wheel, brakes, seats ... all the stuff you, your grandad and his grandad were used to.
Insofar as change is concerned, we’re mainly talking the what makers call the ‘tophat’ and what we plebs think of as bodywork. Also, the interior.
Those are the areas where VW, among others, is looking to develop what call a ‘fresh design language.’ As I say, all this thinking is centred on the new family of electric vehicles it is developing, every one of them based on the brand’s new MEB modular architecture.
VW identifies that purpose-built electric cars are virtually a clean canvas. They pose different challenges for designers because of the drivetrain differences; instead of a combustion engine and fuel tank, designers need account for electric motors and batteries.
EVs are usually taller than vehicles with internal combustion engines, to accommodate floor-mounted power cells.
But there’s a plus to this, too. VW brand's head of design, Klaus Bischoff, points out that battery packs make it possible to change the fundamental shape of the vehicle.
That will lead to vehicles that have shorter overhangs and bonnets, longer wheelbases, more-raked windshields and bigger passenger compartments.
“To cope with that we need to correct proportions,” Bischoff told media in Detroit last month. “Essential for this is huge wheels, huge in diameter - but also wide.”
Because the need for an engine compartment disappears, the A-pillar (that’s the one between the front of the car and the occupants) can be moved forward substantially.
This, in turn, allows designers opportunity to shrink the bonnet to essentially only what is needed to meet crash regulations and pedestrian impact guidelines. This allows the windshield to be inclined at a more level angle for better fluid dynamics, Bischoff points out.
There are other considerations. Aerodynamics, being one. “To gain the travel distance range is essential (so) we need to have outstanding drag coefficients, and this will also influence the shape of the cars quite a bit.”
With virtually no front to the car, overhangs can be extremely short, maximizing the wheelbase and expanding the passenger compartment.
VW designers also pushed the dashboard forward by 127mm to give even more legroom. The I.D. hatch, for instance, already has the interior space of VW’s medium model, the Passat, but takes up less road room than the Golf.
EVs require lots of cooling; those batteries do tend to generate heat. Yet Bischoff is redefining the front of his cars, to the extent where he has removed the front air vents and curtains that would seem to be requisite to cooling the motor. Huh?
He assures the car won’t run hot. At the same token, it will look more properly like a VW should. Or used to.
“We don't want a grille,” he explained. “Volkswagen, if you look back (at the Beetle), was born without a grille. The engine was in the back.”
In the interior, VW designers are shooting for the "ultimate reduction", eliminating console elements in favour of a tablet and a heads-up display enhanced by augmented-reality.
This is not just a VW effort. Others are also hard at work. Last year was BMW Group’s 100th anniversary. In celebration it unveiled a series of future-looking concept vehicles, the first of which was a shape-shifting autonomous car with artificial intelligence.
The BMW Vision Next 100 is even more of a reach that the I.D. It’s an attempt to predict what cars will look like in the not-too-distant future when driverless cars are commonplace and artificial intelligence can learn and then predict a passenger's behaviour.
It also doesn’t look like a BMW as we know them now. The design features 800 moving triangles - a feature BMW is calling Alive Geometry – fitted to the side panels on the outside and also to the instrument panel. These shape-shifting features move to allow the car to communicate with the rider. For example, they open up to reveal red undersides when hazards present themselves on the road.
“They [the triangles] involve the driver in a form of preconscious communication, where an intuitive signal predicts an imminent real-time event,” explained BMW.
That’s different. To view the weirdest-looking cars, you actually have to look back into history.
The very best example of an un-car-like car has to be the Dymaxion car, created by Buckminster Fuller, famous as a futurist during the 1930s. It’s utterly odd, kinda like an airship on wheels (or maybe a cucumber) though I have to say this rare machine utterly entranced when I finally saw one in the metal.
That was when visiting the Henry Ford – the amazing museum of planes, trains and automobiles – plus stage coaches and old burger joints and lots of other stuff – set up by the Blue Oval’s creator. (The Henry Ford also has one of Fuller’s Dymaxion houses, which is a bit like a metal replication of a Mongolian yurt).
Just three Dymaxions were built. Some call them the precursor of today’s MPV; they were certainly roomy, with room for up to 11 occupants.
Unfortunately, there’s another common consensus among those who have driven this model. Namely, that you shouldn’t do that. Dynamically-speaking, it’s among the scariest, most poorly designed vehicles ever. In part because it has ... three wheels. The prototype killed it driver.
Of course, this criticism isn't entirely fair, for the Dymaxion car as we know it was far from complete. In its final form, the six metre-long podlike contraption didn’t need roads.
It was intended to fly, using some sort of jet-like propulsion system (never mind that jets hadn’t quite been invented when the car was developed and also that computer analysis suggests its hypothetical airworthiness would be on par with its roadworthiness).
Still, the Dymaxion does have some merits. First, it looks like nothing else on the road ... ever. Second, it looks like something some brand is going to create in the future, as an EV.
LIKE this story? Why not follow us on Facebook.