What if you could delete everything you know about automobiles and create a car for 21st Century from scratch? We know it would have wheels and a motor. We know it would need to be safe and highly economical. And we know that, with the overcrowding of roadways in the world’s cities, it would need the smallest footprint possible.
Ralph Panhuyzen of Haarlem, Netherlands has spent a lot of time imagining the Space Efficient Vehicle of the future. He says it will be triangular with three wheels – two set wide apart at the front and third in the center in the rear. It will have seating for three, and the seats will be offset to give everyone a clear view of the road ahead and extra protection in the event of a crash. It will taper at the rear for maximum aerodynamic efficiency. Borrowing from the arch, favored by the Romans for its strength, the rounded sides will provide superior structural rigidity. Articulated suspension will let the car tilt in turns, improving handling and safety for the occupants.
Panhuyzen foresees his SEV being powered by either an electric motor with battery or a small, efficient internal combustion engine. He also thinks it would be ideal for autonomous operation when that technology is perfected but a blast to drive in conventional mode when the owner prefers.
His spiritual guru is Steve Jobs. He quotes from that visionary often when describing his vision to people. In an e-mail exchange, he told me:
Steve Jobs once said “Design is not just what it looks like, it’s how it works”. You might say that the Space Efficient Vehicle is the first truly holistically designed vehicle, in the sense that all aspects are interrelated. Change, take away, or think of using just one element, and it influences everything else. For instance, a narrow vehicle means that the traditional seating layout has to change. The low-drag tapered rear end means that the four-wheel platform have to go. The result? Great comfort due to its long wheelbase, class-leading all-round visibility and passenger safety. Also a vehicle that leans during cornering because of its particular (front)wheel track to wheelbase ratio.
Panhuyzen likes to call his concept The New Isetta or The SmartForThree, though it reminds me more of the Elio trike. It’s his way of twitting BMW and Mercedes for not being bold enough to grasp the future of transportation and build the vehicles that real people will need in the real world.
His ideas for the Space Efficient Vehicle were rendered by Dutch designer Steven van der Veen. The design was a finalist in the 2008 Michelin Challenge Design, and featured at the Detroit Auto Show that year. Since then, he has been soliciting backers to bring his concept to market.
Dramatic changes have taken place in the automotive world over the past several years and many of them would help make the SEV more commercially viable. Smaller, lighter batteries and internal combustion engines are available today that simply didn’t exist 6 years ago. The Ford 1.0 liter EcoBoost engine is a good example. It’s almost as if the outside world is catching up with Panhuyzen’s ideas, which were too advanced for 2008 but look more realistic today.
To my eye, the design is light years ahead of the Swallow and Elio three-wheelers. Perhaps the time for Ralph Panhuyzen’s Space Efficient Vehicle has come?