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Radical Change

Putting auto design on autopilot

By Paul Eisenstein

Page 18

In the 1973 film, “Sleeper,” Woody Allen wakes up after being frozen following a botched operation. To escape the inept police state trying to terminate him, he steals a car that looks like a bubble, with frosted windows and no steering wheel. He simply tells it where to go.

The comedy was supposed to take place in the 22nd Century but, at least when it comes to the car, it could become reality in the very near future. A Mercedes-Benz concept vehicle, the F 015, can black out its windows, use voice commands to safely drive itself to a destination, and passengers can swivel their seats to turn the big sedan into a mobile living room.

The auto industry is in the midst of some of the most radical technological changes in its history. The first autonomous vehicles are likely to be on the road by the end of the decade, and self-driving cars, trucks and crossovers could be the norm, rather than the exception, by the 2030s, according to some forecasts.  By then, the gasoline engine could become a rarity, as well, with most cars powered by batteries or by hydrogen fuel cells. Now add new features designed to keep passengers, as well as pedestrians and bicyclists, safe.

While many of these technological advances will be hidden out of sight, they’re likely to have a significant impact, nonetheless on the design of tomorrow’s vehicles — both inside and out.

paul eisenstein pulled quote shortWhat happens when drivers become passengers, as autonomous vehicles take over the road? That’s where the Mercedes F 015 and more recent Vision Tokyo concepts come in. Both introduced on the auto show circuit this past year, they’re shaped a bit like bars of soap, designs intended to provide plenty of room for passengers to move around and stretch out. The German maker describes the five-seat Vision Tokyo as a “connected lounge,” offering “a hip living space – a chill-out zone in the midst of megacity traffic mayhem.”

The Volvo Concept 26, introduced at the Los Angeles Auto Show last November, is meant to demonstrate “how luxury autonomous cars will integrate into daily life.” This prototype puts the emphasis on the interior, with features such as a tablet computer built into the center console, fold-away tray tables for driver and passengers, and a 25-inch color monitor that pops out of the passenger-side dashboard.

Tomorrow’s cars will need to become far more efficient to meet increasingly stringent emissions and fuel-economy standards. Among other things, we’ll see even more focus on aerodynamic design. Active shutters, designed to seal off a car’s grille, have become increasingly commonplace, and we can expect to see more active components, such as movable rear wings. Another recent Mercedes concept vehicle took things the next step with body panels that could stretch the length of the vehicle almost a foot to improve airflow.

But with the advent of battery and fuel-cell technology, designers could get significantly more freedom, experts like General Motors’ global styling chief Ed Welburn suggest. They’ll allow engineers to relocate powertrains beneath the floorboards, or mount motors in a vehicle’s wheels – freeing up space that used to be taken up by the engine compartment. The hydrogen-powered Toyota FCV+ is one example, its passenger compartment stretching almost to the very front bumper.

Safety systems have already had a significant impact on vehicle design as makers strive to incorporate crumple zones to absorb the impact forces of a crash. New pedestrian protection rules have meant slightly higher hoods with crush space underneath. One of the oddest concept vehicles at the Tokyo Motor Show last November was Flesby. If its sensors detected the chance of hitting a pedestrian or bike, the outside panels would inflate like a rolling Michelin Man.

That’s not so far-fetched. In Europe, Citroen already offers a model called the Cactus, with soft panels on the outside of its doors to minimize parking lot dings and dents.

Don’t expect conventional designs to vanish entirely, but with all the technological changes sweeping through the auto industry, many of the vehicles we’ll see in the not-too-distant future are going to look like they’ve rolled off the set of a science-fiction flick.

Paul Eisenstein is the publisher of The Detroit Bureau