Chris Bangle is an auto industry legend. An arguable mad genius of auto design (as well as one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People), Bangle was BMW’s first American design chief and a longtime Fiat designer who played an outsize role in building a wild visual language for contemporary cars that owes as much to modern art as it does to 1960s Detroit. After leaving BMW, Bangle started the design firm Chris Bangle Associates, which has worked with an eclectic list of non-auto clients like Samsung.
Now Bangle is back in the car world with an entirely new project: a tiny, mostly aluminum car designed for city driving whose seats can be rearranged like a giant game of Tetris.
Meet the Reds
At an event at the ArtCenter in Pasadena on November 28 during the Los Angeles Auto Show, Bangle unveiled his newest creation. The China High-Tech Group Corporation (CHTC), a large Chinese government-owned company, is spinning off a new auto company called Redspace. Redspace’s first car is Bangle’s Reds. It’s an aluminum electric car with a boxy shape and sharp angles everywhere–a design Bangle says was partially inspired by Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes (An “adult in a kid’s body,” Bangle said onstage at the reveal). Reds is, well, the most unique car you’ve seen in a long time.
It also reverses decades of conventional car wisdom by putting the design of the car’s passenger interior front and center. In that respect, it feels like it’s hinting at what the inside of cars will look like in the coming autonomous vehicle era.
First things first: The car is tiny, as in 9.7-feet-long tiny. It’s tinier than the Fiats and Minis Bangle used to work on. It’s smart car-sized, and has a flat roof with solar panels on top, sliding doors, wings on the side, and even little flares over the doors designed to protect you from the rain as you exit the car.
The inside? It’s different. Bangle and his design team created seats you can rearrange like blocks in a game of Tetris. The driver’s seat can rotate into reverse position when parked, and four seats are packed into the tiny miniature car. There’s even a fifth seat that can be added when the car is parked; the rear hatch can be converted into a jump seat that fits over the small cargo well.
There are also several idiosyncratic touches such as a foot massager for passengers, a pop-up 17-inch video screen viewable from the whole car, and a configuration for the back seats that looks much like a loveseat sofa. The idea is that you don’t just commute to and from work in your car–your car also becomes a portable office, a place to unwind in the driveway, and even a cabin for watching television with friends.
Although self-driving cars weren’t mentioned onstage at the reveal, almost everything Bangle and his corporate backers displayed looks like it’s straight out of an autonomous vehicle techie think piece.
In our conversation, Bangle emphasized that this car is a new experiment in and of itself, and not a precursor to an autonomous vehicle. However, the living space-centric inside hints at what the interiors of future mostly autonomous vehicles will look like, when people no longer have to focus on driving.
Megacity Traffic Jam
Onstage at the Reds event, one phrase kept popping up among the Chinese auto executives bankrolling the car: “Make megacity mobility more joyful.”
Electric vehicles are having a bit of a moment in the Chinese auto industry right now due to three factors: a slew of first-time auto owners, dense urban environments where most drivers are making short drives, and heavy investment in infrastructure for electric vehicle charge points in cities and suburbs.
But why this car design in particular? “First of all, traffic just isn’t moving,” Bangle says. “The speeds are very low and the speed limit is 120 kilometers per hour (74 miles), so it doesn’t make sense to design a car that at its best is 180 kilometers per hour–though, of course, it’s a great thing too if you want to do that.
“But when you’re at these lower speeds, you can rethink aerodynamics, keep the acoustics of aerodynamics in mind, the stability in mind, but not play slave to all the Cx value aerodynamics [a measure of the car’s drag] that are necessary at higher speeds,” Bangle added. “At this speed, the critical thing is weight. That’s why it’s an all-aluminum car–to keep the weight as low as possible, which gives us acceleration as well.”
Turning Cars Into Leisure Spaces
During the unveiling, CHTC’s executives made multiple mentions of the idea of looking at cars almost as leisure spaces when drivers aren’t actively driving. Case studies were shown where the Reds vehicle functioned either as a chill-out space for busy parents shuttling their children to appointments, for office workers looking for a quiet place to get some extra work done on the way home, and as a place for teenagers and gen-Zers to hang out and watch television. In other words–using a car much like you’d use a coffeeshop or neighborhood bar.
It’s a radical reimagining of a car, but one that is less odd than it seems for many countries–not just China. Commuters on public transit are used to sitting down and playing smartphone games or reading a book on their trip; it’s not much different to imagine a white-collar worker pulling into a mall parking lot to finish a PowerPoint deck or twentysomethings streaming Netflix in a car during a bad traffic jam with a 90-minute commute home. These things are universal pretty much in any country where you have an affluent consumer base and, well, bad traffic.
And when future cars gain more autonomous capabilities, you can bet that similar design cues will show up in more mass market vehicles worldwide. As Bangle put it in a press release, “It’s about time we made a car that not only has a wrap-around love seat but is also best-in-class for diaper changing.”
CHTC is referring to Reds as a “alpha prototype,” and there’s no firm info about release date or what pricing would be just yet. The car was most recently on display at the Los Angeles Auto Show, and Redspace says next steps for the vehicle are testing, developing production plans, and finalizing a supplier network.