In the not-too-distant past, if you wanted to see what was "way out there" in automotive design, you checked out the major manufacturers' concept cars at motor shows – especially Detroit. Now they don't seem to show anything until it's just about production-ready, so the far-out stuff has pretty well vanished.
Instead, for the last several years I have taken a closer look at the Michelin Challenge Design – yes, that's what they call it – which announces its winners at the Detroit auto show. It's easy to find on the Internet and it's worth looking at the amazing top choices from the 2012 competition.
Last week, I went out to Humber College to see entries for the 2013 Michelin competition being prepared by students in the four-year bachelor's degree program in Applied Technology specializing in Automotive Design. These aspiring automotive designers will be competing against brilliant early-stage designers and design students from all over the world just as they will when they enter the job market.
The entries I was asked to comment on were all preliminary versions and had a lot of rough edges but there were some interesting concepts. The design brief of this year's competition is to explore lightweight vehicle development and design a family vehicle for four to six passengers in a concept vehicle that is production-feasible.
Reece Bennett designed one called Origin, which he proposes to be built of honeycombs of magnesium alloys. "It's two-thirds the weight of aluminum. Using this vehicle to get out of the city and into nature can change your overall attitude to life."
"Dwarf," says student Dakoda Reid, "is a play on simplicity. It's a simple box shape in a compact form. It doesn't have an engine and transmission but instead has electric motors on omni-directional wheels. They're used on forklifts now, but I can see how they could work on a car."
Your Universe is the creation of Rick Reininger. "I researched a lot of Michelin competition winners and finalists and it's always really obscure stuff that wins. So I didn't want to do a car. I wanted to do a thing."
Reininger's thing, once I understood it, turned out to be the most interesting entry of the lot. There's a platform on to which one to four pods can be attached, each seating one person. "The idea began with getting weight out of the vehicle.
"Make every seat its own pod, so if you're only driving with two people you only take two pods," said Reininger. "The standard platform is very advanced, but it's kind of like a bus. You go out and buy the pods that suit you. I know there are problems – where do the kids go? Where does the luggage go? I'll continue to hash that out."
I looked at 10 entries and there were good ideas buried in most of them. Their general problem was in communicating their vision. I explained to the students that some of the best designers I've known – Ian Callum (Jaguar), Tony Hatter (Porsche) and Chris Bangle (ex-BMW) – are among the most articulate people you'll ever meet. Designers have to work with words and not just drawings.
It's good to know that there are potential design stars coming through the system in Canada. Humber is the only post-secondary institution in Canada training automotive designers at the moment.
"It's hard being a Canadian as an automotive designer. Staying in Canada is virtually impossible, but I want to take it all the way," said Reininger. "So many people are so negative. It's such a competitive field, they say, you'll never make it. I refuse to listen to those people. A lot of people in my age group are like that right now and I love them because they're not going to be in my way."