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Depeche MODE

A few thousand vehicles were displayed at the 2000 Mondial de l’Automobile (or Paris Auto Show as it’s known in a more popular parlance), but only a few stood out: those that did predicted a very fashionable—albeit gridlocked—future.

Most stories set in Paris begin with an ostensibly witty statement that usually falls more into the category of cliché than cleverness (i.e. making a joke about rude waiters, referring to Paris as “The City of Lights,” or dropping a line from Casablanca). No one ever describes Paris for what it really is: an enormous, dirty, and crowded city that has awful traffic, nowhere to park, and expensive fuel. This assessment is certainly an indictment of one of the world’s great cities, but it is also a reflection of the auto industry’s inability to develop products to cope with what are truly global urban transportation problems. (Paris is not alone in its dilemma, just visit San Francisco, Tokyo, or even Detroit.) Characteristically, most of the new car introductions and concepts displayed at the Paris Auto Show did little more than provide a modicum of distraction to get the mainstream automotive media’s attention away from the free wine and cheese. Fortunately, a few automotive companies did appear to be thinking about mobility issues. But seeing as it was Paris and some clichés must hold true, their focus was clearly on making mobility fashionable.

Paris Modella
While some may scoff at the cartoonish Be Up and its fashion aspirations, it wasn’t the only diminutive vehicle at the Paris Auto Show to brag of accessories: BMW was pushing an entire catalog of MINI gear for its hot new hatch. Is it so incredible to think that the cars themselves are merely marketing platforms for a whole host of consumer products?

The Future is Now
Given the proliferation of scooters and motorcycles that were parked outside the expo center—despite a persistent drizzle—it is apparent that, at least for some, personal transportation in Paris takes a decidedly different shape than a large metal box with four wheels. But two-wheeled vehicles have their own inherent limitations (safety, ease of use, cargo carrying ability, etc.); scoots and bikes just won’t cut it for many people. This brings up a point that’s often lost on our domestic auto industry: a diverse range of transportation products will be needed in the future—heck, they’re needed now—to satisfy people’s mobility needs. Not just traditional cars, trucks, motorcycles and scooters, but designs that combine different characteristics of each.

In this vein, two similar vehicles from different manufacturers were shown in Paris that both claim to hybridize the scooter and the car. The result is that the Matra M72 concept and the Ligier/Piaggio Be Up both resemble stylized dune buggies; however, sand rails these are not. Both vehicles are propelled by two-cylinder engines mated to continuously variable transmissions, and while their tiny 750- and 505-cc displacements produce meager outputs, both vehicles are capable of reaching speeds in excess of 100 kph due to their diminutive size and lack of bodywork. However, neither vehicle purports to be an autobahn cruiser; rather, they are both designed for excellent fuel mileage and convenience of parking while still being easy and fun to drive.

Matra M72
Matra’s M72 concept may have a production future with Renault.

The M72 features a bolted-together, all-aluminum chassis with thermoplastic body panels, keeping the weight of the mid-engined two-seater down to an incredibly low 380-kg. At 3.16 m in length, the car is a full meter shorter than a hatchback Ford Focus, but still considerably longer than the Be Up’s mere 2.71 meters. While it’s clear that the Matra concept is more of a driver’s car (i.e., the M72 even has a double-wishbone suspension system), the Ligier/Piaggio “urban vehicle” may actually be closer to what this market segment aspires to: high fashion and personalization.

Vroomster
Vroomster: With its fuel tank between the driver’s legs and the passenger seated behind, this concept has the feel of a motorcycle. It’s not motorcycle-based though; it shares powertrain and running gear with the Peugeot 206.
Peugeot City Toyz
Kart Up: While it is the most conventional of the Peugeot City Toyz, this two-seat, mid-engined, V6-powered roadster features a tilting glass canopy that acts as the hood, windshield and roof.

The Be Up is a consequence of a joint venture between the French company Automobiles Ligier (founded in 1971 by former Formula 1 champion Guy Ligier) and Italian scooter manufacturer Piaggio. The famous Italian firm Giugiaro designed the vehicle. It goes on sale in Europe in Spring 2001, with an advertising tag line that reads: “Choose first the sunglasses then the car to go with.” Giugiaro claims that it will have an entire line of “accessories” especially designed for the car—think belts and handbags rather than mudflaps and hanging dice. The point is that the Be Up is youthful and hip, while at the same time being a simple and highly functional vehicle that’s well adapted for operation in busy cities.

Toy Story
Peugeot showed another highly stylized interpretation of urban transport with its four City Toyz concept vehicles.

Each of the vehicles is built on a carbon fiber structure, giving the designers the freedom to explore some radically functional aesthetics. The vehicles are dimensionally similar to DaimlerChrysler’s smart cars, measuring between 2.50 to 3.28 m in length, 1.52 to 1.69 m in width, and 1.08 to 1.36 m in height. But it is clear that Peugeot has taken the lesson of smart to heart: that a boring city car, no matter how functional, won’t sell. Once again, the rule of consumer products emerges: style over substance.

E-doll
E-doll: Borrowing its power delivery mechanism and handlebar controls from the Peugeot Electric Scooter, this battery-powered vehicle is designed to carry three abreast. Its trunk space is actually a detachable shopping cart.
E-doll
Bobsled: In another non-traditional seating arrangement, this concept places three occupants in single-file on the left side of the vehicle, allowing the entire right side of the passenger compartment to be used for storage. Even more bizarre is a powertrain/steering system that uses 10 small 500-W electric motors at each wheel. Rather than turning a steering wheel, the driver steers by using two joysticks to vary the speed of rotation of each wheel.

Inside Job
For as much fun as these city cars appear to be, there’s still a bitter reality pill to swallow: they’re only a small part of the mobility solution. It will still be necessary to have vehicles that can carry multiple passengers and their gear in the relative comfort to which we’re accustomed (i.e. an enclosed passenger compartment is a nice thing when it’s raining). To wit, Johnson Controls brings us Kion, a C-class interior concept that’s self-consciously trying to forecast the future.

JCI calls this a second-generation concept, meaning that it’s an idea projected for 2008. In marked contrast to the vehicles of next year, there aren’t a lot of buttons and electronics cluttering the interior. They’ve mostly been replaced with one multifunction controller that rises from the floor of the car about where the gearshift would be. The dashboard has itself been transformed; it is no longer an instrument panel, but more of a desk with storage compartments and a writing surface. A small gage-cluster does sit atop the steering wheel in conventional fashion, but it’s only for the primary information of the speedometer, odometer, gearshift indicator, etc. The secondary displays—HVAC controls, stereo, phone, in-car Internet service—are facilitated by docking a Palm-like device to the dash, which also functions as the ignition “key.” (The expectation is that most everyone will be carrying some sort of portable computer with them at all times, one that combines the functions of a cell phone, PDA and laptop computer.) The vehicle’s own electronics are hidden in the center console, which also contains a fold-out table and video display that face the backseat. And what a backseat it is—more like a comfortable living room couch complete with armrests. Suicide doors facilitate ingress and egress, and the entire seat can slide forward to extend the cargo capacity behind it.

Kion conceptKion concept
JCI’s Kion concept brings the look and function of living room furniture to the car, but its most forward-thinking idea is hiding the electronics that have come to dominate automotive interiors.Kion’s instrument cluster was jointly developed by JCI and the French electronics company SAGEM. (Note the PDA docked on the left side of the dashboard that’s functioning as the HVAC display.)

Stylistically, it looks like iMac-meets-Ikea, which is just the aesthetic that lead designer Nick Xiromeritis is going for: Scandinavian functionality with Cupertino technology. In Xiromeritis’ view of the future, we will continue to spend an increasingly large amount of our lives in our shiny metal boxes, doing even more numerous things that we might previously have done at home or in the office, most of which will involve using electronics-based products. But these products will no longer scream “gizmo,” they’ll actually be stylish and functional. This is because our relationship with technology will have changed such that technology is much more intuitive and integrated into these products; we will no longer admire technology for its own sake or put up with inherent quirkiness in high-tech devices.

And what is a vehicle if not a high-tech device?