BMW electric i store

The world’s population is moving to cities on a scale never seen before and the burgeoning megacities simply demands a new approach to mobility. Admittedly it has been revealing witnessing how carmakers have reacted to this. Some have put their hearts and souls into it; others have sat quietly on the fence waiting to see how the story unfolds. BMW is amongst the former group. This is a company with engineering at its core and it makes sense for it to embrace sustainable technology in the same way.

At the heart of this is the i brand. The same way M stands for BMW’s performance arm, i is a sub-brand for the marque’s ecological mobility. So far the fruits of this venture have been conceptual studies, but come 2013 and we will finally see the all-electric i3 on our roads.

This small city car is unusual in that it is a ground-up electric car not one with added electric propulsion. This is also the case with the i8 part-electric supercar that will be in production next. These cars are built on a Life-Drive architecture that sees the mechanics, the Drive part, compactly stored underneath much like a laptop with the Life section, which is a light yet robust carbon-fibre cell, on top.

This seemingly simple layout has allowed the designers to create some truly futuristic cars that are so different from the ones we see on the road today. The form language is an expression of the clean energy that drives them, and of the lightness of the materials used.

To celebrate the London Olympics this summer, for which BMW is a sponsor, the Munich i design studio headed by Benoît Jacob has created a special-edition i3 inspired by British design. ‘We wanted to open the first i store in London with a special car with British character,’ he tells me at the opening of BMW Park Lane, a new retail space for the i cars.

It retains the i3 interior layout with its central information zone and floating dashboard, but gets an entirely new interior trim featuring natural, renewable materials. The eucalyptus wood used for the instruments is sourced from sustainably managed European forests; it is treated using natural materials, giving it a natural finish and distinctive hue. The lightweight seats are covered in sustainable wool and leather, inspired by British fashion, with a natural tanning agent made from olive leaves used to dye the leather.

‘We thought if we are to build a car especially for the London Olympics, we could take some influence from British design,’ muses Jacob. ‘We also wanted to show how we would offer the i3 production car – it will come with different characters and this is one of the possibilities.’

In the boot are mounted two i Pedelec bicycles – these compact bikes are fitted with an electric motor that tops up the rider’s muscle power with an extra dose of torque. The bicycles can be folded up quickly and the batteries recharged while in the boot of the i3.

The new showroom has also been designed to be a little different to the usual car salesroom. Light wooden floors are complemented by simple, clean white surfaces, and a bookshelf containing a selection of literature on the problems facing urban mobility, of growing megacities and so on. The message seems to be that electric cars are not just about making a profit for the company, but about the bigger picture of world sustainability.

Park Lane is also a vehicle to show the many services BMW intends to offer to support electric driving, what it calls the 360° Electric package. The details are not yet finalised but it will include bespoke charging zones, like the Wallbox pictured, and the loan of other BMW cars for longer distances that are not yet possible with electric cars. Buyers have been slow on embracing electric cars mainly for reasons of ‘range anxiety’ and BMW is looking at ways to resolve this.

Jacob believes improving driver behaviour is also part of this. ‘Electric cars are critically seen when it comes to range. The i3 is lightweight and highly aerodynamic but we also thought what if part of the solution is the human not just the product alone.’

The interior has therefore been designed to encourage different driver behaviour. ‘Other disciplines like architecture do this – the way a building is designed is taking into account how people live and move in it. The car industry tends to ignore this,’ he notes. ‘The i3 isn’t just about low emissions but also your own sustainability, your health and safety and respecting other people in the city. It is not a selfish machine.’

Jacob and his team wanted to see how far they could push the BMW design philosophy. ‘With the i this is to redefine the whole idea of premium,’ he notes. ‘Premium can be simple – clever.’

The BMW Park Lane opens to the public in July. The i3 will be built at the Zaha Hadid designed factory in Leipzig, Germany and go on sale by the end of 2013.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read our full report on BMW at the London Olympics published in Car Design News. We reported on BMW’s initial announcement of the i project here back in 2010. Also read a previous interview with Benoit Jacob.

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

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Twizy electric mobility pod

The Twizy sets out to carve a new niche in personal mobility. Producer Renault refers to it as a ‘UDO’ as in unidentified driving object. Essentially a quadricycle, the diminutive hub is 2.34m long and 1.24m wide, can sit two and is available with or without doors.

An all-electric engine powers the car, which on the more powerful model of the two accelerates to 28mph in six seconds and offers a top speed of just over 50 miles.

The battery promises a 50-mile range in eco-mode and it takes 3.5 hours to fully charge. A bright blue wire extension fits neatly into the car’s nose and works with any household plug.

We drove the two models around Ibiza and it proved to be a rather fun companion on the roads of Europe’s party island. Read the full report published 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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Design team discuss Infiniti Emerg-e

A month before the Geneva Motor Show a few of us were called to Park Royal Studios in West London for a preview of Infiniti’s latest design study. Emerg-e joins the 2009 Essence and 2011 Etherea – collectively they speak of the marque’s design direction.

To put all this into context Nissan’s luxury arm, which existed in the US as a premium brand, entered Europe in 2008 – the move prompting a much needed rethink of its design language.

The cars were introduced gradually to key European countries supported by identical showrooms, all carefully designed to resemble luxury boutique hotel lobbies (for more on this read our report on Infiniti).

Nissan group design director Shiro Nakamura called Infiniti at the time ‘the seductive alternative’. And it is with cars like Emerg-e that the marque aims to seduce buyers of established premium European brands.

The name Emerg-e refers to an emerging concept for sustainable mobility that merges the conventional combustion engine and the electric powertrain. This is a fully engineered prototype featuring a range-extender drivetrain mounted mid-ship, and in the flesh it certainly makes its presence known.

We caught up with the main trio in design Nakamura, Francois Bancon of advanced design and head of Nissan Design Europe Victor Nacif at the event. Here are some of the images from the day and the full report which was published in Car Design News.

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

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Interview: Stefan Sielaff on Audi design

Stefan Sielaff joined German carmaker Audi in 1990 becoming head of design in 2006, and apart from a brief spell at Mercedes-Benz interior studio near Lake Como in Italy, he has largely worked within the Volkswagen Group. Here he discusses the marque’s involvement with architecture and urbanism through the Audi Urban Future Awards, and his thoughts on electric car design.

Read the full interview published in Wallpaper*.

Stefan Sielaff, head of design at Audi

Since the interview Sielaff has announced plans to join parent company VW to head the interior design team starting in February 2011.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks 

Read more reports on the Audi Urban Future Awards including interviews with winner Jurgen Mayer from J Mayer H here and here, and BIG‘s founder Bjarke Ingels here. Also have a look the report on phase one of the awards published in Wallpaper*.


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Learning from manga

The former BMW design director Chris Bangle once told me he believes at times form needs to follow fantasy. ‘For the future of car design, function is the last refuge of the unimaginative,’ he concluded. The Japanese are masters of fantasy – reflected through their imaginative, virtual worlds of animation and comics, anime and manga. Bangle may have said this to ruffle the stiff collars of the automotive world, but can car design learn from this, and is it right to assume that with clean car design, it makes good sense to reference such a futuristic, fantasy world?

Felipe Roo Clefas seems to thinks it does. The Belgium designer, who works in London at Nissan Design Europe, has an almost visceral connection to the clean graphics, the intricately designed machinery and robots, and the narrative that makes anime almost believable.

When asked to lead the project team for the Terranaut concept, Roo Clefas almost gave the car a science fiction narrative. ‘The story is most important in anime and with this I created believable fantasy,’ he says. The 3D user interface in the car references the anime Ghost in the Shell. ‘I see more of this 3D interaction happening in the next five to six years,’ he adds.

François Bancon believes the young have a different sense of reality. ‘They interface with the world through the computer,’ says the general manager at Nissan and Infiniti’s Advanced Design studio in Japan. ‘They are no longer interested in products but in experiences.’

Bancon works with an international team in the Yokohama studio penning the next-generation of Nissan and Infiniti cars. He believes anime and manga’s stylised graphics and fascination with the virtual world is having a major impact on how the emerging generation of car designers are approaching the profession.

One of his team members Eunsun Yoo admits that depending on the given project, anime and manga have philosophically influenced her work. She recalls the Nissan Mixim scheme where its interior was conceptually rooted in computer games, and visually connected to anime and manga. ‘It was more of a philosophical than a physical influence. It was about having no boundaries between the real and the virtual world,’ says the Korean designer, adding that her generation – she is 29 – who were raised on computer games and Second Life see no margins between the virtual and the real worlds.

The Mixim cabin is blatantly futuristic and also influenced by Ghost in the Shell. ‘The Mixim like Ghost isn’t a utopian future, but a little bit dark,’ she explains. ‘This was a car aimed at a young future generation and therefore I worked on the idea of how to blur the boundaries. The centre-positioned driver seat is F1 and computer game inspired, as is the steering wheel, and the control panels.’

redefining beauty

Many of the new generation of car designers, especially those coming from Asia, have a different concept of beauty that isn’t necessarily rooted in classical proportions. ‘To them beauty isn’t just about looking like a Jaguar E-Type, but a sense of proportion multiplied by features,’ observes Victor Nacif who heads the multi-national Nissan design team in Europe. He admits that the fashion is predominantly led by Asian themes and Japanese designers who tend to have a different notion of beauty.

Kimberly Wu says she has always been inspired by traditional and contemporary illustration of anime and manga. A transport design graduate of the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, she now works at Honda’s California advanced design studio where they conceive future, mainly green cars.

‘To me, anime is an idealised fantasy version of reality,’ she explains. ‘With body parts pulled, stretched and exaggerated, these characters hardly resemble real men and women. Yet, one cannot deny a certain appeal in the doll-like figures. In some respect, car design follows in the same formula: we pull lines, stretch form and exaggerate wheels – all for the sake of a sexier proportion.’

Her former tutor Bumsuk Lim says that many younger car designers are exploring ways in which to translate the extreme emotional expression found in anime and manga to a real-world product like the car. Electric cars open the possibility to add expression to the front-end. With only minimum openings required to cool the engine, affectively you are left with a large blank canvas to project a new face for the car. This, and sophisticated lighting technology, creates endless possibilities for designers to create new expressions.

Lim agrees the connection between the two makes particular sense as we enter the second phase of the automobile. ‘This virtual reality world ties in with what car designers are doing with the green movement, creating their own fantasy world,’ he explains. With the mechanical part – as in the engine – no longer the sole fascination, the next generation of the automobile can affectively be any shape it chooses to be.

One of his students James Chung recently created a city car with a cute face visibly inspired by anime. ‘It proves that an electric car can be any shape. The concept of the automobile as a machine will change to the concept of automobile as a device. And a device can have any look,’ he says. ‘I tell my students this is the best time to be a designer.”

But is this all limited to Asian carmakers? On the whole yes but there are designers like Luc Donckerwolke who have always loved manga. ‘I came to car design from the cartoon world,’ says the Seat design director who previously headed Lamborghini design where he was responsible for such cars as the 2002 Murciélago, the 2004 Gallardo and helped pen the Miura show car.

Donckerwolke notes that the car to him is like a manga caricature in that you have to capture the essence of the person’s face with just three simple lines. ‘With my cars too when I close my eyes I want to have a clear architecture of how the eyebrows are, how the muscles are.’ Donckerwolke even leads a double life as a cartoonist. ‘I am a virtual chief designer in the comic and the real world,’ he muses.

According to Bancon this language has no national barriers anymore. ‘It may have originated from Japan but it’s now a global vocabulary.’

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

I originally wrote an article on a similar theme ‘Manga Cars’ for Esquire which appeared in the November 2010 edition.

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

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