Cars Of The Future
|Commuter car designed by Paul Hoste|
As automotive design programs at colleges across North America are becoming increasingly more sophisticated, the students they attract are producing higher-level work than ever before. Each institute has its own superstars who are on the cutting edge of today's styles and technology. These designers are looking ahead to the distant and not-so-distant future, creating innovative mechanical masterpieces ranging from micro commuter cars to sleek and stylish pickup trucks to entire transportation systems that use podlike vehicles. Here are five student designs from some of the top automotive design programs around the country — designs that could very well be road-ready within the next decade.
Designers: Selim Benhabib and Taehoon Kim
School: Pratt Institute, New York
Selim Benhabib and Taehoon Kim — originally from Turkey and South Korea, respectively — envision a world in which transportation is both public and private at the same time. For their senior thesis project, the industrial-design majors teamed up to devise a new way to travel up and down New York's Hudson River Drive. "We wanted the traveler to have privacy, but also be part of a community," Benhabib says. To that end, their proposed system is made up of a series of autonomous one-person pods. Riders can pick-up or drop-off a pod at designated kiosks along the predetermined route on Manhattan's West Side, just as they would, say, use a subway station or bus stop. Operation of the vehicles is automated through an intuitive onboard computer, allowing passengers to travel leisurely.
Because they don't have to pay attention to the road, riders in the system can communicate with each other through a unique smartphone application-based social-networking system. "It lets you see who's 'on lane' and talk or video chat with them," Benhabib says. You'll also be able to strike up conversations with strangers around you by electronically "poking" them through the pod's computer system. Benhabib and Kim say the price of a ride would depend on the distance traveled and how much energy used. But they are hoping "it will cost somewhere between a subway ride and a taxi ride," Benhabib says.
Designer: Michael Canty
School: Academy of Art University, San Francisco
At San Francisco's Academy of Art University, students in the transportation-design program focus all of their efforts on electric vehicles. While we think that is shortsighted, junior Michael Canty says being so specialized frees students from the constraints of the typical internal-combustion engine, especially its size and weight. "With electric cars, you don't have to worry about how much room the engine takes up, so you can get as much interior space in a microcar as you would in a larger sedan," Canty says.
His dream machine is a 6-foot-wide, 10-foot-long battery-powered microcar that can seat four people. To put that size in perspective: It's shorter than a MINI Cooper but longer than a smart fortwo. It is propelled by electric motors placed inside each wheel. In addition to regenerative braking, the car's batteries are also charged through kinetic energy. The vehicle's suspension system was inspired by Seiko's Kinetic Drive Technology, which is used in the company's current generation of watches. "This system provides sufficient energy to drive their watches with the flick of the wrist," Canty explains. "Similar technology can be utilized to convert physical suspension travel into electricity, which charges the vehicle's battery packs and extends its range. Hypothetically, as the vehicle goes further, the further it goes."
Despite the car's diminutive size, it's designed to be highly visible on the road. It has a high profile — a vertical design that puts passengers at the same height as a Jeep. Canty, a former aircraft-carrier jet mechanic and airplane captain in the Marine Corps, used what he calls a "layered defense" seating design so that passengers would each have the feeling of being in control. The lowest occupant is the driver, seated in the center front of the car, and each passenger behind him gets higher by four inches so they can all see over each other's heads.
Designer: Chris Nichols
School: Lawrence Technological University, Southfield, Mich.
A Michigan native and senior at Lawrence Technological University, Chris Nichols set out to create an electric motorcycle that meets the needs of both sport and touring riders. His innovative design wasn't inspired by current bike trends or even other futuristic creations that he might have seen in movies or on the Web. Instead, Nichols says he was inspired by a really cool chair. "It had these arching twin support tubes that I found fascinating," Nichols says. "So I decided to create a motorcycle on a twin-beam frame." He then eliminated the traditional fork steering that most motorcycles use and replaced it with a steer-by-wire system that uses hydraulics to turn the handlebars. In addition, the handlebars are on a track that slides forward as you accelerate, lowering your riding position for comfort at high speeds. They also slide back and rise as the rider slows down. This motion is a boon for both aggressive and leisurely riders, providing a more comfortable riding position in each situation.
The bike is fully electric, with four hub motors integrated with chargeable battery packs — a design feature that helps free up space where a traditional combustion engine would normally go, allowing for cargo storage instead. One unique feature is the virtual windscreen. A Venturi mixer — a bottleneck-shaped piece of hardware that compresses air and was used in the Renault Spider concept car — accelerates the air over the rider, eliminating the need for a physical windscreen.
Designer: Alex Nagel
School: Humber College, Toronto
Students at Toronto's Humber College dabble in various forms of alternative energy: nuclear, hydro, solar, wind. "We try to use 'green' technologies not just in the design of the vehicle but also in the production of it," says senior Alex Nagel about students' extensive use of polymer composite and polycarbonate materials. For his senior thesis, Nagel designed a vehicle intended to be used for commuting around campus — at his own small school or at bigger universities. A lightweight, Go-Kart-sized machine, Nagel's conveyance is powered by solar energy, which is absorbed through a glasslike photovoltaic central spine and photovoltaic side panels that also act like a safety cocoon for drivers. The energy is stored in a small battery that feeds a pair of electric motors, one in each front wheel, which can propel the car at speeds of up to around 15 mph. Once the batteries are charged to capacity, excess energy can be channeled into the campus's energy reserve, which Nichols hopes will help offset costs of installing and operating the system.
Designer: Paul Hoste
School: University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati
Multitasking is at the heart of University of Cincinnati student Paul Hoste's design: a commuter car that drives on a magnetic-levitation rail system similar to Japan's famed bullet train, which uses high-power magnets to provide lift and propulsion. The result is a self-driving, high-speed way of travel into cities. Why is this good for commuters? All of the driving duties are handled by a computer, so passengers are free to send emails, prepare for meetings and do any other tasks they'd be able to do while riding public transportation. At the end of the commute, the vehicle leaves the rail system and drives itself to a parking structure. Just how is a little fuzzy, but the gist is that it would ideally "use a variety of sensor inputs (radar, lidar, etc.), an advanced GPS-guided system and traffic-guidance systems to navigate the streets on its own," Hoste says.
Claire Martin has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Outside magazine. She's the former deputy editor of Men's Journal and currently lives in Los Angeles, where she covers technology, travel and food.