The average concept car experiments with styling, technology and packaging to explore potential new ideas. Some concept cars take it a few steps further, not just rethinking the car but redefining what a car is and exploring ideas that could completely revolutionize the way we get from point A to point B. From vehicles that drive themselves, to cars that fly and fold, some of 2013's most interesting concept cars provided a lens into a very different future.
The mechanical chauffeur
We've been hearing about automated car technology for years, but the chatter picked up pace in 2013, with numerous automakers highlighting new self-driving technologies, revealing research vehicles and laying out future plans. There seems to be widespread agreement that fully autonomous cars will arrive within the next 12 years.
The manufacturers have been taking measured steps, but those not bound by the realities of existing technology and research and development costs (i.e. designers) have been pole-vaulting up the staircase to put us right in the car cabin of the future. The Zoox Boz presented the most comprehensive view of a fully autonomous vehicle that we've seen, and the upcoming Rinspeed XchangE promises another vision.
Both those concepts skip over the technological underpinnings and show the autonomous car from the passenger-formerly-called-the-driver's point of view, highlighting relaxing interiors that allow for more natural conversations, digital entertainment and full-commute naps. It's a future where all the driver has to do is forward a destination from his phone, hit the "start" button and sit back for the ride. The Zoox vision shows a car structure redesigned around the concept of automation – a low, windshieldless body with improved aerodynamics and symmetrical front and rear-ends.
We're certain to hear much more about the autonomous car and the technologies that will get us there as the 2014 auto show season gets underway.
When cars flyGeneration after generation of children have suffered adulthoods of somber disappointment because of the nagging lack of flying cars. Such cars have been a part of the "future" vision for decades but have yet to find their way to the "present." We're not all that confident that a Jetsons-like cityscape of stilted high rises and flying buggies is on the immediate horizon, but 2013 showed some steps toward the dream.
In August the Terrafugia Transition made its first public appearance, doing a flight demo at the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. The Transition isn't the airborne commuter-car folks have been wishing for, but more of a light airplane that transforms into a street-legal vehicle and fits in a single-car garage. The two-seat car essentially eliminates the need to drive to or get dropped off at the airport, allowing the private pilot to drive himself right in his plane. The wings fold up for ground travel, and engine power is redirected to the wheels from the propeller. Inside, the driver-pilot will find a familiar steering wheel and floor pedals for driving, along with a stick and rudder pedals for air control.
As the "Transition" name hints, the road-capable airplane isn't the end of Terrafugia's vision for the flying car. The company's TF-X concept is designed with vertical take-off and landing hardware, eliminating the need for a runway and airport. The company believes the vehicle can be designed in such a way that it takes only five hours to learn how to operate, self-avoids hazards like other flying vehicles and bad weather, and auto-lands itself.
The TF-X concept looks like the start of the flying car that you and three passengers can hop in at home, fly to the mall - with speeds up to 200 mph (322 km/h), that mall could be a state away - and commute back home with in time for dinner. If Terrafugia's eight to 12-year TF-X development estimate holds up, those that can afford it are in for a tough choice between fully autonomous road cars and flying commuters in a decade or so.
Trains gone wildThanks to the fact that it was presented by start-up virtuoso Elon Musk, and not just some kooky designer or skunkworks team no one's ever heard of, the insane-train called the Hyperloop was one of the biggest transportation headlines of the year. While the specifics of the train's feasibility and future are up for debate, its purported benefits are very clear: Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes by way of levitating pods being shot through elevated structural tubes at 800 mph (1,288 km/h). The pods would leave every 30 seconds, so there would be no need for reading schedules or sitting in the station. With the possibility of bringing cars directly onto the Hyperloop, commuters could theoretically drive on in LA and drive right off into San Francisco.
Beyond California, Hyperloop technology could be used to create fast, convenient connections between other major cities within about 900 miles (1,448 km) of each other. That opens up all kinds of intriguing routes: Washington to NYC, San Francisco to Seattle, Chicago to Toronto, etc.
All that sounds a little too good to be true now, when the Hyperloop is little more than a white paper, but the idea of shotgunning back and forth from New York to Boston for a lunch meeting, or St. Louis to Chicago for the Cubs-Cardinals game is certainly enough to keep us dreaming.
A start-up called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Inc. has stepped up to develop a prototype and expects to have it done within two years. In the meantime, Gizmag's Brian Dodson provides an in-depth look at how the Hyperloop works.
Transformers: less than meets the eyeThe folding car was another trendy concept in 2013. Such cars use folding mechanisms to fit into parking spaces typically reserved for motorcycles while offering larger driving layouts for space and stability.
The most radical folding action of the year belongs to the Armadillo-T designed by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). The rear of the helmet-shaped car closes up and over the front-end like a big mechanical eyelid, cutting its length from 2.8 m to 1.65 m (9.2 to 5.4 ft). The folding action is controlled remotely via a smartphone, which can also be used to reposition the car, allowing three individual Armadillo-Ts to fit in one parking spot.
At 2.3-m (7.5-ft), the full length of the Casple-Podadera is right in between the lengths of the folded and unfolded Armadillo-T. This folder uses a simpler shortening mechanism in the form of retracting rear wheels that slide under the body and cut its footprint down to 1.9 m (6.2 ft).
The future of the Armadillo-T and Casple-Podadera were both big, bold question marks when we looked at them, but a third folding car has laid a bit more track. The Hiriko Fold was inked into a car-sharing program with Deutsche Bahn about a year ago. A Japanese-market version is also in the works. The Fold's extendable rear-end tucks underneath the pod-like cabin, cutting the overall length from 2.5 to 1.5 m (8.2 to 4.9 ft). The car's windshield serves as its door, so you don't even have to worry about banging into car or concrete in a particularly tiny spot.
The neighborhood know-it-allThe car will gain more and more awareness of its surroundings as it gets more and more sensors, Car-to-X communications and self-driving elements. Another function of these technologies that a few designers have experimented with is interactivity, not just with other cars and the greater transportation infrastructure, but with nearby humans.
The information gathered from onboard sensors and the cloud could not only prove valuable for the driver and greater driving ecosystem, but also for those around a parked car. Daimler's smart car-bot vision uses the car's advanced sensor set (GPS, radar, cameras, etc.), along with communications equipment like external projectors, to share information. For instance, it could monitor traffic with its radar and camera systems to help pedestrians cross the street, or provide GPS-derived directions. Daimler provides no indication of how those systems might be powered in its conceptual vision, but presumably the car would have to be hooked into the grid to prevent battery drain.
About as a rough a draft as Daimler's interactive car, the Willie bus concept brings the idea of information-sharing to the larger scale of a city bus. The concept's LCDs are built into its structure, running from end to end. Many of the ideas for usage are non-interactive (i.e. advertising), but designer Tad Orlowski shows them communicating routes and schedules and mentions the idea of using touchscreen displays to provide interactive access to information.
Man in the machineNew car technology has been pulling the human away from the machine for decades. Electrical systems and computers have taken much of the mind and muscle out of driving, assisting or completely taking over functions like gear shifting and steering. With the growth of automated driving systems, the human element is facing outright extinction.
However, there's also a movement to use new technologies to forge a closer, more intimate relationship between human and machine, a movement that's largely manifested itself in small personal mobility devices. These concepts are designed to be more closely connected to their drivers, serving almost as an extension of the body.
"Toyota envisions an ever-developing driver-vehicle relationship similar to the relationship of trust and understanding that a rider might have with his or her horse," Toyota says of its FV2 concept.
As creepy as it sounds at first, Toyota qualifies that relationship by both physical and emotional elements. On the physical side, the FV2 relies on its driver's forward-back and side-side movements in place of a steering wheel. It also heightens the driver's sense of awareness with sensor-based warning systems and an augmented reality windshield. Things get emotional in that the FV2 is designed to use voice and facial recognition to learn the driver's moods and make driving suggestions and exterior appearance changes based on those moods.
The new Honda UNI-CUB β is a much smaller personal transporter package that relies on body motion for control of its omni-directional driving wheel system, which moves diagonally as well as in the directions of the cross. Gizmag's founder Mike Hanlon found the system to be so intuitive as to be borderline telepathic.
These concepts may never come to fruition, and they'll likely evolve a great deal if they do. What's clear now is that they provide an intriguing starting point for a long conversation about the future needs and forms of public and private transportation. Looking back over the year helps us look ahead to what new twists and turns might await in 2014 and beyond.
Let us know which of these concepts you'd love to see become reality, which ones need to be improved, and which need to be buried in 2013 and never spoken of again.