Sens-ational drive

While most companies develop concept cars to test commercial waters, Frank Rinderknecht of Swiss design house Rinspeed prefers to let his imagination run riot.

Pay a visit to next month’s Geneva motor show and the chances are that despite the best efforts of automotive heavyweights such as BMW and Mercedes, it will be a tiny Swiss design house that’s causing the biggest stir.

For the past 10 years Zurich-based Rinspeed has been stealing the show with one far-out concept after another. In 2001 it presented Advantige Rone, the world’s first sports car to be powered by kitchen and garden waste. Then a year later the company introduced Presto, a vehicle that shrinks by almost 1m to get into parking spaces.

This was followed by the Bedouin, which at the flick of a switch converts from pick-up truck to station wagon, and then last year by Splash, an amphibious car that uses hydraulically powered folding hydrofoils to skim over water at speeds of up to 50mph.

Little wonder then that expectations are running high for Geneva 2005, and Rinspeed’s charismatic founder and chief executive Frank Rinderknecht doesn’t intend to disappoint.

This year’s creation, Senso, is Rinderknecht’s take on automotive safety, and based on the argument that the risk of an accident is significantly reduced if the driver is both relaxed and awake.

Though this seems a truism Rinderknecht claimed that most current automotive safety technologies are designed to deal with the effects of bad driving rather than the cause. For him the driver is the key.

‘Would you need an airbag if nobody hit you, ABS if you braked early enough, and an electronic stability programme if you turned early enough? All of these treat the symptoms of not driving safely, but the driver is the cause. Wouldn’t it be sensible to treat the cause rather than the symptom?’

With this in mind, Senso uses a combination of biometric monitoring systems and subtle sensory feedback devices to determine, and then alter, the driver’s mood.

The system on show at Geneva will feature a biometric watch to monitor the driver’s pulse, eyelid monitoring cameras to spot signs of tiredness and a lane monitoring camera from Israeli company Mobileye that helps spot signs of erratic driving.

Having determined the driver’s state of mind, the system will then attempt, if necessary, to alter it through a combination of subconscious tactile, visual, auditory and even olfactory signals.

The shifting patterns and colours of hi-tech electroluminescent panels developed by Bayer will provide subconscious behavioural ‘hints’, while a scent box will ‘wake up’ or relax the driver with revitalising citrus whiffs or soothing vanilla odours. Meanwhile, the sound of waves will calm frayed nerves, and a network of sensors and actuators will be used to provide force feedback.

For Rinderknecht the key to the system is its subtlety. He has worked closely with behavioural pyschologists from the University of Zurich to develop technology that will blend quietly into the background, and not simply irritate the driver into turning it off. He contrasted this to more proscriptive existing systems such as alcohol sensors that won’t allow drunk drivers to start cars. Such systems, he said, are easily circumvented by getting someone else to turn the key.

Perhaps of all Rinderknecht’s concepts Senso contains the biggest kernel of an idea that is likely to be snapped up by the wider automotive industry — and yet, as with all his previous concept vehicles, there’s no intention to put Senso into series production.

Indeed, after Geneva, the vehicle will return to his small workshop on the outskirts of Zurich where it will join a collection of weird and wonderful vehicles that are just occasionally taken out of mothballs to bemuse the pedestrians of the city.

So why does he do it? The down-to-earth explanation is that the concept cars act as an attention-grabbing advertisement for Rinspeed’s bread-and-butter business of sports car modification — a business that he started from his mother’s garage in the 1970s. ‘If I can build Splash, I think I can build a wheel, or a spoiler. It’s much easier to find partners because they see the value of Rinspeed’s communication work around the world and are willing to pay and invest more into the technologies,’ said Rinderknecht.

But this is only part of the story, and it’s perhaps more accurate to view the bread-and-butter stuff as the foundation that enables Rinderknecht to indulge his creative passions and give him, as he puts it, a reason to get up in the morning. This is backed up by his claim that, while his employees focus largely on the industrial stuff, he spends more than half his time dreaming up concept cars.

This means that Rinspeed occupies a somewhat unusual space within the automotive industry. While most car companies produce concepts or prototypes because they want to test the commercial waters, Rinspeed isn’t bound by these considerations.

Rinderknecht compares the company to a fashion industry haute couturier: ‘For many manufacturers what we do is too wild — if they do a prototype it has to be close to series because they want to test the market. They have a different purpose. We can be much more colourful, and we need to be much more colourful.’

An additional advantage of not entering series production is that the cars don’t have to be 100 per cent perfect. ‘We do not sell. When you sell the customer expects 100 per cent, and a prototype by its nature cannot be 100 per cent ,’ he said. ‘If we were to do it for one car we would have to do it for 20 cars, and history shows that small series-limited production is the best way to lose your money. At best there’s a five per cent chance of survival — your chances are better in a casino.’

By not insisting on series production standards Rinderknecht is also able to stay one step ahead of the big boys, and introduce ideas years before they have a chance to refine them. ‘Our thing is to be ahead of time and ahead of trends — once a manufacturer does it you’re lost because he can do it cheaper and quicker.’

It’s difficult to gauge the influence of Rinderknecht’s designs on the wider automotive industry, although a brief glance at concept vehicles developed 10 years ago reveals a trendsetting use of carbon body panels, bio-fuels and steering wheel-mounted remote control systems.

Rinderknecht claims not to know, or even particularly care, how he’s viewed by others in the industry, although he is careful to steer clear of the ‘nutty professor’ tag by tempering his more outrageous designs with more down-to-earth concepts. ‘As well as being over budget, Splash was on the border of nutty professor, and I think Senso represents a big step back into the realistic. Otherwise people will start to view me as crazy. I may be lateral thinking, but I don’t think I’m crazy.’

So what’s next? This summer he plans to fulfil a lifelong dream and cross the English Channel in a vehicle of his own design: Splash. In the process he hopes to smash the one hour 40 minutes and six seconds record set last year by Richard Branson in the Gibbs Aquada. Then he will start designing next year’s concept car. Declining to give any clues about what this might be, he said only that he hopes it will defy expectations.

‘People expect that every year, with the reliability of a Swiss clock, we will be bringing out a new model.’ He has no intention of disappointing visitors to Geneva’s motor show any time soon.