Inspiration: The Future on Four Wheels (More or Less)

For 64 years, concept cars have wooed and wowed the driving public. Many made empty promises, but the best foreshadowed real technological change.
2002 GM Autonomy General Motors

It was a magnificent machine, a stunning glimpse of the future made manifest in Detroit steel. The Y-Job, an experimental Buick roadster that appeared in 1940, is widely considered the first full-blown concept car in automotive history. Its sleek, low, chrome-slathered body parted the American automotive sea at a time when most cars were tall, bustle-trunked Bonnie-and-Clyde rides with running boards and acorn-pod headlights. Yet the Y-Job was not built for bragging rights at car shows, as concept cars are today. It was built so that design chief Harley Earl could drive around Detroit in the coolest ride in town.

In the 64 years since the Y-Job, concept cars have served too many masters and purposes to count. Some have been credible technology demonstrators: automatic and hidden headlights, power windows, cruise control, rearview TV, parking sensors, keyless ignition, LED brake lights, variable-opacity roof glass, navigation systems, rain sensors, folding metal roofs and dozens of other now common features first appeared in concept cars as early as the 1940s. Other concepts have been pure fancy: At the 1996 British Auto Show, a design team from Coventry University displayed Concept 2096, a wheel-less, windowless, driverless vehicle that looked much like something you might find sucking your thigh after you´d waded through a swamp. The power plant? “Slug drive,” which the creators admitted hadn´t yet been invented.

Some concepts have been public opinion polls or previews-Do you like this new design direction? Others have been extreme-makeover versions of production vehicles, designed to answer the “Jeez, what are we gonna do for the Detroit show?” question: next year’s pickup truck, say, but with 26-inch wheels, rubber-band tires, a 15-liter V12 from the company’s earthmover division and a $40,000 iridescent paint job. But the most important goal of the concept exercise is to produce a machine-sometimes a working, rolling vehicle, sometimes a plastic shell-that appears to be an artifact of the future. At a time when every modern car company feels it must have the future in its crosshairs, the concept car retains its potency.

“There’s an arms-race quality to it today,” says David Laituri, a principal industrial designer at the Massachusetts firm Design Continuum, which counts BMW among its clients. “It’s blinding, the sheer number of concept cars today. It’s the price of entry. You have to do something to be competitive.”

In the 1950s-the golden age of the concept car-and the decades that followed, the best of
the concept cars were technology forecasts and testbeds, although designers interested in flash could always simply pimp their future rides by loading cars up with phony jet exhausts, rocket fins and fighter-plane bubble canopies. Today concept car designers are dealing with technologies-wireless navigational networking, for example-that operate under the skin of the machine: They’re invisible. The future needs to be seen to be believed, but the sheer complexity of new technology can be hard to communicate. “One of the reasons hybrid technology is so successful is that it’s fairly easy to understand,” says Alan Mudd, senior designer at consulting firm Design Continuum in Boston. “People understand an electric motor plus a gasoline engine, and they don´t need to know all about regenerative braking. But hydrogen and fuel cells-it’s much more difficult to grasp that technology.”

Still, there have been recent showstoppers.
GM’s Autonomy prototype, introduced in 2002, is probably the most noteworthy of the past decade: automotive design according to a post-internal-combustion-engine paradigm. Autonomy jammed the power plant, fuel tank and steering controls of a vehicle into a six-inch-thick “skateboard.” No intrusive engine, no drive shaft, no bulky fuel tank-for that matter, no fixed place for the steering wheel, and no steering wheel either if you didn’t want one. The skateboard freed designers to imagine snap-on bodies and radical new configurations for seats, control systems and the like. Only problem: The technology is years away.

Even when a concept car is an immediate success, as was American designer Grant Larson’ 1993 Boxster concept for Porsche, turning it into a production model is not always straightforward. In the real world, regulations impinge. “What you can afford to do with a concept car is ignore the legal demands, like bumper regulations, emissions regulations and pedestrian-safety ratings,” says Lars Erik Lundin, vice president of Volvo’ concept center in Camarillo, California. “So you may be disappointed when you go from concept car to real car, because the design suffers.”

Note that Lundin is far from Volvo headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden. Almost without exception, modern concept cars are designed not by salarymen sitting in Toyota City or cubicled workers in Detroit but by free-thinking stylists in southern California, Barcelona, Milan, Paris and other vibrant culture centers. The sun is bright, and the suits are a thousand miles away. “If you’re in the middle of headquarters,” Lundin says, “your best designers are constantly pulled into fixing production projects. They´re never in peace and quiet long enough to make a concept car. Today’s work is always more important than the future.” Clearly not the right formula for concept car designers: For them, today’ work is the future.