In talk with Benoit Jacob head of BMW i design

BMW announced the birth of its new e-mobility sub-brand i at the start of 2011, created to focus entirely on finding sustainable driving solutions. Since, we have been introduced to two concept cars – the i3 and i8 – that together reflect some of the design and engineering thinking that we should expect from the marque’s eco-arm.

The cars represent the two extreme poles of BMW – i3 is an all-electric urban run-around designed for dense megacities, i8 a a part-electric high-performance car. They share a strong aesthetic that will be developed further for the i brand, an innovative modular architecture that is at the heart of all these cars, and a high degree of connectivity that makes these cars almost like personal electronic gadgets.

Here Benoit Jacob head of BMW i Design explains further

How long did it take to design the BMW i3 and i8 concept cars?

For the first two i concepts the phases were organised slightly differently [from the normal car design process]. Since we had no predecessor on which to base our ideas, we had to develop the cars from scratch.

To begin with we generated ideas and decided on the line we wanted to take, from progressive to conservative. We adopted a very experimental approach to this phase – we didn’t just rethink the drive system, we reviewed the entire production process.

Of course, there were a few tried-and-tested ideas we could fall back on, including concept vehicles like the Vision EfficientDynamics. Interestingly, development of the first two vehicles took only about six months longer than the normal design process.

What technical innovations will have a key influence on car design?

In principle, today’s cars come as fully developed, highly complex and virtually perfect products. So as long as circumstances remain the same, design will continue to follow this 100-year-old line of development.

At BMW i we are constantly questioning existing solutions and have been able to develop an entirely new formal vocabulary thanks to innovations such as electric drives and lightweight construction.

To what extent is there cooperation between designers and developers?

As a designer it is absolutely vital that I comprehend each stage of the technological development in meticulous detail. Only then can we as the design team fully understand our development colleagues and marry the new technology to our formal vocabulary.

How do you see the future of automotive design?

One thing is certain: personal mobility, and therefore automotive design will continue to play a significant role in future. I think we’ll see a lot more innovations in the field of drive technology in the years ahead.

These might be electric drives, hybrids, vehicles powered by hydrogen or even technologies we haven’t discovered yet. And as these technologies find their expression in automotive design, they in turn will bring a new look to our roads.

BMW makes premium cars, but how would you define this in the context of the i cars?

BMW i symbolises ‘next premium’ – this is the term we use to redefine the premium concept, widening it to embrace future requirements and the need for sustainability of i vehicles.

For some time we have been observing a change in the way people are beginning to take individual responsibility for the environment. In future we will also see changes in what the consumer expects from products, in particular where sustainability is concerned.

We have to acknowledge this development in the design process and continue the trend. That’s why we have to redefine premium. For us, premium is not only defined by quality excellence in materials, surfaces and details, but also to a great extent by the manufacture and selection of sustainable materials right along the value chain.

Next premium is therefore an entirely new combination of premium and sustainability and reflects not only our corporate philosophy but also a new way of thinking for society as a whole.

What is the central message of the i design philosophy?

BMW i represents visionary automobiles and a new understanding of premium mobility with a consistent focus on sustainability. At the same time our work is all about alternative drive systems, technical innovations, production processes and the use of sustainable materials. The entire design process at BMW i is geared to this.

Our first two concept cars demonstrated the bandwidth of the new design idiom at BMW i. But between and beyond these two there’s still plenty of room for manoeuvre. As for what we’re working on for the future, you’ll just have to wait and see.

How can automotive design play a role in shaping our society?

Our society is increasingly shaped by our virtual presence. In spite of this, we still have to manage a lot of real-world mobility. In other words, our spatial interaction will continue as before – and so will our need to move from one point to another.

So mobility is set to remain a very fundamental requirement, one we must place within a much wider context. For us in the automotive industry that means constantly looking at ways to help improve mobility and ultimately make our surroundings more harmonious. As far as the future of mobility is concerned, I believe we are at the beginning of an entirely new era.

Read more on the two i cars here as well as interviews with BMW Group design director Adrian van Hooydonk as the cars were unveiled in 2011 published in Wallpaper*

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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Car design trends: Frankfurt Motor Show 2011

We are at the start of the second life of the automobile. Up until recently, cars were more of less about individual mobility, personal space, about ownership. It has been about creating beautiful or quirky sculpture.

With our diminishing fossil fuel reserves, concerns for the environment and world economic recession, the closeted, cosy world of the automobile has had to shift. I recall going to see controversial ex-BMW design boss Chris Bangle at London’s Design Museum in 2004 who talked of the car essentially remaining the same horseless carriage of a hundred or so years ago, and even then proposing we re-address the automobile.

Fast-forward to September 2011, and it seemed that at the Frankfurt Motor Show some genuinely interesting ideas for future transport and mobility were being proposed.  Alternating yearly, Frankfurt and Paris are the most coveted international shows and an indicator as to where this industry is heading.

So what were these trends? It was admittedly a bizarre mix of clean mobility that has more in common with product design versus extreme high-performance cars wrapped up in shinny metal with the usual references – clean lines, lean athletic muscle.

BMW’s i3 and i8 – its first offerings in its electric sub-brand which we reported here back in the summer – are inspired concept cars that will be produced in the next few years at the Zaha Hadid Leipzig factory and promise to remain close to what we see now.

Audi Urban Concept studies, in coupé and open-top Spyder formats, are plug-in electric two-seater concepts that feature carbon fibre monocoque; the interior uses aluminium and carbonfibre trim and a quirky square steering wheel. Despite their modern approach to mobility, these cars retain the clean and precise Audi design DNA.

Volkswagen’s Nils is a similar idea – this one a tiny one-seat concept car with gullwing doors in a unique shape that envisions a future mode of urban transportation. Our reaction, design director Klaus Bischoff told me at the show, will determine if the marque will invest in such mobility solutions. We already saw the VW e-Scooter concept at Shanghai and a car like the Nils will fit in nicely to the marque’s electric portfolio.

These are just some of the ideas exhibited at Frankfurt. Read my full report published in Wallpaper*.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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BIG’s Bjarke Ingels talks clean cities

‘Urban space and urban movement coexist in a constant feedback loop where each part is evolving to adjust to the other.’ So says Bjarke Ingels, founder of the Danish architecture firm BIG. In his vision for the ideal future urban environment, mobility will be automated with the driverless car ultimately changing the dynamics of the urban space.

Bjarke Ingels Photo© Jakob Glatt

BIG proposes for an ‘elastic’ city, a flexible urban environment to replace the current static one. By fully utilising information technology, driverless vehicles will become a reality. ‘Smart tile’ surfaces, a thin layer of reprogrammable sensors within the surface of roads, will coordinate the flow of traffic so that the city can be free of the clutter that supports driving. Finally, with a push of a button the ‘urban pavement’ can transform to adapt to our needs.

We caught up with the architect at his office in New York.

Design Talks. How will the driverless car change the shape of the urban space?
Bjarke Ingels. In the next five to 10 years cars we will become not just driverless but also noiseless, and fumeless. Therefore many of the aspects that condemn the car to remain outside will no longer exist and it would potentially be possible to blur the distinction between inside and outside.

From where I’m sitting in New York, I’m looking at the building opposite that used to be a giant manufacturing site. It now has elevators that can take cars and trucks to all floors with individual zoning docks on all the levels so some of the people in the building actually park their car in their office. Down the street there is another project called the Car Lot where people can park their cars in a place that is visible so they can look at their awesome vehicle whilst dinning!

DT. But how will buildings support the new developments in mobility?
BI. The above examples are quite eccentric, but in the big picture, developments in urban mobility will mostly impact on the space between the buildings rather than on the buildings themselves.  In theory the city itself can remain unchanged and left to deal with other design tasks. It is really the urban pavement that is transformed on its own.

DT. If space has been made available through the removal of the clutter that supports traffic, then how will building design respond to this new urban aesthetic?
BI. I have a suspicion that other parameters rather than urban mobility will have more of an impact on building design. In general the envelop of the building – the roof and the façade – is probably more likely to respond to energy and climate change. If developments in technology will have an impact on the future of buildings it is going to have more to do with daylight exposure, thermal exposure, glare, energy consumption for heating and so on than to do with how we move in the city.

DT. How do you envisage the city being shaped?
BI. The city in general is shaped by a vast multitude of very diverse parameters – there is a whole army of political, cultural, economical and social issues affecting the city. Off course in different domains different issues have higher significance, and right now you can say the floor of a building is very dominated by the way we move around in the city, and the vertical dimension is much more influenced by how we occupy the city. With clean cars this distinction could blur a little.

DT. What do you mean when you say ‘elastic’ city?
BI. The traditional dichotomy between the city and the countryside are blurring with activities such as leisure invading formally purely industrial spaces. In New York, for instance, the waterfronts are turning into parks and they have made more bicycle lanes in the city in the last two years than in the whole of Copenhagen!

The gradual evolution used to be that you first walked, then you cycled, then you drove a car and in each step you abandoned the previous mode of transportation. Now they complement each other. In the last 50 years urban planning has been focused on efficient car circulation, but in the future you’ll see much more of a hybrid of different movement. This is what I mean by the elastic city – one that would expand and contract to accommodate this.

DT. How will this flexible city actually work?
BI. Our roads could serve as a programmable surface so that by switching say a light on and off you can change a street into a plaza, or instantly materialise a sports court, or dynamically expand and contract to create more or less bicycle space, pedestrian space, or car space in a way that has not been possible.

In Hanoi in Vietnam the whole city gets up at 6am and does sports together in the streets – this is the kind of shared space and flexibility of space that I’m thinking of which will become reality.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

For more on BIG read BIG’s 21st Century urban living and Urban concepts for 2030. Also watch this video by CNN which reveals more about the thinking behind some of BIG’s projects.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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VW’s electric London taxi concept

The taxi cab can be one of the most iconic features of an urban landscape – think the London black cab or the New York yellow taxi. With electric driving considered the most reasonable choice for current clean mobility, it makes sense to turn these often polluting vehicles into something ecologically responsible.

With this in mind Volkswagen has designed a taxi with London in mind that is not only electrically driven, but provides for a modern transportation environment. This is the last in its World Taxis series that has thus far included a Hong Kong, Berlin and Milanese cab.

This is a cute and quirky looking vehicle based very much on the loveable iconic original VW Campervan. Head of VW design Klaus Bischoff says this and the original Beetle have been the main inspiration for this concept and the Up city car for 2013 on which the taxi shares its underpinnings. ‘People remember these vehicles positively,’ he says noting that it is this sense of nostalgia that needs to find its way into the entire electric car range.

It is mainly with the face where VW hopes to make a unique impression with this car and the rest of the electric vehicle family. ‘VWs were born with their engines in the rear and so there was an absence of a radiator grille or an opening on the face,’ says the designer. An electric car doesn’t require an opening at the front – there is no conventional engine to cool. Therefore like the Up, the taxi concept’s face has a tiny ring shaped grille, there really to represents the mouth and in a sense complete the face. ‘We wanted to give the car a unique look, but one that is friendly and sympathetic,’ says Bischoff.

The prototype is relatively compact – 3,730mm long, 1,680mm wide and 1,600mm high. The absence of a conventional engine at the front and clever packaging however, has allowed for a pretty spacious interior that can sit a driver and two passengers in individual seats – as opposed to the usual bench – comfortably with lots of extra space to place for luggage.

Daytime running lights mounted within the headlight units are joined by a taxi light on the roof. At the rear the light units are integrated into the split tailgate, behind which are a pair of cubbies to house the driver’s belongings.

The light and spacious cabin is visually dominated by two large touch screen displays – one by the driver and one by the passengers. The driver can personalise the display setting on his display much like a smart phone, and in the rear a similar screen relays information to the passengers on their route and their immediate environment. Plus the reduced colour scheme that includes only a splash of red helps with electricity usage.

It takes just over an hour to charge the electric taxi’s slim battery to 80% of its capacity. The 113bhp electric motor gives a top speed of 74mph, and the 45kWh battery provides a range of up to 186 miles.

The prototype features deliberate tongue-in-cheek details such as the silver Union Jack on the roof and the City of London’s coat of arms on the sides and dashboard.

‘For me London has the most convincing taxi in the world,’ confesses Bischoff. ‘The New York taxi is nice, but not as comfortable as the London cab. It gives the urban setting a unique character, and we wanted to pay tribute to this.’

Read more on the VW  electric taxi cab in Wallpaper*.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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Alfonso Albaisa on Nissan electric car design

Alfonso Albaisa, design director at Nissan in America, discusses electric car design, the future of clean mobility and his take on the zero-emission sports car.

Design Talks Should zero-emission cars have their own unique architecture and formal language?

Alfonso Albaisa They are finding their own unique architecture. The formal language, however, is more of a conscious effort – it’s the intentional part. The zero emission car doesn’t need its own design language, but it is important not to express it just like a regular car.

DT How has this been expressed in the Leaf electric production car, which looks more like a conventional square shaped hatchback?

AA The focus for the Leaf has been this amazing compact and powerful battery. This is a five people’s car that runs on electricity for 100 miles – this may sound easy but it is a mountain. One way to achieve this has been to make this car as aerodynamic as possible. Most people think the teardrop is the most aerodynamic shape, but it needs to be much longer to have enough flow. For a car the size of the Leaf, the square shape is the best as it controls the airflow. You want the air on the side and top to move smoothly over and end at the rear where the semi-square shape directs the air away from the car.

DT The Land Glider electric concept with its narrow architecture almost feels like a motorbike – its size making it an ideal solution for city mobility.

AA Yes the car was inspired by the new generation of two-wheelers. For stability, the Land Glider leans automatically into corners – the feeling is very natural as the driver moves with the car’s motion. This shifts the centre of gravity and adds stability to the car when going around bends. This is a perfect commuter car.

Electric vehicles create so many possibilities. If this were a traditional internal combustion engine car you would have to deal with a lot of extra baggage and weight. Instead, the flat and compact lithium-ion battery (which Nissan makes in-house and charges the motors housed inside the wheels) takes up little space and has allowed us to achieve this narrow architecture.

DT There is a lot of discussion about finding the right engine note for electric driving which is otherwise a silent experience.

AA It is such a new subject – I love the fact that we are like ‘sound brain-stormers’. It is so artistic trying to find a sound that will make you feel you are contributing to the benefits of green driving. At Nissan We don’t have the sound yet and we don’t want to do something too normal. The more luxury Nissans and the Infiniti brand would need a unique sound. Electric performance cars have tremendous power so this will have to impact on their choice of sound too. Perhaps it also needs to be geographically different as there are different cultural references.

DT Will the future car become simply another electronic gadget?

AA Electric vehicles will become gadgets in the sense that they have to connect with all the other inventions required to keep them moving, such as the little charging plates or electrically powered lanes on motorways. The need to control your car remotely is especially important with electric cars as you want to charge the car off peak and use as much as your household electricity as possible to save on the battery life. In the future this is going to go a step further so that once you plug your car in to the house electricity you have affectively connected the two worlds.

DT What will we be driving in the next ten years or so?

AA With the current electric cars, the architecture may be futuristic, but it still has a hood, and a bump covering an electric power plant. However, once the power moves entirely into the wheels, as in in-wheel-motors, then it really does free up space. It is perfect for a car like the Land Glider.

The following stage will be drive-by-wire, which basically means all the steering, shift feedback and functions are done electronically. This eliminates so many restrictions and it means that you can essentially steer from anywhere. The reality is that these features will get into our mainstream projects in around three years. The promise of full driverless freedom is a little bit further down the road.

DT Do you believe there is a place for high-performance electric cars?

AA There are people who don’t love sexy sports cars. My teenage kids, for instance, are obsessed with electric cars because they feel they are helping the environment. On the other hand, electric cars have a lot of toque so they are great for sports cars.

DT What would your approach be to designing one?

AA You essentially celebrate the engine in a sports car. Therefore with the motors housed in the wheels I would emphasize the wheels – they would be very prominent. The car would be a lot lighter in weight than say the GT-R – and definitely less brutal looking. You should celebrate mostly torque and acceleration, express nimbleness and explosive speed with a green sports car.

In the future when we will have drive-by-wire, there will be no need for a body – the driver could sit low, and centrally, and perhaps have some kind of protective shield. And because of the driverless technology, he or she could choose between having a passive or active thrill – a bit like a rollercoaster ride.

Read my report published in Wallpaper* on Nissan design.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | | Published by Banksthomas

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