Concept cars are not a new idea; they date to at least 1938, when General Motors chief designer Harley Earl created the Buick Y-Job, a two-seater equipped with such novelties as electric windows, power-operated concealed headlamps, flush door handles, and wraparound bumpers. Earl exhibited the Y-Job mostly by using it as his personal car for several years. He and GM further popularized concept cars in the 1950s with the Motoramas, the auto shows that traveled around the country presenting the brand’s halo models as well as prototypes that showcased novel—sometimes radical—designs and new technologies. The purpose of the shows was to draw attention to GM and boost sales of existing models. By exhibiting the cars, the shows also enabled the company to gauge the public’s reaction to these new forms and functions and determine which, if any, should be incorporated into production models.
Concept cars serve the same purpose today when they are presented at the various auto shows around the world. They draw attention to their respective brands and elicit responses from the media and the public, enabling carmakers to determine whether they have read the trends correctly and are moving in the right direction with their styling and engineering programs. At the same time, the concept cars can let us drivers know where the industry is going and what we might see in showrooms in the coming years. “You hear a lot of the same trends,” says Clay Dean, GM’s director of global advanced design. “You hear a lot of ‘autonomous’; we know electrification is a massive story. Connectivity is huge.” BMW chief designer Karim Habib says connected cars and assisted driving are inevitable. “Those things are really going to change not only the way interiors look, but the way you interact with the car.” On the following pages are some of the more innovative concept cars that have appeared at recent auto shows and other events to portend—perhaps—the future of driving.