The 24th letter of the alphabet is X. But X is more than a character. It is a symbol. In mathematics, X represents an unknown quantity. On pirate maps it holds the promise of buried treasure – even if the journey there may prove adventurous. Every X represents an experiment with an unpredictable end. The same applies to the development of new cars, in which X usually indicates a secret prototype to be hidden from the curious gazes of the public. In contrast to prototypes, concept cars are an openly presented design study. The aim here is to address viewers on an emotional level, to stimulate enthusiasm. Concept cars are a statement. They say, “Look at me. I’m the future. This is what you’ll get to experience when X, the great unknown, becomes a reality.”
Don’t hope – test.
In 1938, American designer Harley Earl presented the first concept car: the Buick Y-Job. At the time, the US was in the throes of an economic crisis, the auto industry was fighting for its life, and car shows only showcased series-production models. Many people considered the Y-Job to be needlessly extravagant. “Why build a car if you can’t sell it?” they asked. “What a waste of materials, manpower, and money!”
But Earl was already a step ahead: “Why build a car if no one wants to buy it?” he wondered. So instead of hoping his Buick model would be a financial success, he tried to gauge what might make his customers’ hearts beat faster. The Y-Job featured a breathtaking look: chrome fenders and a seemingly oversized body that seemed to glide along inches from the ground. It was also equipped with all kinds of technological wizardry that consumers of the day could only dream about: electric windshield wipers, power-operated disappearing headlights, and a powerful engine. In other words, the Y-Job was a dream; a four-wheeled vision of the future. A vehicle hovering between the feasible and the real.
Harley Earl’s Y-Job featured many concepts that are taken for granted today: crowdsourcing, the fail-fast culture, minimal viable products and an understanding that mobility isn’t just a question of technology, but also of design. Even though the Y-Job never went into series production, it served as a style icon that impacted the next two decades.
Concept vs. moon-shot cars.
Concept cars challenge social conventions. They are intended to overcome the status quo and realize the unimaginable. In this respect, the Y-Job redefined design and marketing conventions. But only very rarely can technological restraints be overcome. Today’s technical understanding of automated mobility is primarily shaped by three exceptional vehicles: the Benz Patent-Motorwagen number 1 (1886), the tzero (1997) and the Google Firefly (2015). Each of these vehicles represents a utopic idea made real. The Patent-Motorwagen heralded the dawning of the automobile era. The tzero was the first purely electrical sports car that could keep up with modern high-performance models. The basis of its technology can be found in every Tesla today. Google’s egg-shaped Firefly vehicle was the first car without a steering wheel that could drive autonomously and safely. All three are what Google X calls “moonshots”: innovations that dramatically change the world. They dispense with the familiar, replacing it with the previously impossible: the combustion engine replaced the horse, electric drive the combustion engine, and computers the driver.
Designed in Germany.
The success of concept cars and series-production models depends on their design. In the early days of automotive history, manufacturers built the chassis and engines first, then had the exteriors and interiors supplied by coachbuilders and saddlers. Harley Earl was also the son of a coach and wagon builder. Today, the relationship has been almost completely reversed: the task of developing vehicles is now primarily handled by design teams working for the car manufacturers, while suppliers take on much of the work of assembling the vehicle. The Apple-i-zation of the motor industry has begun. “Made in Germany” is increasingly becoming “Designed in Germany”.
The success of a concept car depends not only on its design, but also its presentation. While the fashion industry has its fashion shows, the auto industry has its concours d'elegance. One features haute couture on a catwalk, the other polished metal on a stage. The dates of these annual spectacles are as ironclad as Christmas. Rumors about new concept cars are leaked to the media ahead of trade shows. Some things are hinted at. Much still remains secret. Expectant fans, journalists and influencers huddle around still-shrouded concept cars. Light shows, video installations and dramatic music create the necessary tension. And then finally, in an explosive moment, the object of desire is unveiled, to be devoured by thousands of eyes and cameras. Photos and videos of such unveilings are exclusive trophies that promise likes and recognition on social networks. They are the key to the medial distribution of every concept car legend, which much be woven in the minutest detail. After all, there's no such thing as style icons without razzmatazz.
Although automobile enthusiasts still gather in real locations, it's probably only a question of time before auto shows are held in virtual venues. Imagine how technology like Facebook Spaces could be used: Instead of simply looking at a concept car, you could get in right away and drive off.
Proving the skeptics wrong.
Moonshot cars, by contrast, need to be out on the street. Grace and elegance may be important, but are not the decisive factors. Performance is all that counts; the proof that technological barriers really have been overcome. Time and again, countless miles must be driven to show that motorized mobility is not a dream. Increasingly longer distances have to be covered to prove the potential of electric mobility. And finally, a car must be driven by a blind man so that everyone understands that accident-free autonomous operation is possible. Moonshot cars are only successful when the world considers the newly defined extreme as something normal. Functionality is also of secondary importance for concept cars. Their main aim is to rekindle the love of driving, to present the feeling of freedom over and over again. They are the bridge that conveys a designer’s dream to car buyers. They become style icons only if that love never dies.