Navigating the future with concept cars

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The automotive industry is going through a period of decline – a phase that could also be a wake-up call for car makers, OEMs and parts suppliers to devise novel ways to uplift the industry. A good starting point would be to tap the emerging breed of tech-savvy consumers who are eager to get behind the wheels of concept cars featuring e-mobility and connectivity, says Angelica Buan in this report.

When Google recently showed a novel computerised and self-driving concept car, without a steering wheel, brake or accelerator and only functional buttons to manipulate the movement of the car and a computer screen to show the route, the industry had gotten the signal that we are indeed ushering in a bolder and more advanced phase of technology-driven cars.

However, consumer markets seek practicality and functionality in cars rather than merely a showcase of the almost infiniteness of technology.

According to US consultant McKinsey & Co, consumers want more connectivity, active safety and ease of use.

Another research firm, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), also says that global automotive companies are exploring solutions to provide connectivity, active safety and assisted driving.

These features, combined with fuel economy and cost competitiveness, are challenging automotive makers, OEMs and parts suppliers.

BCG suggests that OEMs will need to expand their R&D capabilities in electronics and software.

For instance, the demand these days is for vehicles to be fitted with mobile devices. This demand is being met, BCG says, adding that it is fortunate that mobile devices are now cheaper, and thus do not add too much to production costs.

Moreover, heightened regulatory compliance (lower carbon emissions, and therefore the use of renewable energy to power cars), and also the need for lightweight materials are pushing the development of concept cars.

Taking into consideration the needs of the young

To cater to customers in emerging markets, who are much younger, car makers are making a play on technology.

French firm Renault, through its subsidiary in India, has built its first concept car outside Europe, which will be marketed to young customers in India. The Kwid concept has its very own unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which could help the driver scout ahead for traffic, take aerial photos of the surrounding landscape and detect obstacles on the road. Said to be the first of its kind in the automotive world, the Flying Companion is stored in a rotating rear portion of the Kwid’s roof when not in use. When activated, the panel slides open and the quadrocopter - named after the device’s four motors - can be operated in one of two modes.

Though the Kwid resembles an off-road buggy thanks to the oversized wings, mud guards and wheel arches, Renault says the car will come in a two-wheel drive instead of four.

Lightweighting still a heavy factor

While hybrids and electrics may hog the headlines, the real frontier in fuel economy is the switch to lightweight materials. According to financial services firm Morgan Stanley, by shaving off 50 kg in each of the 1 billion cars on the roads, US$40 billion in fuel could be saved a year.

US automotive maker Ford Motors recently launched its prototype Lightweight Concept vehicle, developed with the US Department of Energy and Cosma International, a subsidiary of supplier Magna International. It is about 360 kg or 25% lighter than a typical Fusion, thanks to changes in parts and materials. Thus, the instrument panel is made from carbon fibre and nylon composite, which is 30% lighter than steel; the rear window is made from polycarbonate, which is 50% lighter than glass; the windshield glass is made from a hybrid chemically toughened laminate, which is 35% lighter than glass.

Furthermore, the seats are fashioned from carbon fibre frames instead of steel, while the aluminium brake rotors are 39% lighter than cast iron ones and carbon fibre wheels weigh 42% less than aluminium ones.

Already, Ford has unveiled the 2015 F-150 pick-up truck, which is 320 kg lighter compared to the current version.

Magna International also showcased its MILA Blue vehicle concept at the Geneva Motor Show early this year. The A-segment lightweight vehicle offers weight savings of 300 kg less compared to typical current A-segment vehicles. This comes from replacing the plastic interior trim with structural parts suitably designed with laminable, visually surfaces; utilising multi-materials, including aluminium, magnesium and composite materials, and leveraging smaller, lighter components.

Furthermore, it is powered by natural-biogas producing less than 49 g CO2/km.

Generating environmental benefits from futuristic concepts

Meanwhile, hybrids are getting a facelift. Early this year, Ford debuted the C-MAX Solar Energi Concept, the first-of-its-kind sun-powered vehicle. Instead of powering its battery from an electrical outlet, the vehicle harnesses the power of the sun by using a special concentrator that acts like a magnifying glass, directing intense rays to solar panels on the vehicle roof. It takes a day’s worth of sunlight to deliver the same performance as the conventional C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid, which draws its power from the electric grid.

SunPower, which has been Ford’s solar technology partner since 2011, is providing high-efficiency solar cells for the roof. Because of the extended time it takes to absorb enough energy to fully charge the vehicle, Ford turned to Georgia Institute of Technology for a way to amplify the sunlight in order to make a solar-powered hybrid feasible for daily use.

Ford says the positive environmental impact could be significant as it would reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions from the average US car owner by as much as 4 tonnes/year.

Another sustainable design comes from Finnish company UPM’s Biofore, which is manufactured in partnership with Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation and several other firms. It replaces plastics in many of the car’s parts utilising UPM’s biomaterials, such as the Grada thermoformable wood material for the passenger compartment floor, centre console, display panel cover and door panels. UPM’s Formi recyclable biocomposite, manufactured from cellulose fibre and plastics, is used to make the front mask, side skirts, dashboard, door panels and interior panels.

Furthermore, it is fitted with a modern internal combustion diesel engine and driven with UPM’s BioVerno, a wood-based renewable diesel, which can reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly compared to fossil fuels.

Fuel cell versus electric cars

In a race to capture the market for zero emission cars, Japanese vehicle maker Toyota Motor will launch its fuelcell vehicle (FCV) by 2015, playing catch up with Honda Motors, Daimler and Hyundai Motor.

FCVs are powered by electricity generated through the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen in the air, with by-product being only water.

Cars that run on hydrogen can typically go around 500 km on a tank of the gas and then must be refilled. They differ from electric vehicles, which use rechargeable lithium ion batteries to store electricity or hybrid vehicles that use only the battery-powered electric motors while the petrol engine remains shut off.

FCVs are still in trial stages and even Toyota only expects tens of thousands of FCVs to be sold each year a decade from now as the new technology will need time to gain traction.

Even so, Toyota is preparing its Motomachi plant for commercial manufacture and is looking at producing 100 cars/month.

A major challenge for fuel-cell automotive makers is a lack of infrastructure, with few hydrogen fuel stations in the world. Thus, in Japan, Toyota expects its FCVs to be sold mainly in areas where hydrogen stations will be available, in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka.

Even Toyota says the number of stations in Japan, currently totalling 17 with an additional 31 commissioned, may be insufficient to facilitate the practical use of FCVs. Added to this are the high costs that have slowed down construction of these fuelling stations, which are mostly run by petroleum companies.

But the firm is hopeful that the Japanese government will subsidise a portion of the construction fees to increase the number of hydrogen stations to 100 by 2015.

Meanwhile, competitors making electric cars say that hydrogen is a highly flammable element when not handled properly. These include the likes of Nissan Motor, Tesla Motors, BMW, GM, Ford Motor and Chinese vehicle makers. China offers generous purchase incentives for buyers of electric cars and aims to have 5 million “new energy” vehicles -- mostly all-electric and near all-electric plug-in hybrids -- on the road by 2020.

A pipe dream?

Although concept cars are already within an arm’s length, seeing many of them on the roads may not be happening soon.

For instance, Renault’s Kwid will go on sale in India within two years. “Young customers in India are often trend setters, looking forward to pushing the envelope when it comes to technology and enjoyable drives,” explained Gilles Normand, Chairman of Renault’s Asia Pacific Region.

But how it will take off on India’s congested roads still remains to be seen. Plus, the Kwid being a two-seater means it’s more likely to be for city dwellers than rural ones, where mobility is restricted.

Meanwhile, though Ford’s Lightweight car will not be commercialised any time soon, due to its high cost, the manufacturer says it represents the third phase in a larger plan to improve fuel efficiency with advances that can be applied in nearly every vehicle in its line-up in three to five years.

In the same vein, Magna says its MILA Blue innovation is still a work in progress. While it has successfully discovered how to charge the car with 8 kwh/day using pure sunlight, applying this in a practical situation is another story.

The need to integrate technology is acknowledged by the industry, and thus, allocation for R&D has increased, according to the BCG study. R&D spending by OEMs has risen to 3%, from 2001 to 2012, and at an annual rate of 8%, since 2009, says BCG.

However, manufacturing costs for commercial-scale production of a concept car prototype is a barrier to a majority of these car concepts, which once hatched are not on the roads.

Added to this are the high costs. Toyota estimates the FCV to cost anywhere between US$50,000-US$100,000. With the cost of electrics dropping along with the cost of lithium-ion batteries, FCVs will have a long road ahead to convince car buyers.

So are concept cars merely eye-candy at automotive shows?

Maybe not, since concept cars represent the industry’s almost boundless capabilities to design and build. Previous concept cars have provided inspirations for designs in current commercially-produced vehicles, such as the hybridelectric vehicles. The new designs also embody the industry’s adaptability to a changing economic and market landscape.

(IMA)

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