By Stuart Schwartzapfel
On May 8, postgraduate students at London's Royal College of Art presented the results of a three-month design project conducted in partnership with GE Plastics. Seventeen vehicle design students and three textiles students participated in the the project. The main objective was to contemplate the future of automotive design through the use of plastics. Vehicle designs, from two teams took top honors -- one for the growing Chinese market, and the other for new ideas using plastics.
The first winners zoomed in on the unique properties of plastic. These students created textures, patterns, and lighting effects using various new techniques. Their ideas included a car featuring a stretched plastic silhouette over a variable-length flexing metal structure, giving customers the ability to choose the length of the vehicle.
There was also a celebrity car entry inspired by graffiti design, the Icelandic landscape, and music star Björk. The colors and scenery of Iceland inspired the form and color of the vehicle. Equipped with an electric power plant and four-wheel-drive, the car is ideal for traversing the Icelandic countryside or standing out in a crowd.
CHINESE MARKET. Another design featured a body that changes color as the vehicle heats up. To achieve this effect, a textile student used engraved copper sheets coated in thermochromatic plastic for the vehicle exterior. When the engine is on, the heat is conducted through the copper and transferred to the plastic, causing clever color changes that expose patterns in the metal. The car returns to its original color when the engine is switched off.
The second winning team created transportation solutions for the booming Chinese auto market (industry executives expect car sales in China to climb 10% to 15% in the next three to four years, according to Automotive News). This increasingly populous country needs vehicles complementary to an urban lifestyle which also stay in line with Chinese government guidelines on the use of low or no emissions vehicles.
The team gathered firsthand insights on a trip to China and developed vehicles for residents of an imaginary tower block -- "the Beijing Boom Tower." The tower was designed to house residents of all social classes. A vehicle for each of these social classes was designed. These ranged from an extravagant luxury concept car, to a taxi for middle level residents, to a new hybrid bike with interchangeable parts for the entry-level working class.
SHAPE SHIFTER. The top level penthouses in the tower each have their own personal elevators. The elevator interior doubles as a car cabin — meaning the elevator takes the residents straight from their apartments and slots into the middle section of their cars. The shape of the middle class taxi was influenced by Chinese buildings, and the main feature is concertina doors, ideal for overcrowded Chinese streets.
The ever-present Chinese two-wheeler served as a starting point for the design of a hybrid bicycle aimed at the working class. It features a metal and plastic frame with plastic detachable parts that can be changed to create a unique style — just like a new face for your cell phone. Generous use of plastic means the hybrid is lighter than a conventional steel bike and interchangeable parts allow Chinese citizens to express their individual style.
GE vice-president and general manager of GE Plastics automotive division, Greg Adams, said that GE was pleased to collaborate with the automotive designers of the future, and he foresees design holding increasing importance in the industry with plastics playing a vital role in development.
Schwartzapfel, a certified car freak, writes BusinessWeek.com's Concept of the Week column. He has studied the automotive marketplace and worked as an advertising/marketing strategist for major manufacturers. He does not write about any car brands for which he currently works.