What lies beyond: The slow evolution of the concept car

January 30, 2013

In the days leading up to our attendance of the 2013 Detroit Auto show, we’d heard a lot of hype about the reemergence of the concept car. Tom LaSorda, GM veteran and former CEO of Fisker and Chrysler, expressed in one interview that “concept cars are coming back to life.” Both of us being new to the auto-show scene, this was exciting to hear. Having only been exposed to the auto exhibits at the CES trade show, we could only imagine with anticipation the visions of the future that awaited us in Detroit.

What we found was a mixed bag. Everything from pre-production and prototype vehicles, to truly imaginative forays into the future, wore the badge “concept car.” We realized the term “concept car” is being used too loosely. The concept cars that LaSorda gushes about, like the Toyota Corolla Furia and the Ford Atlas truck, are close-to-production level vehicles and basically only point the direction for incremental changes in aesthetics. Interestingly, the only concept car that seemed to truly explore the possible future of the car, the driving experience, and the riding experience, the Toyota Fun-vii, actually made its debut at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show.

To help us make sense of what we saw, we examined trends and differences across the various “concept cars” and created a typology based on their functions.

The BETA – The design of these vehicles has been so refined that they are very close to what will become the production (or pre-production) model. These really should be labeled “prototypes,” but can be showstoppers nonetheless. Check out the Acura NSX (already in its second iteration) and the BMW 4 series.

It seems that almost every big brand is investing heavily into alternative fuel technologies.

The GLIMPSE – These vehicles embody styling cues for a company’s future fleet. They tend to look “almost there,” as they show off aesthetic and technological indulgences that will more than likely be priced out of production vehicles. By far this was the largest category of “concept cars” we saw, among them, Honda’s Urban SUV (pictured here), the Toyota Corolla Furia, and the Ford Atlas.

The GAME CHANGER – These concepts think through more than merely the aesthetics of the vehicle. It seems that almost every big brand is investing heavily into alternative fuel technologies. The BMW duo of the i3 and i8 concepts paint one of the more vivid visions of what life with an electric car might look like in the not-too-distant future. The Hyundai HCD-14 Genesis can also be included in this category for its exploration of eye-tracking and 3D-gesture control interfaces.

The VISION (A.K.A. “WTF ON WHEELS,” according to Chris) — These concepts re-imagine all aspects of what a vehicle can be. These are the “concept cars” that we were looking for in Detroit. They experiment with radical new ways of interacting with the car for both driver and passenger, and they build up the story with fantastical theatrical elements that paint evocative pictures of distant future driving experiences. As already noted, the Toyota Fun-vii (rear and interior pictured here) holds the distinction of being the only vehicle of this type in the entire exhibition…and it isn’t even new.

If the concept car is truly coming back to life, then it appears to be just taking baby steps in the right direction. Now, don't get us wrong, there are some truly showstopping car designs right around the corner. What we need to see is exploration of a future beyond the next five years, something beyond just a pretty exterior, to recapture our imagination.