Automobile industry trends can be both fascinating and confusing, and prototype future cars can help you predict the direction this volatile industry may take in years to come.
What Is a Prototype?
Also known as a "concept car," a prototype is a vehicle made to show off new developments. These cars are not designed for large-scale production. Instead, they are meant to gauge the practicality and popularity of implementing new designs and technologies. Prototypes are a fixture at auto shows, where their futuristic design often draws a crowd.
Major Design Developments
Automakers usually create a prototype to show off a major development. These cars frequently represent a big change from the previous models, and they can feature amazing design elements like exotic materials, non-traditional wheelbases, unusual entry methods, and futuristic technological advances.
While many of these design elements are created simply to grab the public's attention, others can be predictive of future automotive developments. Especially when it comes to alternative power designs and computerized features, prototypes can foreshadow big changes in the industry.
Limited Practical Driving Ability
Since concept cars are used mostly to showcase advances in design, these models are not created to be driven. Some prototypes are unsafe for driving, and a portion of these vehicles cannot exceed speeds of ten to 20 miles per hour.Once the concept car has been displayed at auto shows and other industry events, it is usually dismantled or destroyed. Occasionally, an automaker will keep a particularly revolutionary concept car for its museum or private collection.
The First Prototype Future Car
General Motors' first Vice President of Design, Harvey Earl, is generally considered the inventor of the concept car. Even though other auto manufacturers had used prototype cars as a design tool, Earl was the first to propose the use of concept cars as a marketing device.
In the late 1930s, Earl directed the General Motors Styling Division to produce the Buick Y-Job. This concept vehicle featured many of the design elements that would grace General Motors vehicles for decades to come, including flip headlights, door handles that were flush with the body, and the iconic Buick "gunsight" hood logo. After using the car as a concept for future developments, Earl drove the vehicle for many years.
Other Important Concept Cars
Over the years, many other concept cars have been important for the future of the automotive industry. Here are a few of the most notable examples:
- The 1951 General Motors Le Sabre was also designed by Earl, and it featured a 12-volt electrical system, heated seats, and a rear-mounted transmission.
- The 1958 Ford Nucleon used nuclear power to propel the vehicle. While you may not see a lot of nuclear-powered vehicles on today's roadways, this concept vehicle paved the way for other alternative fuel sources.
- The 1961 Chevrolet Corvette Mako Shark eventually inspired the Corvette Sting-Ray and featured a streamlined body and sharply-pointed front end.
- The 1978 Lancia Megagamma was created by Italdesign and is widely considered to be the prototype for modern minivans.
New Prototypes: Future Cars
Over the years, prototypes have indicated new developments in the car industry. Wondering what the future holds these days? Here are a few of the recent prototypes to watch:
- The Chevrolet Volt prototype popularized the concept of serial hybrids. The 2011 production model of the car featured a plug-in electric motor, which is backed up by a traditional gasoline engine.
- Tesla, the car company responsible for the electric supercar called the Tesla Roadster, recently released its Model S concept vehicle. The Model S is an all-electric family sedan, a version of which will enter production in the coming years.
- The Lincoln Concept C may carry the Lincoln name and logo, but it indicates a new direction for the American luxury brand. This concept vehicle has more in common with a compact car than a big sedan, and it may indicate a move away from the huge cars that dominated roads in the 1990s.
- The Honda P-NUT is a concept offering from the Japanese automaker. Smaller than most compact cars, the three-seater has the ability to use many different types of fuel. The drivers of this car could swap out a gasoline engine for an electric one, allowing owners to cover all their bases.
Future of Concept Cars
In recent years, massive recalls and high fuel prices have left most of the world's automakers in a difficult financial situation. Cash-strapped carmakers are cutting back on prototype future cars, since these vehicles can be expensive to design and produce. However, as the automobile industry changes, the few concept cars that remain are likely to show off some of the features drivers can expect to see in years to come.