May 26, 2022

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A Renowned Concept Car Designer Weighs in on Our Automotive Future

6 min read

Frank Rinderknecht isn’t sure about being called a car designer.

“We’re more of a think tank for mobility issues,” he tells InsideHook. “We just try to push new ideas, but it’s important for me to make them really happen, and not just exist in PowerPoint. You have to be able to touch the object. You can’t radiate a new idea from a piece of paper.”

That’s why the Switzerland-based Rinderknecht — who started out importing these strange new things called sunroofs back in the 1970s, before launching Rinspeed, which began as a massively successful Porsche tuning company — has poured a lot of the money he’s made into producing dozens of concept cars. And that’s high concept. Over the last 30 years he has designed, engineered and built vehicles like the Presto, a car that extends and contracts on demand, and the UC, an ultra-compact electric two-seater with drive-by-wire joystick control. 

A lot of his ideas predate societal shifts in our transportation requirements. His Bedouin was the first natural-gas-powered car, his Advantige Rone the first supercar powered by kitchen waste biofuel. But Rinderknecht’s reputation for making the crazy into someting real sometimes gets in the way of his real contribution to said mobility issues. Perhaps his best-known concept car is the “sQuba.” It’s a fully submersible car, providing occupants are wearing scuba gear. 

It’s true that even the most dedicated of car nuts may not have heard of Rinderknecht, but plenty of his ideas have been borrowed by the wider auto industry. Matte paint and nanotech coatings, scratch-proof polycarbonate windshields, biometric driver monitoring, in-car connectivity, mounting controls on the steering wheel — Rinderknecht did them first. The latter idea would have made Rinderknecht a fortune if international patenting law had been less circumventable.

“Our approach at Rinspeed is not about making things a little bit better here or there,” Rinderknecht explains. “We try to think in terms of revolution, not evolution, and for that you need a loose mind and, yes, a little shot of craziness — though a lot of blood, sweat and tears goes into making these ideas real. Of course sometimes people still shake their heads and say, ‘What the hell is he doing now?’ And yet the CEO of every big car company comes to our booth at the car shows.”

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The Presto from Rinspeed

The Presto, which can stretch on command.

Rinspeed

Indeed, Rinspeed’s cars tend to be unveiled more at consumer electronics shows than car shows these days. That’s in keeping with what Rinderknecht feels to be the former industry’s progressive try-anything attitude, and because his concept cars, and the new ideas they embody, tend to come out of partnerships with the likes of cutting-edge developers in, say, materials science, that historically have had no connections with the car world but want to showcase their products. 

This helps keep costs down, but it’s also indicative, he reckons, of how we’re likely to think of vehicles in the future: more as tools or devices. Some of the big car companies are, as he puts it, already seeing that the winds of change will shift away from sheet metal and more towards data management, but they’re a long way behind the likes of Google. 

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