Concept vehicles once looked like a cross between the Batmobile and Nasa’s shuttle, aimed more at the science fiction enthusiast than the regular motorist. Today the emphasis is on introducing advanced designs which have a chance of production.
More than 35 such designs, produced by car makers and design students, were on show at an AA sponsored display at the recent Motor Show.
Concept cars suggest where technology might be leading to in terms of modern materials, shaping, alternative motive power and control systems. They also gauge public and press reaction to possible new models or features which can be put into production quickly if well received.
Even leading automotive design colleges like the Royal College of Art, Coventry University and Warwick University’s Manufacturing Group now encourage real engineering concepts. But there is still plenty of room for visionaries.
At the Warwick Manufacturing Group, senior fellow Nick Matthews says: ‘There is a move towards designing cars that can actually be manufactured. We believe concept cars are fun, but product and process have to be devised together.’
A Warwick team is working on the Salvo project, a £30m DTI and industry backed initiative to develop a structurally advanced lightweight vehicle. The university researchers have teamed up with 30 companies including BMW, Rover, British Aluminium, GE Plastics and various machine tool makers to create a batch of six cars in a small production line. They will examine the potential of new construction techniques, advanced materials and supporting technologies, such as aluminium extrusion processing, hybrid structures, thermoplastic and thermoset composites.
Though Warwick also does a lot of adventurous work with Formula One car makers such as Lotus and McLaren, Matthews admits there is little spin-off into the mass market.
‘We can’t be as innovative with mass products. If we introduce a new subframe, it must have the same safety characteristics as existing frames. So changes tend to be incremental rather than revolutionary. Electric, glass-domed vehicles may be nice to look at, but the consumer won’t buy them.’
Vehicle conceptualisation has never been easier, says Matthews. ‘Thanks to CAD, new concept vehicles can be assembled from existing photos in minutes. So the challenge is creating an edge and individualising products for niche markets. But this is often a matter of fashion, so our students focus on making vehicles that can actually be manufactured.’
Professor Garel Rhys, director of the Centre of Automotive Industry Research at the Cardiff Business School, suggests that consumers are conservative. ‘When choosing a new car, the consumer always has one eye on future sale in the used car market. So the manufacturers also tend to be conservative.’
Rhys recognises that concept cars are used to advance ideas of product differentiation. But, he contends: ‘These days every vehicle maker moves so quickly that a bright idea is rapidly trumped by competitors.’
He cites the increasing popularity of the small people carrier like the Renault Megane Scenic, which had the market to itself for a couple of years as a smaller and cheaper European people carrier than the Espace. Now several other European players are piling into the market, including Fiat’s Multipla, Vauxhall’s Zafira seven-seater and a variant on the Ford Focus platform.
‘The idea of just making spectacular but disposable design exercises is being replaced by a much more hard-headed approach. Today’s concept car has a more than 50/50 chance of seeing production in the not too distant future,’ says Rhys.
Ford’s innovative Ka was foreshadowed by several concept cars from 1994 on, and its ‘new edge’ styling has gone mainstream with the launch of the Focus.
The Ka concept came from a design student at the RCA, where graduates have created imaginative concepts models for nearly 30 years. Course tutor Dale Harrow says the students are encouraged to operate independently. ‘Our role is to interpret the students’ design concerns and be provocative to the industry.’
With an eye on sensation, at the Motor Show display RCA students presented Jae Soo Kim’s open sports car based on the anatomical drawings of Leonardo Di Vinci, and Martin Kropp’s stylish Oakley City Car which was inspired by a sporty sunglasses image.
As Harrow explains: ‘The Oakley car reflected the potential links developing with companies outside the traditional car industry, like the new Swatch and Mercedes Benz Smart car.’ Kropp also created a stylish coupe design in partnership with British Steel and Jaguar.
More provocatively, Harrow suggests: ‘If you’ve got a really good concept, then you probably don’t even show it at the Motor Show until it’s produced.’ However, consumers expect companies to be at the leading edge, so concept cars are a way to demonstrate forward thinking.
There was plenty of innovation on show from the main car makers. These included BMW’s two-wheel C1, Nissan’s two-seater Hypermini, Mazda’s Demio and Honda’s much-publicised Dream solar powered car.
The AA produced a half-scale model of an AA patrol vehicle for the year 2020, with a high-tech mobile workshop and satellite route guidance system using telematics, which will identify the reasons for breakdowns and suggest a solution en route to the scene.
Ford showed the MC4 family car which included an advanced global positioning system.
Leading design engineering firms believe better and more viable concept design is being encouraged by use of sophisticated CAD packages. Stephen Rix, business manager of designer MSX International says: ‘The engineering of concept cars is far more feasible thanks to CAD packages such as Alias Wavefront and ICEM-Surf, which ensure everything fits well before the clay model.’
Michael Dickison, general manager of technology at Coventry-based Mayflower Vehicle Systems, says: ‘Concept design is far more accurate today with 3D modelling techniques like generative shape modelling to generate sections and extrude them. We’re no longer focused on creating weird shapes, but concentrate on creating lighter vehicles which are more environmentally sensitive in terms of the manufacturing energy used, low emissions and recyclability.’ He cites the aluminium-based Audi TT as an example.
According to Dan Parry-Williams of Formula One and concept car designer Tom Wilkinshaw Racing which was responsible for development of the Aston Martin Vantage concept considerable efforts were made to ensure the Vantage was feasible to manufacture.
‘Concept cars are getting closer to reality than a few years ago,’ says Parry-Williams, ‘because there are harder commercial reasons behind concept cars than ever before.’