Sometimes it’s difficult to measure automotive evolution, especially when dealing with creative minds that like to bend rules, take a concept to a whole new level, and turn a high performance vision of the future into a reality. In today’s world, few designers have even come close to creating cars as abstract, interesting, and fantastically efficient as Frank M. Rinderknecht of Swiss-based automotive think tank Rinspeed.
To some, Rinderknecht’s cars are so far out in left field that people wonder if he’s even playing the same game — yet he refuses to slow down. Hot off the unveiling of his latest Jetsons-ready creation entitled “Etos,” Rinderknecht is riding high on a wave of media attention regarding his designs for the future of automotive travel. In orxer to better understand what the future may hold, we caught up with Rinderknecht via email to learn a bit more about the history of his company, the hybrid and electric car revolution, his latest creations, and where he sees the automotive industry heading.
Rinderknecht tells us that way back in 1977, he had a gig importing sunroofs from America and converting vehicles to handicap-accessible platforms over in Switzerland. Eventually tiring of this respectable but inelegant work, he started looking at other automotive modification possibilities to quench his ever inquisitive imagination. Flash-forward a couple of years, and we find Rinderknecht bringing Rinspeed Inc. into existence after his successful presentation of a turbocharged Volkswagen Golf at the 1979 Geneva International Motor Show.
Quickly capitalizing on his newfound recognition, Rinderknecht went on to work with the likes of Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, Tesla, Nissan, and a slew of aftermarket firms on a myriad of projects over the next 35 years. Some were fast, while others were just flat-out efficient. Regardless of what these cars ultimately did or how they performed, there’s no denying the fact that each was unique in its own way and featured ideas the likes of which the world had never seen before.
Rinderknecht admits that while the earlier days were far more fun in certain ways, recent technological advancements have made his latest creations even more mind-blowing. Increased government regulations on what is deemed “road-legal” has lead him to develop quite a number of vehicles designed as efficient daily commuters, which is in stark contrast to his earlier days, when regulations were lax and his cars were far more performance-oriented.
Most people don’t know this, but Rinderknecht is the kind of guy who watches a James Bond flick, sees an awesome modification on a car, and excitedly calls a team meeting the next day to discuss how they’re going to make it happen. That’s what happened back in 2008, when the submersible Lotus Esprit in the 1977 Bond classic The Spy Who Loved Me inspired Rinderknecht to create the Rinspeed sQuba seen here, the world’s first “diving car with zero emissions, zero pollution in the seven seas of this world.” Rinderknecht was determined to fully build the vehicle to “MI6 standards,” instead of just designing an oddity for driving along the seabed floor.
After countless hours of trial and error, a trio of electric motors were installed in the rear of the car, successfully powering the Seabob jet drives in the front, making the sQuba a “submersible car that moves like a fish in water.” Rinderknecht gets it all the time from skeptics, but these pictures are not Photoshopped, and the car actually does drive under water!
Back on dry land, the sQuba sports a KW coilover suspension setup, along with a team of custom forged racing wheels for increased handling and stability, which should be more than enough to whisk anyone to safety and a dry martini when the going gets tough.
When asked about this amazing car, Rinderknecht chortled and confirmed that, “Yes, we still own and keep the sQuba. The diving requires a lot of technical preparations and safety issues. Especially in salt water, we have to be very careful about the rust as well. We do not go diving often as it is very expensive to execute the aforementioned work.”
We also asked the clever designer to share his thoughts on the future of the daily commute, alternative fuel options, and how he sees his company contributing to the ever-expanding “green car” market. Rinderknecht says he believes that the future of Rinspeed lies in developing autonomously-driven vehicles, with an increased focus on public transportation. “We try to be ahead of [the] time[s], set trends, and be a leader in the new technologies,” Rinderknecht says, his Swiss accent perforating his email. “I personally love the challenge of new technologies, but I always put the human being in the focus of all thoughts.”
As the world’s largest automakers increasingly move toward plug-in hybrids and fully electric vehicles, we inquired about the rise of electric power and the inevitable strain it places on the world’s power grids, which are still primarily powered by coal. Rinderknecht responded, “For me there is no doubt that we have to move to renewable energies, in mobility but as well as in general life, and the electric cars is a first step in that direction. However, [drastic] changes often require some pain. A pain which is not here at this time with ridiculously low oil prices.”
In order to ease the “pain” of having too many vehicles on the roads back in 2013, Rinspeed created an ingenious minibus public transit swarm system called the microMAX. By collaborating with automotive electronic specialist Harman, the company was able to create minibuses that could map their own routes, destinations, traveling speeds, and track the occupancy of other vehicles in traffic, all while sharing data.
Rinspeed claims that this design also “calculates potential ride opportunities in real time and — if called for — even determines transfer options. This creates an extremely efficient, flexible and convenient transport system with maximum capacity — without wait times, without prior planning, and without detours.”
Following the success of the microMAX, Rinderknecht decided to focus on what he calls “The Budii,” a heavily modified version of the BMW i3, which made its debut at the Geneva International Motor Show back in 2015. This creation drew lots of attention due to features like an internal robotic arm, clever lighting systems, and various autonomous driving modes among others.
That was Rinderknecht’s 38th year as an exhibitor at Geneva, and he says that the legendary auto show “plays an important role as a platform to present our concept vehicles. The Budii was really the only car to make autonomous driving somewhat real in Geneva [that year].” While Rinderknecht says that the robotic arm in the Budii merely “illustrates the image of automation,” most of the other features, including the autonomously driven aspect, are no joke.
When asked about producing something like the Budii on a large scale, Rinderknecht said that Rinspeed isn’t really interested. “We only build concepts and prototypes, and let the industry decide whether they want to take any of our ideas into serial production,” he says. With the future always in the forefront of his mind, Rinderknecht concludes that “renewable energies might come from water power, the sun or the wind, or even from algae. But my thesis is that there is a [perfect] form of renewable energy out there, but we haven’t discovered it yet.”
So what projects lie in wait for Rinspeed and its interest in the autonomously driven car now that the drone-equipped Etos has impressed everyone this year? From what we’re told, only Rinderknecht knows the answer to that question, and he remains pretty tight-lipped about all of his future ventures. But this is no cause for concern, because regardless of whether the world’s next “sci-fi spaceship” is powered by solar, magnetism, algae, algorithms, or even an occupant’s body heat, chances are Rinderknecht is going to be the guy who brings the future to us — today.