30th Mar

Frank Rinderknecht wants your car to click together. “The fact is that one of the biggest issues for the car industry is the lifespan of its products. You used to be able to get 20 years and 250,000 miles out of a car. Now a premium car is so full of electronics that’s it’s old by the time you drive it away,” says the Zurich-based engineer and designer. “How long is a driver willing to put up with ‘old’ software – maybe five years? And he can’t even upgrade it because the electronics are so pervasive throughout the car.”
His idea is a simple but profound one: for cars to be built using modular systems, for the chassis and the body to be two interchangeable parts. The MicroSnap was an idea Rinderknecht first revealed two years ago; now, after further development, the more advanced, larger MetroSnap will be unveiled at the coming Geneva International Motor Show. What’s more, it now looks ready to go into serial production. 
Rinderknecht has seen interest from the developers of autonomous cars, for example – which will be even more loaded with electronics with a use-by date – and by same-day delivery companies. The latter see the benefit of, pit stop-style, being able to load a van body – the ‘pod’, as Rinderknecht calls it – ready to mount onto the next available drive-by-wire, electric chassis – or ‘skateboard’. The skateboards could perhaps be publicly-owned, available on demand, a pod privately owned. 
“When we first started talking about a system that allowed major parts of a vehicle to be swapped – which is an idea borrowed from aviation – of course plenty of people said, ‘here we go again – it’s Crazy Frank’,” laughs Rinderknecht. “But the fact is that we have to think differently about mobility. Nobody knows what are mobility needs will be in 10 or 20 years time, thanks to changes in society, technology, the environment. But it’s clear that we can’t go on as we are. It makes no sense to have personal vehicles which for 70 percent of their lifespans are just sat on the street unused and getting old, or when 80% of car journeys are less than 40 miles. That’s poison to the economics of mobility.”
Of course, Rinderknecht is well used to being called crazy. While his money comes from his Porsche auto-tuning and customisation business, his passion lies with Rinspeed, the company he created to explore the future of automobiles. And he’s done that not just on paper, but by developing and building the proposed vehicle too – at a cost of around €1m-plus per project, typically bringing in multiple specialist manufacturers, some of whom have never worked in the automotive sector, to realise the dream. Some of the projects have been, by his own admission, leftfield: the Splash was a vehicle with an in-built hydrofoil, so it could convert into a working speedboat; the sQuba was the world’s first submersible car. 
“A drawing of a great idea isn’t reality,” says Rinderknecht. “I think you have to be able to turn the key and drive off with a true concept car. The ideas come from listening to your intuition. It’s more about feeling than thinking, but when you do you think laterally and try to picture what’s missing from cars or how to combine established ideas in new ways. We always overdo it a bit with our concepts of course. If you don’t you just end up with a me-too product. You have to provoke a reaction.” 
Rinderknecht has a word for this: ‘imagineering’. He’s realistic about the commercial potential of such projects, seeing his role in producing them as being more of a provocateur. But, by the same token, many chime perfectly with societal shifts: the Preston was an extendable car, big when you needed it, compact otherwise, for that congested city life; the Advantige Rone was the first biofuel-powered supercar; the Bamboo ‘lifestyle vehicle’ had an inflatable, detachable roof; the Senso had a detection system that responded to driver mood.
Many of Rinderknecht’s ideas are developed in partnership with experts that have never worked within the automotive sector. The Senso’s  biometric-sensitive interior, for example, was developed with designer Andreas Fischer, of the University of Zurich’s Institute for Computer Sciences, along with the University of Innsbruck’s Institute for Psychology. This, in turn, has been made possible by an innovative electroluminescent film technology developed by Bayer MaterialScience and Lumitec. As if visual stimuli were not enough, the car also uses scents, which flow through the ventilators, to calm or stimulate the driver, should he, for instance, be on the verge of road rage, or of falling asleep at the wheel. 
What’s more, plenty of ideas pioneered by Rinderknecht have been quietly taken up by the automobile industry a few years later. He did his first car with full connectivity a decade ago. Then there’s the lightweight, polycarbonate windscreens with scratch-proof coatings, plastic composite rust-proof bodies, matt paint, or the clustering of controls onto the steering wheel.
“That one is everywhere in the car world now. Unfortunately it wasn’t an idea that was easily patented,” chuckles Rinderknecht. “But I’m happy to have played a part in the process of change in the mobility business. That said, one thing that I’ve never tried and won’t is to create a flying car, which seems to b a popular idea now. I just don’t see any future in those.”
Seeing the future is very much this maverick’s business too. While, ironically perhaps, he finds driving boring – “unless it’s that rare occasion when you’re in a classic car on a beautiful day and can really go for it,” he adds – he’s not entirely convinced by the much-heralded autonomous car, largely because current proposals don’t go far enough. “I don’t think simply re-producing the electric car without a steering wheel or pedals will work, or will be affordable for most people for a very long time,” he suggests. He reckons there will remain different kinds of vehicles for different occasions and different budgets, but is concerned that plans by some city leaders to ban individual-use cars within a couple of decades also buts up against human nature, “and the comfort and convenience we get from being alone in a vehicle.”
What he is definite about is the need for the car industry to undergo a seismic shift in approach.
“There is a need to recognise that transport is about so much more than the need to get from A to B. If that was the case Rolls Royce wouldn’t exist. We’d all drive little Fiats, live in one room flats and wear £10 watches. Only companies that understand this emotional element will succeed,” he says. 
“The problem right now though is that so many car manufacturers have, as it were, an extremely large backpack, full of tens of thousands of staff, tradition, the way things have long been done, and the resulting weight doesn’t make you very agile,” he adds. “Too many of these big companies have a mindset that’s afraid of change. That’s why the few smaller companies entering the market, like Tesla, seem so disruptive, because they’re still able to act on gut. That’s important because the pace of change in the mobility sector is only going to get faster.”

BusinessWorks Hull and East Yorkshire spring 2021

Features from the latest print magazine, Spring 2021

  • The couple who came through the care system and started their own tree felling business
  • How Alistair Burnett combines his passions for numbers and computing at Reality Solutions
  • A (virtual) tipple with Mark Savile, of Raven Hill Brewery – the beers that celebrate adventure
  • Getting on the road in style with 8 Ball Camper Conversions