Generation Y’s next car? If they’re driving at all, they’re likely to choose an ultra-green BMW hybrid with a cell phone — and cloud-based infotainment system. And that’s just what has come out of a collaboration between Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) and Dell’s engineering solutions division. The car, “Deep Orange,” is currently on display at the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show in Las Vegas. I’d buy one, wouldn’t you?
The car is cool enough. According to Paul Venhovens, who holds the BMW Endowed Chair in Automotive Systems Integration at CU-ICAR, it started life as a donated BMW 1-Series, and was then completely stripped by the school’s engineering students, leaving only the body and the front and rear suspension. Into that skeletal structure, the students shoehorned a two-cylinder BMW motorcycle engine, a UQM electric motor and a lithium-polymer battery pack from EIG in Korea. The resulting series hybrid has 20 miles of all-electric range, and a total of 400 miles with the gas engine running.
Since Gen Y was the target, the entertainment system was a challenge. Just about any audio device you install in a car today is obsolete by the time the car comes out. And that led to a system that evolves, with a five-inch Android-based Dell Streak tablet, inserted into a dock, at its heart. Anything on the computer — music, e-mail, the Web, navigation — can be done through the car system, though some functions (texting, surfing) are disabled when the car’s moving for safety reasons.
But wait, there’s more: The system can also access MP3s, photos, address books and other data stored online, so, for instance, you will always have your updated music library with you. According to Michael Harmon, director of Dell’s engineering solutions, “The idea is modular, updatable and modifiable in the near future. You don’t want your system to go out of date in two years, and cloud-based content is accessible anywhere you are in the world.” You don’t have to synchronize — you’re always synchronized. Want some new functions? Download a new app.
One challenge here is that the 18- to 26-year-olds who are the target of this ultra-cool vehicle are likely to be more captivated by the grab-and-go cloud aspects than they are by the car itself. The evidence shows that they aren’t that into driving — at all.
A survey by J.D. Power’s Web intelligence division revealed that kids these days are happier using IM messages to communicate, and being in actual physical contact doesn’t matter as much as it used to. And that’s a big reason why they’ve delayed getting their licenses, and don’t drive as much as, for instance, I did when I was that age.
Mike Cooperman of J.D. Power told me, “Millennials don’t talk about cars the way previous generations did. It used to be that when you turned 16 you went down to the DMV and got your license, but young people care more about their cell phones then they do their cars.”
From 1978 to 2008, there was a one-third drop in 17-year-olds with driver’s licenses, and their share of total miles traveled fell from 20.7 percent in 1995 to 13.7 percent in 2008. My own daughter just turned 16, and while she has a learner’s permit, she hasn’t done much learning yet — I would have been bugging my parents about it daily, if not hourly.
Even if they drive less, this generation is inevitably going to be driving some, and cars like this are probably in their future. Dell isn’t marketing this kind of device yet — Harmon says it’s a “prototype to showcase our ability” — but versions of the mobile are definitely coming to a dashboard near you.