Patron of the Rinspeed company, which he founded in 1977, while studying at the Federal Polytechnic School, Frank M. Rinderknecht was a pioneer in the tuning industry, which began to develop at that time. This colorful Helvetic designer, who calls himself a Swiss idea box, is amazing by his creations, which both original and accomplished. They are a kind of vision of the future, embodied in the present: a steering wheel with built-in keypad for radio and telephone controls, sustainable propulsion concepts or innovative driving aid systems are some of the outstanding inventions of the company.
Since the sale of his tuning business in 2008, Frank M. Rinderknecht has been working on a think tank for the automotive industry and other industries, as well as developing tomorrow’s technologies, materials and means of transport. For the Swiss craftsman Rinspeed, autonomous driving has been a major concern for many years. Several concepts do testify for fot his achievements, like the last microMAX (Geneva 2013), XchangE (Geneva 2014) or the Budii (Geneva 2015), based on BMW i3. Frank M. Rinderknecht, well before the others, realized that in the automotive sector too, the future is closely linked to the notion of sustainability and a new approach to mobility.
How did you develop your passion for cars?
It must have been in my genes or in my DNA. The passion started when, still a young boy, I went to the Geneva Motor Show to see all the cars.
Tell us how you did get your first car?
I got my first car – an Autobianchi A112 – at the age of 18. The budget was quite limited and I started to “boost” it very quickly.
What inspired you to create amazing models like sQuba?
It’s a tribute to the famous James Bond’s Lotus Elise, which stole the show in 1977 in the movie “The Spy Who Loved Me” and we wanted it to become real.
How is a concept car designed?
The goal for creating a concept car is to arouse desire and emotion. People buy products not only for their quality, but because they are desirable. It’s a purely emotional and unreflective act. In other words, what is sought through a concept car is to trigger covetousness. To achieve this, we try to transform a vision of the future into a concrete object. The “concept car” thus always begins with a story that will respond to this vision. A good story touches people, provoking emotions. It will be the backbone of the design. For example, the Rinspeed sQuba was designed with the idea of making an amphibious car. Once the story is written, we can begin to assemble the components of the object.
Is it from that starting point that you choose your partners, in order to design the different elements of the vehicle?
Indeed, the choice of suppliers depends on the story and needs of the concept car. Rinspeed provides the platform that allows suppliers to exhibit the best of their technology. We always work with the most innovative companies in their own fields of expertise. Of course, the suppliers do accept the partnership if the communication strategy of the concept car corresponds with what they are.
What’s the story of the XchangE concept car?
It’s a car that runs autonomously, that is to say without a driver. Contrary to what one might think, this technology is recent, but not absolutely innovative. Google, BMW and many other manufacturers have already exploited this idea and we had already used it for the sQuba as well. This time, our vision was more ambitious and focused on a more holistic design for automated driving. Until now, almost no one had developed this concept from the perspective of the driver. After all, the autonomous automobile will ensure that the driver, as he is perceived today, will no longer have to concentrate all his attention on the road. Instead, he can enjoy the time spent aboard in a more interesting way. What does the driver want when he no longer has to drive? Certainly not to encumber himself with a useless steering wheel. He would prefer to have some space and use the time of the trip wisely, working or being entertained. It is starting from this observation that we have revisited and transformed the notion of the cockpit. For example, the steering wheel, created by TRW, moves to the center of the passenger compartment, to free up space. The seats can be adjusted in almost 20 different positions, thanks to the technology of the German prosthesis manufacturer Otto Bock Mobility Solutions. The ideal configuration is similar to that of a living room, which allows to take full advantage of the high-tech audiovisual system, developed by the American company Harman. The notion of driving in a car is thus redefined and becomes a goal in itself.
Why did you choose the Tesla Model S as the basic platform for designing the XchangE?
We were confronted with two avatars for the creation of this concept car. On the first hand, it had to be electric. On the second hand, we had to have a cockpit with a flat floor, so that it could be fitted with the removable seats. The Tesla Model S was the only existing electric car on the market that met these two conditions.
Do you intend to market the XchangE?
No, none of our creations is intended for commercialization. But a manufacturer is often inspired by it. For its autonomous cars, Mercedes-Benz is already inspired by the XchangE passenger compartments. Another example: a few years ago, we had imagined fitting the flywheels with buttons to control certain functions of the vehicle, in order to facilitate ergonomics and privilege safety. Today, the majority of cars has copied this system.
How does Rinspeed stand out from other concept car designers?
We are the only creators at the international level who do not just modify the design but give the vehicle added value in the form of new features. With so many good ideas, our know-how is now recognized internationally in the automotive sector. We have a name, experience and credibility. But this result cost us decades of effort.
How do you get your work done?
As everyone knows, OEMs are seeking to showcase their latest advances in technology and innovation, which are not yet available in the automotive market. But since they usually work with different manufacturers, they cannot afford to work with one of them rather than with others. Our “concept cars” represent a totally neutral platform, which offers them this possibility. After proposing the history of the vehicle, each partner develops a part of it. We then receive funding and technology to organize, synchronize and assemble the different elements. The resulting vehicle is a kind of showcase of the latest generation technology.
You argue that cars without drivers are not a new technology. Why do not we see them already on the market?
Several factors explain this. First, technology poses legal problems. It is illusory to think that this technology will make no mistake. Therefore, who will be responsible in the event of an accident and who will pay the insurance? Most likely, it will be the manufacturer. A legal paradigm shift is therefore needed. In addition, human errors are generally accepted. Such a tolerance does not exist for machines. So I don’t think people are ready yet.
Secondly, from a practical point of view, this technology is effective on highways, but its reliability decreases in unpredictable environments. Laser, sensor and radar systems are still unable to deal with the mass of information in urban traffic. The human being responds to these stimuli intuitively. It is for this reason that I refuse the name of “artificial intelligence”. Human intuitive intelligence is lacking in the logical and binary reasoning of machines.
Do you imagine the clean car winning against other types of vehicles in the future?
I’m convinced of that. We have no other choice. Between Europe and the United States, todayn, there are about 600 cars for 1,000 people. If the rest of the world did the same, the overall volume of vehicles would be multiplied by ten. The future of the automobile must therefore pass through renewable energies. I see it as a social responsibility for future generations. But change will not be painless.
The automobile has a future. What will it have to be capable of in the near future?
It will be automated, durable and connected.
Are new technologies creating new needs or the opposite?
In my opinion, it is the technologies that drive the needs.
Until now, the car was a means of transport and a symbol of social status. Is it still that?
The automobile is not ready to disappear as an individual means of transport. What will change is its use and its advantages, the concept of ownership associated with it and a number of internal and external values, as well as the possibilities related to the car.
How will individual transport evolve in the near future?
The car of the future will be a “smart device” on four wheels. The experience it will offer to its users will be different from what the car offers today. It should be said that the major innovations that make the future of the automotive industry go further are digital.
Automotive connectivity serves as a basis for new business models. To what extent is the automotive sector reinventing itself?
The automaker today must anticipate the transformations of tomorrow. If it fails, it will join the list of companies like Kodak, Nokia, Blackberry, Sony, etc. and will no longer have a reasonable business model. It is a difficult task, however, because the OEMs, in my opinion, have become truly heavyweights.
We talked about the near future. What about the medium term?
Until then, individual transport will often take place in connected and autonomous capsules, which will no longer be individual properties, especially for short journeys.
Tell us about the restoration of the cars you have undertaken?
We did some restorations, but we decided to focus on the future, not oin the past.
What about your car collection?
I have all my concept cars, with the exception of the Yello Talbo (now part of the Louwmann Collection) in Holland. And then I have some toys like a 1985 Indy car (Michael Andretti), a Porsche 356A and my daily cars.
Have you ever started to restore your own cars?
What do you think of the vintage car market today?
He has probably overheated. I bought my cars not as an investment, but for passion only. And that’s how it should be.
What are your plans for the future?
Only God knows. I take my life step by step.
What is your favorite car?
No one in particular. It always depends on needs and circumstances.
What are your other hobbies?
Sailing in the Mediterranean and traveling ….
1955: Birth in Zurich, Switzerland
1975: Graduate in the University of Zurich
1977: Founded Rinspeed AG, while still a student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich
1982: Invented the steering wheel with buttons to control certain functions of the vehicle
1995: Started the design of its own prototypes and concepts cars
2008: Sale of all Tuning activities to a German competitor and focuses on new mobility concepts and sustainability.