In 15 years of New Atlas (nee Gizmag), we've written about hundreds of concept cars. Concept cars show us that auto makers are thinking deeply about our future needs and how they might accommodate them. Concept cars enable us to evaluate new ideas and feed back to the manufacturers what we think of those ideas. Concept cars are where killer apps are first shown, and the hero show car from each manufacturer at each marquis show illustrates their technological prowess and readiness for the future ... or lack thereof.
The Symbioz was Renault's hero show car at this week's 2017 Frankfurt Motor Show and it went one brave step further than most concept cars in that it was proposed together with a house as a complete system. The press release read: "The SYMBIOZ concept showcases Renault's vision of the car of the future and its role in our lives inside and outside the car. It comprises a car, a demo car and a home. SYMBIOZ comes under the 'Wisdom' petal of Renault's lifecycle-based design strategy, suggesting maturity."
Renault's design strategy is the work of Laurens van den Acker, Renault's Senior Vice President of Corporate Design. The character of Renault's concept cars falls within this framework with some recent Renault Concept cars from each "petal" used as an example: Desir (LOVE), Captur (EXPLORE), R-Space (FAMILY), Frendzy (WORK), Twin Run (PLAY) and Initiale Paris (WISDOM). The SYMBIOZ comes from the same family as the Initiale Paris.
Digital transformation and mobility
Digital transformation is impacting every industry right now, and the automobile we have known for the last 130 years is an endangered species with many new predators looming: electrification, connectivity, autonomous driving, compelling new business models and advancing urbanization and congestion.
Electrification is a given, and the runway to zero local emissions for our transport has shortened dramatically thanks to governments across the world legislating to ensure we reduce air pollution in the face of dire consequences. The global regulatory climate has changed so quickly that the internal-combustion-engine will become steampunk much sooner than we originally thought.
Connectivity will enable the electric car of the future to play a much broader role in our personal infrastructure than it has previously, at the same time as ensuring cars are more fully occupied with passengers. The automotive ownership business model that has prevailed since the car was born 130 years ago is already under threat from ride-hailing (Uber, Lyft et al.) but innovation has not yet finished in this space and as non-profit ride-sharing apps enable cars to be fuller and costs to be shared, more disruption will follow. Autonomous cars will further accelerate that process as urban density further reduces the appeal of driving or owning an automobile 24/7.
Autonomous cars will logically be very different too, though we're not yet sure quite how. Sure, the steering wheel should fold away when you don't need it, but nobody is quite sure which seating arrangement will prevail and ... the appeal of Renault's SYMBIOZ is that it might advance thought on where we're going.
The press release is prefaced by a quote from van den Acker: "After an initial series of concept cars based on Renault's 'Cycle of Life' design strategy which sought to prefigure the styling of our upcoming models, our new concept cars set out to explore what mobility might resemble in the future. No longer can we think of car design in isolation from the ecosystem surrounding us, or from the evolution of major changes like electric energy use, connected and autonomous drive technologies that influence our lives as we move from place to place. This is truly a unique project that allowed us to work with our planners, designers & engineers, academics & architects, startups and sociologues to explore new boundaries in customer experience, technology and energy use and design harmony to form a complete experience."
The Symbioz concept on display at the Frankfurt Motor Show is the vision of a car in 2030. It is is electrically-powered, autonomous and connected.
The biggest difference to most other concept cars is that the car is designed to be "an extension of the home" and the interior has been designed to feel like home while the car drives you autonomously. That's entirely logical. If the car is to broaden its job description to include chauffeur, we'll want all the comfort and convenience of home. Accordingly, the internal decor of the Symbioz uses identical materials and interior furnishings to the home.
It's the way the car integrates into the home that I take issue with.
The car as presented in Frankfurt, is designed to be parked inside the home, doubling as a "snug, mobile, comfortable and modular extra room" that delivers new features and functionality.
Inside the home, Renault envisions the car being used as "an open space like a living room where people can spend time together and talk." Alternatively, it can be used as "a closed space for relaxation or work where people can seclude themselves from the rest of the house."
The home has a car-sized lift so that if you don't want the car in your lounge room, you can put it in the bedroom or on the rooftop terrace where it can be "turned into a cubby room for relaxation or rest, while enjoying a view of the outside."
Would you park a car in your loungeroom or bedroom?
Cars with or without an internal combustion engine are dirty, not necessarily because the engine burns hydrocarbons, but because they get covered in road grime. Even if the car were washed meticulously, all the females on Planet Earth who would allow any car to be brought into their living room or bedroom could hold a meeting inside the Symbioz.
The car-sized lift is another factor that takes the concept a little too far into the realm of the ridiculous. The Symbioz is 4.7 meters (15.4 ft) long, and the lift is round, so the lift effectively removes approximately 50 sq m of usable floor space from the home so that you can put the car on the roof ... and the thought of getting on the roof so you can enjoy the view from inside a car, regardless of whether there's a C-pillar and a lot of glass, is bordering on delusional.
Sure it might be a bit of fun, but the whole concept of a car being taken into the lounge room or the bedroom to be based on what an automotive executive would like to see in the future, not on the real world needs of customers.
The use of the words "smart" and "connected" are another aspect I take issue with. Almost all of the connected functionality touted in the press release (and Renault is by no means the only car maker that does this), is functionality that is already available via a smart phone.
You don't need a $50,000 car to tell you how many cans of soup you have in the cupboard or to turn your heating/alarm on/off before you get home.
No-one is going to download software to their car to do what their phone already does, and ... your phone is always on and always with you, whereas your car is not. The car might offer an easier-to-use interface with a bigger screen, but the smarts will remain in your pocket.
Using an electric car's big battery as the home energy storage system has been being trialled by Japanese car makers for more than a decade. Renault's sister company Nissan already has such a home energy unit on the market. The SYMBIOZ system is described thus: "Kilowatt-hours are distributed through a smart grid shared by the car and the home in an artificial intelligence environment capable of anticipating occupants' needs. If there are no plans for a long trip in the next 48 hours, a minimum charge level will be left in the car battery (i.e. enough energy for a short trip) in order to optimize power distribution at home. However, if a weekend away is planned, the system will fully charge the car battery on Friday night, gradually turning down the home heating overnight."
No doubt there will be overrides so that the artificial intelligence doesn't drain your battery and leave you unable to take an impromptu medium distance trip, or compromise your comfort by turning the heating down before you leave the house, but those poorly chosen examples are consistent with a total concept that is based on the implausible scenario of taking a car into your home.
On the brighter side, the budget part of the offering, ("would you like a house with that car sir?") is awesome, with an openness quite unique for a hardtop. What a shame that Renault over-reached with the extra room nonsense.
I could go on, but the final clanger is the inclusion of a VR headset so that when the car is being driven autonomously, the driver "can to enjoy a virtual reality experience simulating abstract and surreal environments."
To me, that sounds like the precursor to a bout of projectile vomiting.
Without the house, it's a nice concept car.
For those who are really interested in the future of mobility, McKinsey has just produced a report entitled An integrated perspective on the future of mobility and it is definitely worth a read.