In our new world of vehicle autonomy, the reveals at this year’s Pebble Beach Concours de Elegance most certainly defied the technical trend. As if to celebrate the last days of performance, beauty and expression, the emphasis was on elevating driving sensations and the personal experience of speed.
Then there was the Mercedes Vision EQ Silver Arrow, a 750-horsepower all electric concept inspired by the model W125 aerodynamic speed record car which achieved over 268mph (431kph) in 1938 – a record that was held until November 2017.
The EQ Silver Arrow is a continuation of Mercedes’ design manifesto, ‘Sensual Purity’. Chief Design Officer Gorden Wagener stated that “the car’s intended purpose and spirit includes the emphasis of driving pleasure” – pleasure that, in contrast to popular future autonomous vehicle predictions, includes a human driver as the essential component in the experience. The articulated canopy reveals a driver cockpit that is both “sensual” and functional.
In addition to the vision and passion of Mr Wagener, credit must also be given to his team including Stefan Lamm, Vice President of Advanced Design in Carlsbad CA, and his many top talents including Advanced Designer Matthias Schenker and Senior CAD Modeller Michael Brand.
For the first time ever, Audi revealed a future concept and advanced design study at Pebble Beach. The PB 18 e-tron shares suspension geometry with the retired R18 TDI e-tron LMP1 car, while its powertrain includes three electric motors with a combined output of 570kW, in a ‘mid-battery’ package design that embraces a central design theme layout throughout the vehicle. The centre of gravity and balance of the PB 18 e-tron is behind the seats and ahead of the rear axle.
In a time when most advanced vehicle concepts are providing scenarios for ‘driver-less’ experiences (Level Five), the PB 18 e-tron is presented as a very intentional ‘Level Zero’ concept. Gael Buzyn, Head of Design of the Audi Design Loft in Malibu California explained; “We are offering an experience that is as close as possible to a racing driver’s experience [combining the Formula E single-seater and the closed-cockpit R18]. So, we developed the central driver’s position concept that could also become a two-seater in left-hand-drive.” This is facilitated thanks to drive-by-wire technology.
The monocoque cockpit incorporates an open and extreme view forward including the track or road surface, immediately in front of the vehicle. “In this way, as a ‘Level Zero’ vehicle, the driver is ensured to not only experience the immediate road surface, but also to be completely engaged with the vehicle,” said Gael.
Some of the most significant contributors on the project were designers Charles Lefanc on the exterior and, on the interior, Sydney Hardy and Dave McCall. The PB 18 e-tron concept, design and CAD was created in Malibu and the engineering, colour and materials and lighting design was completed in Ingolstadt.
“However,” he adds, “we also wanted to offer the opportunity for the driver to use their car for more than just a day on the racetrack, especially when used as a two-seater. We leveraged once again the compact form factor of the rear motors and offered a large cargo bay on top, accessible by a large hatch and featured with beautifully crafted set of luggage, whether it contain apparel for a long road trip or the racing equipment on the way to the track.”
“This architecture gives the car its unique silhouette and proportion – like a crossover between a supercar and a shooting brake.”
Another world debut at Pebble Beach was the Salaff C2 Supercar, designed by former Mazda Furai designer Carlos Salaff. Carlos left Mazda in 2013 to start his own supercar company, not unlike other trailblazers such as Henrik Fisker, Ken Okuyama, and a very few others. The C2 is not immediately intended to have any level of autonomy, but rather, “draws from legends like the Porsche 917,” according to Salaff. “More important than the numbers on the spec sheet is the feel of the mechanically-direct six-speed manual, the music of the Lamborghini Gallardo V10 engine and the rawness of the rear wheel drive,” he enthused.
While the angular form language of the C2 is not a new approach in automotive design, as seen in some Italian expressions from the 70s such as the Lamborghini Countach, the Maserati Boomerang, Lancia Stratos Zero, Dome Zero, etc, the C2 is definitely a new crease in the envelope that has been pushed by Salaff.
The only new vehicle at Pebble that did not follow the themes of driving experience and speed was the Byton K-Byte. The car was first revealed on Shanghai this year, and is based on the same platform and electric powertrain of the M-Byte.
On hand was Rick Chen, former designer at GAC and now Director of Design at Byton. Rick was confident and enthusiastic about Byton’s aggressive schedule and advanced technology partners in California, and reiterated the same objectives as his Vice President of Design, Benoit Jacob (see our recent interview with him): “We are not just designing cars. We are building a brand.”
As the official company statement says, the K-Byte "is not a pre-production concept; instead it embodies Byton’s intent to reinterpret what has become an outdated body type: the sedan.”
Byton representatives claim that the K-Byte will be in production and available to purchase first in China and in 2021 in the US and Europe. The first models are planned to be SAE Level Four autonomy. This timing seems very aggressive yet it may be achievable through the help of their US based Volkswagen partner Aurora Innovation, based in Palo Alto California.
It seems that Pebble Beach is fast becoming one of the more important places to launch new concepts, and it is also developing a distinctive style of its own. Unlike CES with its tech focus and Detroit with its traditional values, the cars that appeared on the California coast this year almost all shared a reverence for history and a real desire to put the driver at the heart of the experience. Let’s hope it keeps on rolling in that direction.