Trippy, Man: the 2008 L.A. Auto Show Design Challenge’s biomimetic chameleon

Every year, the L.A. Auto Show rings this little Pavlovian bell designed to get car-geeks’ saliva flowing. And every year – like a good little Schnauzer – I drool:

This year, the L.A. Auto Show Design Challenge pushed the top carmakers’ design shops to dream up “RoboCar 2057.”

I’m sad to report that this year’s entries show none of the half-plausible technology seen in last year’s “green” Design Challenge, plus, NOT ONE OF THE DAMN THINGS CAN FLY.

But hey, if you squint hard enough and drink five more Red Bulls, it starts to look like these eight SoCal-based design tanks all did a pretty good job of dynamiting your expectations for what laying rubber and grinding gears should be like 50 years from now …

Click thumbnails to enlargify

Audi Virtuea Quattro

At some point, you just have to drink the ethylene-glycol-spiked Auto Show Kool-Aid if you expect to get through this exercise without dissolving into fits of sarcastic sniggering, so this is a good one to begin with:

The Audi team dreamed up a holographic projector on wheels. Dig into the database of 3-D designs, they say, and you can make the hydrogen-burning Quattro look like anything you want: A ’63 split-window ‘Vette, a Stanley Steamer, Mysterion, the Lusitania – think of the fun.

Hey, let’s be a CHP chopper and go buzz stoned celebrities on PCH … no, wait … A BLAZING HINDENBURG-LIKE FUEL-TANK EXPLOSION! YEAH, PUT THAT PROJECTION ON A LOOP, BRAH!”

General Motors ANT
Again, some kind of projector system with wheels. And again – spherical wheels that let the vehicle move in any direction on a horizontal plane.

In this case, the gee-whizzery comes from light-emitting polymer 3D displays connected to each other by “electroactive polymer actuators” – or “artificial muscles. Oddly, the GM copywriter was too busy consulting “Futuristic Marketing Jargon – a Primer” to mention anything about actual transportation but for the vague hint that this vehicle will somehow cure gridlock with OnStar vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

Looks an awful lot like one of the cargo pods Bruce Dern smashes up in Silent Running. NEXT.

Honda 14(One to the Power of Four)
Okay. First off, they’ve basically ripped off Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Fantasticar. Strike One.

Then they figure “Ooo! Let’s make it solar-powered!” – which, even for Southern California – is basically dooming the driver to long periods of immobility during rainstorms, first-stage smog alerts, solar eclipses and oh, say, um, nighttime.

But we’ll forgive them all that because it’s a great space-poddy design, it relieves teenagers of the endless battle over the car keys and it beats the HOV-lane laws like a Tijuana mule, as my buddy Dave likes to say.

I’m just not so sure how long you could look at the world through a green-tinted canopy before you had to pop the lid and barf.

Mazda MotoNari RX
Clearly someone’s been sniffing the Testors while working on his Starscream model kit, and his braincell loss is our gain.

By 2057, Mazda figures, cars will weigh 200 pounds, cost $5000 and never smash into each other due to the advance of robotics, AI and “accident avoidance systems.”

O … kay.

This is the one that comes closest to the idea of robotics – and easily the most extreme, tech-heavy design. It’s “grown” from rock. It’s got embedded AI. A “haptic envelope” gives full-body force-feedback so you can feel the road through the car via “remote possession of your android representative.” Carbon nanotube shape -memory alloy-weave structure lets the MotoNari mimic your motions. And bizarro “omni wheels” allow 360 degrees of movement, with expandable tread.

Very badass. Two questions: Where the eff do you put your groceries? And where do I sign up for the inevitable Demolition Derby?

Mercedes-Benz SilverFlow

Looks like MB’s “A” team took the year off.

The SilverFlow is almost the polar opposite of the MotoNari – a flat design exercise with just one trick: It transforms from low, sleek and aerodynamic (highway) to shorter and taller (city driving) or side-by-side seating (for two passengers).

The technology slapped on here seems like an afterthought – the car reads your brainwaves to trigger steering and transformation (raising the specter of a DUI-piloted SilverFlows undulating all over the road like spastic jellyfish) and it’s built of “magnetic, metallic hexagonal and pentagonal particles in a semi-liquid state.”

Wait – what – particles that are 2-D shapes?

Pffft. C’mon, kids. Who told you you could mess with the laws of physics?

Nissan OneOne
Big-brass-balls points to Nissan for what seems to be a first-ever reference to a motor vehicle as “a friendly pet.”

This one’s pretty intriguing (at least to a father of two who spends half his life ferrying everyone around in the family station wagon): You can program the car to whisk your kids “off to school, soccer practice and back home in time for dinner.”

Like the SilverFlow, it lies down flat for speed, or stands up for parking and better visibility. Like the ANT, it has synthetic polymer muscles that make this transformation work.

And unlike any of the others, it has a regenerative power system: it’s covered with micro solar cells and microscopic “hairs” that absorb power from sun and wind, and can “lend” or “borrow” energy from other OneOnes nearby, depending on need.

The coachwork’s almost cookie-cutter space-pod simple, but still kind of elegant at that. Not too shabby.

Toyota Biomobile Mecha
In 2057, Earth is overbuilt and out of room. Architects are building up, up, up. Pollution and global warming are pushing science to develop better energy sources.

Across this godforsaken landscape strides Biomobile Mecha, coated in pollutant-storing skin, capable of climbing vertically on biomimetic suction feet or speeding horizontally on “nanolaser wheels.” (Man, what would the asphalt look like after a few days of that?)

Kudos to Calty Design Research artist Edward Lee, who has a future in Lucas or Cameron’s visual design shop if he ever gets sick of reshaping vinyl Celica bumper cowlings. This is one of the lushest and most fully-realized visual designs in the whole competition.

Volkswagen Slipstream
Again with the transforming-car trick.

In the future, the population is unimaginably dense. (Yes, that’s a straight line.) What Los Angeles – nay, mankind itself – really needs is a two-wheeled, teardrop-shaped pod that stack-parks vertically and moves horizontally at 250 mph, keeps its ass off the pavement with vertical stabilizer fins and runs on solar power because we’re all futuristic that way.

In the future, Volkswagen (itself! ) has supposedly designed a transportation network so sophisticated that it micro-manages individual vehicles in heavy traffic into huge, multi-vehicled chains that wheel around the overcrowded city like carbon-fiber centipedes on special VW-only roads while the rest of the car-driving bourgeoisie gut it out in old-school, fume-sucking gridlock.

The tech concept’s as thin as Benz’s SilverFlow, but I’ll forgive VW because the artwork is Syd Mead-gorgeous.

Only, why do I have the sudden urge to uncork a nice merlot?

Meanwhile, Here are all the Auto Show details for seeing the boring old 2008s:

Show Dates
Friday, November 16 – Sunday, November 25, 2007

Show Hours
Friday, Nov. 16: 11am – 10pm
Saturdays: 9am – 10pm
Sundays: 9am – 8pm
Mon. – Weds.: 11am – 10pm
Thanksgiving Day: 9am – 8pm
Friday, Nov.23: 9am-10pm

The show entrance closes one hour prior to the show closing.

Adults: $10.00 (cash only)
Children 12 and under free when accompanied by an adult
Seniors (65+): $7.00 Fri., Nov. 16 – Thurs., Nov. 22 (cash only)

Ticket sales close one hour prior to show closing each night.

Discount Coupons
Starting in November, discount coupons will be available at participating LA area new car dealerships and 7-Eleven stores. Discount Coupons are valid Friday, Nov 16 through Thursday, Nov 22 (Thanksgiving Day) for $2 off one $10 full price admission at the box office.

3 thoughts on “Trippy, Man: the 2008 L.A. Auto Show Design Challenge”

  1. Most excellent article. Great running commentary on the various designs.

    What I still don’t understand is that with changing the timing so we don’t co-incide with Detroit they still don’t give us the cool concept cars.

    As the most important and influential market in the US and certainly the world we are still the ugly-red-headed-step-child-bastard of the auto show world. Sheesh you’d think we’d deserve better than the current model year and concepts from 3 years ago. Why on earth does Detroit get it all when those headquartered there are have been farming us crap and in their death throws?

    City politics aside, you’d think by now we’d be a major unveiling point for at least the manufacturers not based here.

    Someday though I hope to do the Zurich or Frankfurt shows as those are supposed to be beyond belief.

  2. Well, as I’ve noted before elsewhere, moving the show to early winter definitely took us out of the sloppy-seconds category, but I think it’ll be a while before the L.A. show rivals Zurich or Tokyo, let alone Deeetroit.

    One other thought on the Design Challenge: Last year’s competition (the whole show, in fact) was about “green” tech, which seemed hopeful, even potentially useful and inspirational to the real technologists trying to design us out of the 4-banger carbon-based hole we’ve dug ourselves.

    This year’s stuff – man, it couldn’t be more detached from the realities of driving in L.A. Or is that maybe the whole point?

  3. We do have a long way before we are world class like Zurich, but c’mon we are the largest and most important market in the US. At some point the marketing types will finish the picture and give us a show that really matters. You are correct the date move was good, though last year we were lower on the chain than sloppy seconds in that gang bang.

    The green show was interesting. Loved the “4-banger” reference. What planet you on? With the best selling vehicles in the US v8 based trucks or station wagons in drag as trucks (read SUV) powered by v8’s its v8 based carbon hell we have to dig out of.

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